This summer was a bit of a Kurt Vonnegut retrospective for me. Now, prior to this summer, I hadn't read Vonnegut in just about 30 years, so I wondered what I would think of his books at what is, after all, a very different place in my life than where the 15-16 year old who first read them was.
To answer this, I read five of Vonnegut's novels: Player Piano; The Sirens of Titan; Mother Night; Cat's Cradle; Slaughterhouse Five; and Breakfast of Champions. That's most of Vonnegut's output from 1952 and 1973 (I skipped the short stories and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, not because I wasn't willing to try them again,but because my Dell paperbacks had fallen apart years ago, and replacing them with a new paperback seems, well, wrong.)
Anyway, here is my take: what was different in reading the books now from reading them ten is Vonnegut's profound bleakness weighed on me far more than it did then His wit, wordplay, the irony and gusts of humor did not disguise the fact that these books are truly the work of man weighed down by a terrible sadness. I haven't read Charles Shield's biography of Vonnegut, but I can't say that the disclosure of his lifelong battle with depression is surprising after reading his fiction with a more experienced eye.
Yet, the tension between Vonnegut's bleak world-view and his humor made the books richer for me, even though they weren't as purely pleasurable as when I was younger, and more apt to see cynicism as an authorial pose, a jaunty, "hey-this'll-kill-ya" affectation than the real thing. It was, for Kurt Vonnegut, the real thing.
But like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut's own life force (to use Shaw's term) holds it in balance, at least in his writing. I met Vonnegut once, quite briefly. I had had an unpleasant day at the commercial litigation firm I was working at (this was roughly 1996-7), and I stormed out to take a walk. I stopped after a few blocks, outside the office of Delacorte Press, Vonnegut's publishers, and sat down in a chair in the little public area outside the building.
In the chair next perpendicular to me? Kurt Vonnegut. Himself. Not a picture.
Struck numb, I stammered, "It's, er, Mr. Vonnegut, isn't it?"
He smiled, and said yes. We shook hands, I introduced myself. But here's the thing; Vonnegut wasn't interested in my praise for his writing (though e was kind and polite). But he took control of the conversation, asking me questions about my life, why I'd become a lawyer, what I wanted from it. He soaked in information like a sponge. And then, when he was done, and we'd talked about my ambition to write a book, he told me the kind of book on law he'd always wanted to read, but never could bring himself to do the research to write.
Maybe I'll write it in his memory. Bearing in mind, if I do, some helpful advice.