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Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 1922-2007

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I don't know what he thought of college football, his subjects typically being of the weightier variety, but I am sure any writer since the great flop-over of American temperment in the sixties is indebtted to Kurt Vonnegut. He died last night from a fall in his home weeks ago. The drawing to the left is from his Web site.

It may be a literary crime that I've never read Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe it only feels that way. I try to avoid thinking in canonical terms, and Vonnegut's satiric novels suited me fine. Everyone is told at some point the writer is supposed to make people taste and smell and feel the intricate grooves of things, which as far as I can tell Vonnegut made no attempt to do and is an inspiration for it. Who wants to know what a pomegranate tastes like? Like chicken, probably. Vonnegut's stories are about people's lives and ideas, and they're great ideas.

And occasionally you'd come across something small he contributed to some volume of something or other, like his rather recent diagrams of the plots of famous stories (delivering the world's best and possibly least laborious Kafka joke to date) or that little book on death he compiled a few years ago, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, in which he confronts the beyond in a collection of radio spots originally conceived for public radio. Vonnegut's much-shared obsession with Hitler's psychosis is profound in the context of his life and trauma, and this series gave him an opportunity to relay a critical message from the fallen dictator:

I was gratified to learn that he now feels no remorse for any actions of his, however indirectly, which might have had anything to do with the violent deaths suffered by thirty-five million people during World War II. He and his mistress Eva Braun, of course were among those casualties, along with four million other Germans, six million Jews, eighteen million citizens of the Soviet Union and so on. "I paid my dues with everyone else," he said. It is his hope that a modest monument, possibly a stone cross, since he was a Christian, will be erected somewhere in his memory, possibly on the grounds of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. It should be incised, he said, with his name and dates 1889-1945. Underneath should be a two-word sentence in German: "Entschuldigen Sie." Roughly translated into English, this comes out, "I beg your pardon," or "Excuse Me."

He also wrote in that book:

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead.

Kurt Vonnegut will be lauded today, but I'm not sure we can really do better after the past few decades of a life whose dues were paid so long before its end than a tasteful stone cross or something like that. I have no idea if he cares, or would have, or if the people close to him think he deserves any rewards (or punishment). The only meager reward I can offer is the assurance that, professionally, to the world's sense of literature and self-examination, there is nothing to pardon.