Monday, February 23, 2015

The patterns of Kurt Vonnegut's life

What a biographer is looking for is patterns of behavior.
Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes:  Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

That may be true, but it is the exceptions to those patterns, the inconsistencies, that make a life interesting.Charles J. Shields, whose Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee was such a fine literary biography, equals that with And So It Goes, his 2011 portrait of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. And for all the clear patterns of behavior in Vonnegut's life, the inconsistencies prove just as important.

Shields makes much of the fact that Vonnegut, while the darling of the Left from the time he became a major literary figure in the 1960s, was in many ways a conservative at heart. Like a reactionary, says  Shields, he longed for the good old days. He hated the way his world was changing. Vonnegut may have spoken out against Big Business, yet he invested heavily in the stock market and counted on Big Business to protect his fortune. Vonnegut wrote and spoke often about the importance of family and old-time values, yet his own family life was a mess. He preached the value of friendship and cooperation, yet he betrayed many of his own friends and the people he did business with.

Vonnegut was one of many novelists to come out of World War II, yet it took him decades to write the war novel that would make his reputation, Slaughterhouse-Five. A prisoner of war, he had been in Dresden during the fire bombing that destroyed the city in 1944. He survived by being underground at the time, in Slaughterhouse-Five, yet being underground he wasn't actually a witness to the bombing, so he didn't know how to tell the story. Finally he found a way using science fiction, time travel and aliens from space to create one of the most unique novels of the 20th century.

He continued to write, but none of his subsequent books measured up to his masterpiece, although some of his earlier novels, virtually ignored when first published, later became admired. His shrinking reputation frustrated Vonnegut. He now had fame and fortune, yet with each new novel, critics took him less and less seriously. Many of his books were bestsellers, but he hated being thought a literary fraud.

Had Vonnegut been true to his values; been faithful to Jane, his first and best wife; been a better father and a better friend, he most likely would have had a happier life than he had. But his biography, if anyone even bothered to write one, would have been much less interesting.

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