Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Goodbye Blue Monday

It only took me an hour to read Kurt Vonnegut's most recent book, A Man Without a Country. It is not a substantial book in any sense. Variously promoted as memoir, as polemic, as a summing up, it actually resembles the kind of structureless, extempore lecture a curmudgeonly relative might launch into on Christmas Day. Vonnegut trumps my relatives, at least, by being personable and witty, and capable of expressing anger and dismay without embarassment or hysteria - he's the great benevolent uncle I never had. So even though this book is slight, it is a pleasure to once again hear his voice.

There are bits of memoir in A Man Without a Country, bits of polemic and bits of whatever else Vonnegut happened to be brooding on at the time these pieces - originally published in a newspaper called In These Times - were written. That is, pretty much what he's been brooding on forever: cruelty and kindness, laughter and sadness. He is the great American sentimentalist, but with a cold streak of disdain for liars and tyrants. Vonnegut's argument is not sophisticated or profound, but it warms my aorta to see him denounce in print the "guessers" who control all our fates.

Vonnegut is as wishy-washy and folksy and bleeding-of-heart as ever here. He is also as hard-headed and realistic as ever. That subtle mockery of "grown-up" pieties that is so attractive in the novels is present also, e.g. "We are here on Earth to fart around. Don't let anybody tell you any different". Not exactly a clarion call to revolution, but nonetheless an affecting little irritant for a shallowly idealistic culture. There are plenty of similar lines scattered through the book. Many are rehashed versions of previous witticisms, which I guess could be considered lazy. But whatever, the guy is eighty-four years old. Allowances should probably be made.

Anyway, as I said it only took me an hour to read A Man Without a Country. It's not the greatest thing ever written, but it is amusing enough. Nice to know Vonnegut is still out there, ticking over. There's a photo on the back of the dust jacket that shows Vonnegut standing on a beach, his back turned to the camera, hands in pockets and looking out over the ocean. At first glance it struck me as a cliche: elderly man contemplates the infinite/mortality/his cataracts. But having read the book, the photo takes on extra meaning. Vonnegut comes across as tired, and like the aging Twain seems to have given up on the world. The end is now in sight. In the photo, Vonnegut is not contemplating anything. He is watching the waves creep closer to his feet: he is waiting to be taken.

14 Comments:

At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Ella said...

I am always amazed to find that Kurt Vonnegut is still alive. What is he, 103 now? And still giving interviews and writing books?

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, he's pretty amazing. I got a bit depressed reading A Man Without because in it KV sounds so old and tired, and it made me think how sad it will be when he eventually dies. I realise that's a bit morbid, and he could be around for a long time yet, but in some ways KV really is like the benevolent uncle I never had - I think a lot of his readers feel that way about him - and I know his death, when it comes, is going to hurt.

 
At 5:34 PM, Blogger JPW said...

I read an interview in The Australian - I think it might even have been posted here - with KV a while ago. In it, Vonnegut came off as faintly ridiculous, possibly even senile, and the interviewer simply came of as an enormous wanker. I kind of gave up on Kurt some years back, but only recently finished a book of sci-fi short stories (I showed it to TimT the other night at the thing) wherein KV's 'Deer In The Works' was printed, and was reminded of just how magnificent some of his stuff can be. Think I might track down some more of his shorts (I've read most of his novels; they're good for a certain time and place and period in your life, but outside of that very particular timeframe they are essentially unreadable), just to savour their taste once again.

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger TimT said...

You showed me what now?

I didn't do anything, you can't prove I did anything, and it won't stand up in court!

 
At 5:54 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I remember reading that interview, though. Pretty much spot on, James. V. did have some nice one liners (life is no way to treat an animal!) but it's a bit disappointing that he simply recylced most of these from his book.

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Tim said...

they're good for a certain time and place and period in your life, but outside of that very particular timeframe they are essentially unreadable)

For real? I still consider many of them extremely good, although probably for different reasons than I did as a fourteen year-old.

 
At 8:32 AM, Blogger TimT said...

'recylced'

I'm not sure how you recylce things, but hopefully it's a bit like recycling.

Tim, how's the new kid finding things? Have you managed to warp her mind yet? Or are you going to wait until she's a bit older before dragging out the hypno-ray and indoctrinating her into the world of Literature?

 
At 10:59 AM, Blogger Tim said...

She's well, but not taking any interest in literature as yet. I was reading her an Isaiah Berlin essay other day, and she seemed to enjoy it, so maybe the history of ideas is more her thing. Or maybe she was just humouring me.

 
At 11:11 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Berlin? She was totally humouring you.

 
At 11:57 AM, Blogger TimT said...

Bah! Everyone knows you should start babies off on Newtown's Principia Mathematica!

 
At 1:30 PM, Blogger Ella said...

Mine likes TS Eliot. The creepier, the better. He giggles at "The Waste Lands" if you say "I WILL SHOW YOU FEAR IN A HANDFUL OF DUST" in a scary voice.

I don't know, though. Girls could be different. Maybe try the Newtown.

 
At 1:50 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Tim, I've been to Newtown and I didn't see any Principia Mathematica. Is it a new retail development or what?

(So I've been reduced to picking on people's typos. Good thing I never make any!)

I can remember reading all sorts of things to my other daughter when she was a baby. A lot of Graham Greene, as I recall. Before I had her, I used to think people who read grown-up books to their kids were pretentious. I guess it is if you do it thinking they're going to turn into a literary genius by osmosis, but I figure if you happen to be reading something, there's no harm in reading it aloud to them. It can be very calming for them, especially with my well-modulated FM radio DJ voice.

 
At 1:52 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Ella, I'll have to try some Eliot. Mine is a bit young to giggle (four weeks old today), but she does smirk a lot. Although that could just be wind.

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger TimT said...

I reckon kids do learn by osmosis - more or less. We had a decent translation of The Oddyssey in our house, with pictures in our house which I remember poring over as a kid. Also a great Kevin Crossley Holland book of Norse myths. Neither of them skimped on the details. The books that I don't remember are the crappy translations, where the author tries to explain in 'very simple language' (ie, patronising) to kids the 'old myths' (ie, some watered down, inoffensive version aimed at easily-offended parents).

I remember reading, a while ago, about how one music professor raised his children listening to modern atonal harmonies. Apparently it made a big difference to their musical comprehension later.

 

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