Nov. 11, 1922 - April 11, 2007
Page 13 Missingsubtitled: The End of an Era and the end of a Feud
by Attila Gyenis
This is meant to be a short overview of my 35-year long relationship with the cantankerous, dour, chain-smoking pessimist, the writer and philosopher Kurt Vonnegut. I will not preen over him like so many others do because like any other long-term relationship, it has not all been smooth sailing. In fact, it had turned into a feud some time ago, at least on my end. He never even knew that the grudge match existed but that is beside the point. In fact, he didn't even know that I existed. So it goes.
He was a self-proclaimed humanist and a humorist extraordinaire who often expounded on the absurdity of war and other human shortcomings. Vonnegut's gift allowed him to capture words on the printed page that were thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud funny that exposed more than an occasional gem of genius and understanding. He entertained generations with his writings and witty commentary, but that is not what I wish to address. Even if he is an inspiration for all things good and possible, a bastion of rational thought in an irrational world, I cannot in good conscience speak favorably of him after his last attack on my fragile psyche. But more about that later.
Our relationship started in Junior high school. You might say that he took advantage of me since I was so young and he was so worldly. But he didn’t. It was during those teenage angst years that I was burying myself in books, mostly sci-fi at first, and then on to what I now consider the classics. I’m not trying to imply any literary wisdom in what few books I accidentally chose to read, but here they are in no particular order: Catch 22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, Martian Chronicles, and Mr. Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. By the way, Mr. Vonnegut disliked being called a sci-fi writer. I guess he never took a good look at that particular book cover.
It was in Siren’s of Titan that I first read in a clear and concise manner about the basic human fallacy, the belief of humans that they are the center of the universe and the sun and the stars all revolve around them and not the other way around. The book also served to collaborate something that I suspected all along, that there probably is not a noble purpose to our existence (nor is one necessary). Of course, I was only in Junior high school at the time, and not getting the cooties from girls was also important so my ‘revelations’ at that tender age have to be put into proper context.
Over the next many years I read much of Vonnegut’s work until the day arrived when I finally ran out of new Vonnegut material, with the following exception. There was one short story that was out of my grasp, Hal Irvin’s Magic Lamp. It was originally published in a women's magazine and later collected in a book of short stories titled Canary in a Cat House. All of the short stories were subsequently reprinted in the book Welcome to the Monkey House (still in print) except for that particular title. It then became my purpose in life to track down a copy of Canary in a Cat House in order to read that one story. It was out of print and since this was before Al Gore’s internet, I was forced to sort through dusty stacks of books at any used bookstore I came across. And that is how I became a book collector. I was in my early twenties, and the quest for that book turned what may have been considered a minor manic compulsive tendency into a full blown obsession. I blame Mr. Vonnegut for that.
Supposedly Mr. Vonnegut was resistant to reprinting Hal Irvin’s Magic Lamp because he felt it was derogatory to blacks (or African Americans as they are called today). He has since corrected the oversight, having republished the story in Bagombo Snuff Box, albeit an updated, slightly sanitized version. Truth be told, his portrayal of women and minorities in some of his earlier stories might not be considered politically correct today, but his intention was never to act in a racist or derogatory manner.
You can’t read Mr. Vonnegut without knowing about Dresden, Germany, where over 100,000 German civilians perished during a night of Allied bombing during World War II. One of the great ironies was that Vonnegut, a private in the US army of German descent, was an American Prisoner of War (POW) in Dresden. He survived the firebombing because the Germans had placed the POWs in the most distasteful place they could think of– a slaughter house. It was that very place that saved him from being annihilated from the bombs that were being dropped on top of the city by British and US warplanes. He was able to hide out in the deep cellars of the slaughter house and escape the firestorm. Even though he claimed at one lecture that the Dresden bombing did not inspire him to write, it does appear as a theme in many of his books. He recounted much of that experience in Slaughterhouse Five. I hope it doesn’t take such a drastic event to inspire a book collector to write.
Over the years I had the pleasure to see Mr. Vonnegut speak at various events. He did a speaking tour called “How to Get a Job Like Mine.” It was very entertaining. He talked about Hamlet and how it violated all the basic laws of creative writing. What was he implying to all the writers in the audience? Just to write and rules be damned?
It was at one of the minor events, an event for some Czechoslovakian dissident writer where Vonnegut was a guest speaker, that we had what would become known to me as the start of our feud. As I mentioned earlier, I had become an avid book collector (I don’t like the term obsessive). I did happen to bring a shopping bag full of Vonnegut books to the Czechoslovakian dissident writer event that I wanted signed.
I approached Mr. Vonnegut with the sense of camaraderie that comes from a joining of the minds, the unspoken understanding of the human frailty, and with a knowledge of how much more my books would be worth if they were signed. Without appreciating what it took to carefully select just one shopping bag full of books (I had much more at home), he simply dismissed me with the words, “I am not here to sign books.” I was devastated. So much for being a kindred spirit. I was feeling dejected when my friend, who was a girl and semi-attractive at that, took my shopping bag of books and approached Mr. Vonnegut. I saw Mr. Vonnegut smile, and proceed to sit down and sign a few of the books. I came to the realization that he may be an arrogant bastard at times, but he ain’t stupid.
Which leads me to our second incident. It was at an actual book signing event. I took my obligatory shopping bag full of books. In it I had a copy of the February 1950 Colliers Magazine that contained the very first story Vonnegut ever got published. It is called The Barnhouse Effect. I gently pulled it out of the protective plastic sleeve and laid it gingerly on the table in front of him. Glancing down on it and realizing what it was, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “My uncle always warned me that once I became a famous writer I would be approached by crazies.” That signed magazine became the cornerstone of my collection.
Over the years I had several opportunities to see Mr. Vonnegut speak. He always delivered, speaking in a charming and witty manner. He used anecdotes and people in his life to illustrate his story. Tall and thin, he is often compared to Mark Twain. Not just in his looks which are strikingly similar, but also in humor. Mr. Vonnegut wrote in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, “Pretend to be good always, and even God will be fooled.” Of course, Mr. Vonnegut is the king of biting cynicism and black humor while expounding on the subject of human stupidity.
Mr. Vonnegut is the only writer I know who can spend an evening talking about the most depressing things like war, famine and baby burning, and leave audience members walking away with a smile on their face. It must be very difficult to try to make people laugh while talking about serious matters. I have to admit that I never felt cheated hearing Mr. Vonnegut speak. I even saw him recently on his book tour promoting Timequake which was published in 1997 (oh my gosh, that was ten years ago).
Vonnegut explained why he was such a popular writer on college campuses like this– he didn’t use semicolons. So in his honor, I'm not using any semicolons today either.
He continued to be a lifelong vocal critic of the injustices that are carried out in the name of civility, such as wars, censorship, famine, and general lack of common courtesy. He continued to speak out on issues but claimed that he has as much power to correcting injustices in the world as a cream pie being dropped off the top of a step ladder. By the way, his most recent witticisms and essays were published in a book titled Man without a Country.
This leads me to what I want to talk about, the third time that I was rejected by Mr. Vonnegut. Yes, it’s true. You would think that I would have been a little more apprehensive in my dealings with Mr. Vonnegut, but I was caught off guard. There was a writer’s contest last year where you had to send money in and supposedly Mr. Vonnegut would evaluate your story. The ‘winners’ would then be invited for drinks with Mr. Vonnegut at his Hampton Bay estate. I assume it is an estate, but it could be only a cottage.
Imagine how disappointed I was when I not only got a rejection notice, but the only comment Mr. Vonnegut made on the front page was “P. 13 missing.”
Mr. Vonnegut, for your information, page thirteen was not missing, it was just out of order through no fault of mine. This is how page thirteen starts off, “Our level of awareness would never allow us to be in that position where we would be compliant and allow someone to stick a skinny knife into our soft underbelly of flesh.” And this is what I would have said to you on our next meeting, ‘Mr. Vonnegut, you have stuck the knife into my soft underbelly of flesh for the last time. I thought that we were in the same Karass, but instead in was just one big Grand Falloon.’ Mr. Vonnegut knows what I’m talking about. But that is all moot now.
As of this moment our feud is officially over and I bear no grudges. I am left saddened, not just by Vonnegut’s passing, but by the realization that there will be one less voice speaking so eloquently for the protection of humanity against the harmful effects of ‘progress and society.' He has been called one of America’s greatest story tellers, a creative talent who wrote and spoke about the human condition with an insight that could have only come from god (just kidding Kurt). He was a Pall Mall-smoking, humanity-loving, crotchety old bastard who left many of his readers actually wanting to do something about the shortcomings of the human species. And that’s important.
A final thought. The chrono-synclastic infundibula works in mysterious ways and maybe we haven’t seen the last of Mr. Vonnegut, or Kilgore Trout for that matter. Maybe they will send us a message from the Planet Tralfamadore. But maybe we’ll just have to be content with the words from his books. Either way, Kurt Vonnegut will be missed. So it goes.
The good earth. We could have saved it but we were too damn stupid.”
~ Kurt Vonnegut
This tribute to Mr. Vonnegut is done with love and great appreciation.
With the passing of Kurt Vonnegut comes the end of an era. Who will the torch be passed on to?
Unfortunately Mr. Vonnegut was one of the few voices who spoke in a rational manner about all the irrational things that humans do. There is no one on the scene who can make you laugh about things that make you cry like Mr. Vonnegut did.
He had a good run, and stated things that needed to be said. He stood up for justice, peace, and common decency (which is missing in mainstream media, government, and corporate America).
I am left with a feeling of sadness combined with a sense of appreciation knowing that there was at least one person who could speak to the truth so eloquently. He will be missed.
This remembrance was written prior to the passing of Mr. Vonnegut and was updated to reflect the new reality.
The following is a list of Vonnegut Books.
Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, edited
by William Rodney Allen. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi,
"God damn it, you’ve got to be kind."
~ Kurt Vonnegut
For collectible and uncommon Vonnegut Books for sale, click - Vonnegut Books for sale -