Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut, Non-Jewish Writer, Dies

I'm blogging a bit over at Jewcy this week and next so this post is over there as well -- feel free to leave your comments there.

Kurt Vonnegut, called one of America's best writers by the likes of Graham Greene, John Irving, and Tom Wolfe, died last night -- apparently due to complications from brain injuries sustained during a recent fall. You can read about it in the Times. Some of his best-known works include Cat's Cradle (1963), The Sirens of Titan (1959), Slaughterhouse Five (1969), and Breakfast of Champions (1973). Vonnegut was one of those lucky writers whose work made into both mainstream and academic venues -- I actually read my first Vonnegut book as an undergrad in a class called Metafiction, and was surprised to learn that even some of my non-college-bound friends had also read Vonnegut and thought Slaughterhouse Five was rad.

I was planning to go hear him read and give a talk on April 27 here in Indiana -- at Butler University in Indianapolis, Vonnegut's home town. Vonnegut is one of Indiana's claims to fame. I'm living in Indiana right now (very temporarily), and one thing I've noticed is that people here are fiercely loyal to anyone from the state. They also go nuts if they're in a bar and Tom Petty's "Mary Jane's Last Dance" song starts to play (First verse: "She grew up in an Indiana town / Had a good lookin' momma who never was around / But she grew up tall and she grew up right / With them Indiana boys on an Indiana night"). It's no joke -- I was once in a campus bar called Harry's Chocolate Shop, and though it was packed with wall-to-wall people, when that song came on every single person in there (excluding me) jumped to their feet and began singing the lyrics. I feared they might riot. Or that there would be a stoning of people not from Indiana. So I joined in.

My point being: Indiana loves Vonnegut, so it's a sad day here.

But I learned something new about an hour ago. In talking to a friend of mine who is a scholar of Jewish-American and other literatures, I got into a conversation about Slaughterhouse Five, which is really about Vonnegut's own experience with the WWII Dresden bombing. My friend said he has always been slightly bothered by the book -- that it feels slightly anti-Semitic, though not in any overt way (anti-Semitic because it completely ignores the Holocaust, and focuses only on other WWII events, which does feel a bit strange). "But Vonnegut was Jewish, wasn't he?" I asked. No. Apparently he was not. This whole time I thought Vonnegut was a Jewish writer who didn't write about Jewish things -- like Joseph Heller (good friend of Vonnegut) or Norman Mailer or Paul Auster or Nathaniel West. The reason I thought this: a good friend of mine, who also happens to be a fairly well-known novelist in the Jewish-American literary world, told me so!

So was Vonnegut anti-Semitic? I don't know. I don't think so, but I do find the omission of the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse to be kind of creepy. Then again, in looking back at Breakfast of Champions a few minutes ago, a picture of a flag with a swastika on it caught my eye. Above the flag, Vonnegut writes:

Dwayne certainly wasn't alone, as far as having bad chemicals inside of him was concerned. He had plenty of company throughout all history. In his own lifetime, for instance, the people in a country called Germany were so full of bad chemicals for a while that they actually built factories whose only purpose was to kill people by the millions. The people were delivered by railroad trains. When the Germans were full of bad chemicals, their flag looked like this:



Of course, on the next page Vonnegut includes a picture of today's German flag, and writes: "Here is what their flag looked like after they got well again." But the last part of this section is my favorite -- Vonnegut writes about the "cheap and durable [German] automobile" that became popular all over the world after the war (the Volkswagen Beetle). He includes a drawing of the beetle insect, and writes underneath it: "The mechanical beetle was made by Germans. The real beetle was made by the Creator of the Universe." Pretty profound, don't you think, particularly in the wake of Nazi Germany's efforts to play God . . .

14 comments:

Casey said...

Seems to me like Vonnegut was trying to write an anti-war novel with Slaughterhouse. To include much (or even anything?) about the Holocaust may have made the Dresden bombing seem somehow justifiable--

And maybe it was, but if your intention is to write an anti-war novel (he says so in chapter 1), then that might undermine your cause?

So it goes.

Monica said...

That's actually an interesting point that I hadn't thought of, Casey -- thanks. I guess it's just one of those things that raises interesting questions that aren't necessarily negative. Just an interesting choice, that's all, to not mention the part of WWII that was most chilling and pervasive, as if it wasn't really happening.

DSW said...

Another thing to consider is that Slaughterhouse is at least partially autobiographical - especially the parts that take place in the slaughterhouse. When the fire-bombing of Dresden ended he was forced to help dispose of the bodies - some 150,000 German civilians.

So Vonnegut not writing about the Holocaust could have simply been an issue of not having experienced it personally. And while not on the same scale as the Shoah, I seriously doubt the Nazis could have terminated the lives of 150,000 people with the efficiency the Allies displayed over two days in February, 1945.

Vonnegut witnessed this horrendous event firsthand and it impacted him profoundly - in his mind there was no justification for this type of violence so making a comparative analysis of the value of lives (6 million vs. 150,000) was probably a non-issue for him.

DSW said...

I didn't mean for my previous post to come off as snarky, but it kinda reads that way - sorry. I don't know why Vonnegut didn't make mention of the Holocaust in Slaughterhouse but I think the atrocity at Dresden was enough to make his point: All life is valuable so a debate revolving around what was worse/was Dresden justifiable/etc. was meaningless to Vonnegeut.

I also think its a more interesting question: its easy to vilify the Nazis for attempting genocide, but what about us? What responsibility/culpability do we as Americans have for such acts? Some 600,000 German civilians were killed in bombings similar to Dresden. The death totals of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the fire-bombing of Tokyo totaled AT LEAST 340,000 ... combine those two numbers and we're looking at over 1 million CIVILIAN deaths committed by our military (well ours and Britain's) ... and that doesn't include what happened to the people of Berlin when we allowed the Russians to take that city. I'm getting off topic - its the historian in me.

My wife commented to me yesterday that after reading Cat's CradleVonnegut a few years ago, she fell in love with his writing because he starts of so pessimistically but ultimately ends with absolute hope. I think that's a common theme in all of Vonnegut's writing - life and its happenings are laughable, but we have to maintain hope.

Monica said...

DSW,

No worries -- you sounded not snarky at all! I like your point about the debate over what is worse being meaningless for Vonnegut though, in the sense that all life is valuable. And, I really don't think Vonnegut was anti-Semitic at all . . .

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Anonymous said...

Oh my God. Oh my God. I think Kurt Vonnegut would slap you in the face if he were alive. I`m sorry, I know that sounds rude, but it`s really frustrating for me to read your comments about Vonnegut and the holocaust. So much so that I don`t even know where to begin in criticizing them. Did you even read the frigging book???? Do you know why he wrote it??? If not, take a look back at the beginning where he writes the limerick about the man`s tool and the song about Yon Yonson. Slaughterhouse Five is a book about the pain and suffering that he feels personally as a result of what he PERSONALLY witnessed in Dresden. A nightmare that he lived through and cannot forget. Yes, it`s also a criticizm of war and a commentary on man`s inhumanity etc. but first and foremost it`s about a tragedy that he PERSONALLY experienced that damaged him severely for the rest of his life. Why is there the urge to take that from him and to make it about something else?? To make it about something that WE care more about ourselves??? As if to say, `yeah, yeah, i`m sure it was horrible and all, but what about the Holocaust, HMMmm??` What the hell is that?!? Everyone knows the Holocaust was horrible. It`s not minimizing that fact to write a book about something else that was horrible too, is it?? And to call him Anti-Semitic!!!!???? Are you insane!!!! Vonnegut criticizes our tendency to divide ourselves along those lines. Along ANY lines. If you had read Cat`s Cradle you would know how ridiculous he thinks it is to be so intensly proud of being a Hoosier, for instance. It`s those kinds of divisions that cause war in the first place I think he`d say. And then you write; *Vonnegut, Non-Jewish Writer, Dies*!!!! NON-JEWISH WRITER???!!??!! Oh my God!!!! Oh my God!!!! Oh my God!!!! I don`t know what else to say....I really don`t. I`m sorry if this sounds mean-spirited. It`s really not. I`m just trying to convey my confusion and frustration. You seem to completely and totally miss his point which leads me to believe that you either haven`t really read his books, or that you really just don`t get it. If it`s the latter, and in the case of your friend that made the initial claim of Anti-Semitism, please, do us all a favor and keep your comments to yourself. Non-Jewish Writer.... Oh dear God.

Monica said...

Anonymous--you need a sedative. Calm down. I didn't say he was anti-Semitic. My title (...Non Jewish Writer...) is completely appropriate to my piece. You need to read more carefully so that you get the actual point that's being made. It's actually a joke, and the joke actually betrays my feelings that Vonnegut is certainly not anti-Semitic after all--the joke is that I've always assumed he was Jewish, and was quite surprised to find otherwise. And, there's a difference between making outright statements about a writer/work, and simply raising questions about the nature of his/her work and whether artists have certain kinds of responsibilities.

Anonymous said...

My point is, `who cares if he`s Jewish or not??` You`ve totally missed the point. You must be an academic of some sort to bring that type of nonsense up when discussing a writer as good as Vonnegut. It`s a total non-issue, first of all, and second, it is so contrary to everything that Vonnegut was about to be concerned with his religious affiliation. You`re obsessed with being Jewish. Whatever, it`s your own life that will suffer because of your close-mindedness. And if you were joking, you didn`t do a very good job of it. There was nothing funny about it. Maybe YOU got the joke, but I assure you, no one else did. Learn how to write in a way that actually expresses what you mean. Believe me, I read it more than once. I was that flabbergasted.

Anonymous said...

By the way...I looked at your picture. You`re really hot. That`s an actual compliment. I`m not being sarcastic....OR SEXIST. If you`re ever in Tokyo we should hang out and discuss literature...just not Vonnegut.

Monica said...

Anonymous--your comment was the highlight of my day, seriously. What fun you are!

You write: "It`s a total non-issue, first of all, and second, it is so contrary to everything that Vonnegut was about to be concerned with his religious affiliation."

Once again, you've missed the point because you were too eager to pounce. I have no thoughts about Vonnegut's religious affiliation. I said nothing about his religious affiliation. The point was that I had always thought Vonnegut was ethnically Jewish--this is why I compare him to Norman Mailer, Paul Auster, Nathaniel West, etc. These writers are Jewish. They are not, however, religious in any way. Go back and re-read before leaving venomous and uninformed comments.

On a side note--apparently I am not the only one who thought Vonnegut was Jewish. I have had more hits to my blog from people googling "Vonnegut Jewish" than any other search. Crazy, no? Apparently there are a whole bunch of people equally obssessed with this topic.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh, okay. So now we`ll play the semantics game and try to back out of our comments that way...I see. So what you`re saying is that you were referring to the ethnic nature of Jewishness as opposed to the religious one, and that that therefore completely invalidates my original criticism of the article. Makes sense. No, really that`s good. And when I pointed out that in Cat`s Cradle Vonnegut criticized people`s tendency to align themselves along any lines which are at once inclusive and alienating, using the example of people from Indiana, that could in no way relate to particular ethnicities as well could it? No. Of course not. I AM an idiot. What was I thinking? And you`re absolutely right, people are obsessed. It`s too bad, really. I was that way once myself even, but then I became less unenlightened. And to be perfectly honest I have a feeling that most people who think that Vonnegut is Jewish believe so because there is an assumption that anyone who is a creative, quirky, and unique social critique must be Jewish. No Gentile could create anything so interesting and intelligent. They`re a bunch of barbaric clods. ...and venomous? No. Passionate is more like it. I`m actually starting to like you in fact. In all seriousness I don`t harbor any ill will toward you at all and my intention is not to ever come off as venomous or mean-spirited. Simply spirited.

Anonymous said...

...and by the way. It kind of turns me on when you quote me in your responses. Keep it up. ;)

beesol said...

I was amused to read your comment that you get a lot of hits from people googling 'Vonnegut Jewish'. That's exactly how I found your blog! I've just heard a BBC Radio dramatisation of Slaughterhouse 5 and I couldn't understand how a Jewish writer could be so sympathetic to the Germans. So I was relieved to find that Vonnegut was not Jewish and also interested to find that I was not the only person who thought he was. Far from it - not only was he not Jewish but he had German roots. So his sympathy with the Germans must be deep. Clearly no mention would have been made by him of the fact that on the day following the bombing of Dresden the remaining Jews in Dresden were to have been rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. Thanks to the bombing of Dresden the records were destroyed and the Jews (those that were not killed in the bombing) were saved. You have only to look at the diaries of Viktor Klemperer, a Dresden Jew. Although he lived through the bombing he actually welcomed it as it saved his life. Anyway, thanks for giving me the opportunity to let off steam about this. BTW, I loved your description of Vonnegut as a non-Jewish writer - I know exactly what you mean.