Arts/Literature

The Paris Review Vonnegut Interviews

Kurt Vonnegut’s dead, in case you hadn’t heard….

So it goes.

Vonnegut, the author of counter culture classics such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions, books which were considered required reading to Boomers in college, was 84.

The writer Vonnegut most resembles is Mark Twain. Like Twain, he uses humor, increasingly darker as his career evolves, to satirize the consumerism, imperialism, prejudice masquerading as religiosity and political correctness, and general human folly of the last half of the 20th century.

It was a comparison Vonnegut wasn’t always comfortable with, as he noted in a late-career book of essays: “Mark Twain finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.”

The Paris Review went to great lengths to get a thorough, wide-ranging interview with Vonnegut, subjecting him to four different interviewers over the period of a decade, including one with PR’s most famous editor and ombudsman, George Plimpton. That “synthesized” interview, first published in 1977, has been republished on-line.

Here are some highlights:

Vonnegut on patriotism:

INTERVIEWER

You are a veteran of the Second World War?

KURT VONNEGUT, JR.

Yes. I want a military funeral when I die—the bugler, the flag on the casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

VONNEGUT

It will be a way of achieving what I’ve always wanted more than anything—something I could have had, if only I’d managed to get myself killed in the war.

INTERVIEWER

Which is—?

VONNEGUT

The unqualified approval of my community.

Vonnegut on the Dresden conflagration:

INTERVIEWER

One more war question: Do you still think about the firebombing of Dresden at all?

VONNEGUT

I wrote a book about it, called Slaughterhouse-Five. The book is still in print, and I have to do something about it as a businessman now and then. Marcel Ophuls asked me to be in his film, The Memory of Justice. He wanted me to talk about Dresden as an atrocity. I told him to talk to my friend Bernard V. O’Hare, Mary’s husband, instead, which he did. O’Hare was a fellow battalion scout, and then a fellow prisoner of war. He’s a lawyer in Pennsylvania now.

INTERVIEWER

Why didn’t you wish to testify?

VONNEGUT

I had a German name. I didn’t want to argue with people who thought Dresden should have been bombed to hell. All I ever said in my book was that Dresden, willy-nilly, was bombed to hell.

INTERVIEWER

It was the largest massacre in European history?

VONNEGUT

It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people—one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours. There were slower schemes for killing, of course.

INTERVIEWER

The death camps.

VONNEGUT

Yes—in which millions were eventually killed. Many people see the Dresden massacre as correct and quite minimal revenge for what had been done by the camps. Maybe so. As I say, I never argue that point. I do note in passing that the death penalty was applied to absolutely anybody who happened to be in the undefended city—babies, old people, the zoo animals, and thousands upon thousands of rabid Nazis, of course, and, among others, my best friend Bernard V. O’Hare and me. By all rights, O’Hare and I should have been part of the body count. The more bodies, the more correct the revenge.

Vonnegut on his critical reputation and discovering writers:

VONNEGUT

I had suffered, all right—but as a badly educated person in vulgar company and in a vulgar trade. It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.

INTERVIEWER

Do you mean to fight back?

VONNEGUT

In a way. I’m on the New York State Council for the Arts now, and every so often some other member talks about sending notices to college English departments about some literary opportunity, and I say, Send them to the chemistry departments, send them to the zoology departments, send them to the anthropology departments and the astronomy departments and physics departments, and all the medical and law schools. That’s where the writers are most likely to be.

INTERVIEWER

You believe that?

VONNEGUT

I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.

Vonnegut on writing as a trade:

INTERVIEWER

Trade?

VONNEGUT

Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader’s leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.

INTERVIEWER

Surely talent is required?

VONNEGUT

In all those fields. I was a Saab dealer on Cape Cod for a while, and I enrolled in their mechanic’s school, and they threw me out of their mechanic’s school. No talent.

INTERVIEWER

How common is storytelling talent?

VONNEGUT

In a creative writing class of twenty people anywhere in this country, six students will be startlingly talented. Two of those might actually publish something by and by.

INTERVIEWER

What distinguishes those two from the rest?

VONNEGUT

They will have something other than literature itself on their minds. They will probably be hustlers, too. I mean that they won’t want to wait passively for somebody to discover them. They will insist on being read.

Finally, Vonnegut on the state of literature:

INTERVIEWER

I see. Our last question. If you were Commissar of Publishing in the United States, what would you do to alleviate the present deplorable situation?

VONNEGUT

There is no shortage of wonderful writers. What we lack is a dependable mass of readers.

INTERVIEWER

So—?

VONNEGUT

I propose that every person out of work be required to submit a book report before he or she gets his or her welfare check.

It’s a great interview. Read it….

4 replies »

  1. I know that people die all the time. Famous people die all the time. Talented people and influential people die all the time. But in a comparatively short span we’ve lost Hunter Thompson, David Halberstam, Ahmet Ertegun, Gordon Parks, and now Vonnegut. Maybe this is nothing unusual – I only notice it because these deaths align with some of my interests. But we’re in no position to be losing people like Vonnegut, people whose talents legitimately make the world a better place.

    Of course, Vonnegut’s death makes me think about those who are squandering that same ability – anybody heard from Salinger lately?

  2. I think I’m almost one of the six. Time will tell if I’m one of the two. Haha. I love that line, though, about literature. “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.” Hahaha. That’s friggin classic! And I have to agree with him. 🙂

    Hey Guys. How come you guys don’t have a version of S&R for fiction, poetry, whatever? Insist on being read. 🙂

  3. Michael,

    Well, to quote the guy Sam lambasted in his comment, we’ll get on that literary blog thing “right after the war with the goddam Eskimos….”

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