Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007): "So it goes."


Kurt Vonnegut died this year. In 1969 I met him during a book discussion group sponsored by a local newspaper. I was a recent Harvard graduate in English, confident that I was destined to write "The Great American Novel," and was looking for any shortcuts I could find. My first question: "I want to be a successful novelist. Should I start by writing short stories?" He politely replied that after publishing 45 short stories in magazines, he saw the demise of that market for a freelance fiction writer, "whose yearly income was equal to that of a cafeteria worker." He pointed out that major sources for short stories, like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's magazines, had gone out of business, so the novel form was the only realistic way for a writer of fiction to make a living.

"You mean you only write for the money?" I asked.

"Not entirely, but mostly. Yes." he replied.

("OK," I thought, "so he didn't starve while writing in a garret. What else could I learn?")

"I just read your latest, Slaughterhouse Five. I understand it took you almost 25 years to write it? Why so long?"

"I started out writing it with Frank Sinatra playing the role of Billy Pilgrim in the movie. And the longer the book took forced me to continuously change the actor I had in mind to play him," Vonnegut explained quite seriously.

(Writing for money. Writing for the movies. In my naivety and hyper liberal idealism I thought that these motives were anathema for serious writers.)

A bit disillusioned, I never asked another question. My mistake.

NOTE: Slaughterhouse Five chronicles the experiences of Billy Pilgrim, a prisoner of war in Germany during the bombing of Dresden – based on Vonnegut's own experience when captured during the Battle of the Bulge – where both he and his character were locked in a meat locker under a slaughterhouse – and actually survived the bombing because of it. The novel satirizes the absurdity of war among civilized people and details Billy's eventual capture by aliens from the planet Tralfamador. He resigns himself to the unreality of life with the slogan, "So it goes." I include the book in my list of the 10 best American novels.

Well, I never wrote the great American novel, and Mr. Vonnegut came damn close. If one commits to being a serious writer, financial survival is necessary – a kind of Hobson's Choice, which means that there is really no choice at all.

In his 84 years, Kurt Vonnegut wrote 19 novels, countless short stories, essays, and plays which place him among the pantheon of great American writers. He drew a tombstone in Slaughterhouse Five with the inscription, "Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt." Yes, Mr. Vonnegut: Everything you produced was beautiful!" Thank you for your wit and all of your words. And thank you for inspiring so many. It only hurts us that you left.

Grey Swan

Copyright 2011 Grey Swan Press