Curious: A Vonnegut consideration

So far, none of the obituaries and tributes for the late Kurt Vonnegut -- none that I've read, and there's a fair compilation at Critical Mass -- has mentioned what I thought was more widely known. As much as Vonnegut's masterwork, Slaughterhouse-Five, managed to combine his science fiction with his autobiographical experiences, the book's narrative approach to the violence and absurdity of war was clearly inspired by the works of Louis-Ferdinand Celine, notably Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan.

Both novels were written 30 years before Slaughterhouse: Celine was seriously wounded in battle during World War I, while Vonnegut, of course, survived the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. But Celine's fractured narrative style, in particular, had an enormous influence on Slaughterhouse (and Catch-22, as well).

The differences are telling, though: Vonnegut devised a sci-fi explanation for his cross-cuts and switchbacks ("Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time"), while Celine just dumps the horrid chaos in the reader's lap. We can thread our way through Vonnegut's Tralfamodorians and Pilgrim's past, present and future, but with Celine, even his sentence and paragraph structures -- let alone his story -- are constantly collapsing and fragmenting.

This, for instance, is the famous opening of Guignol's Band from 1944, a novel Celine himself gleefully declared unreadable and an "outrage":

"Boom! Zoom! . . . It's the big smashup! . . . The whole street caving in at the waterfront! . . . It's Orleans crumbling and thunder in the Grand Cafe! . . . A table sails by and splits the air! . . . Marble bird! . . . spins round, shatters a window to splinters! . . . A houseful of furniture rocks, spins from the casements, scatters in a rain of fire! . . . The proud bridge, twelve arches, staggers, topples smack into the mud. The slime of the river splatters! . . . mashes, splashes the mob yelling choking overflowing at the parapet! . . . It's pretty bad . . ."

(The influence on Kerouac is pretty obvious.)

And then there's the overall tone and attitude of Celine and Vonnegut that are so different. This is Celine in Journey: "The worst part is wondering how you'll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you'll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows."

"Stupid" may well be Celine's favorite adjective for anything involving humans. This, in comparison, is Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five:

The novel is "so short and jumbled and jangled ... because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

"And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?' "

To a degree, both Vonnegut and Celine are satirists, morally outraged by the horrors and meaninglessness and sham they've witnessed. But Celine's bilious sarcasm (with murmurs of human sympathy) is so distinct from Vonnegut's whimsical despair, his sadsack humor. Celine rages and sneers and whimpers; Vonnegut empathizes, takes a few shots, slips into a cosmic view -- and shrugs.

I'm not saying one is necessarily more profound than the other, but these differences help explain what Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote in a wise New York Times opinion-page appreciation Friday: One best encounters Vonnegut as an adolescent ("No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut"). I would even argue that the 13-year-old who becomes a fan of Celine is a kid looking for an easy provocation; he hopes to offend or bewilder adults who see him reading Death on the Installment Plan.

But once you've matured -- and, I would add, once you've encountered Samuel Beckett or Celine or DeLillo or Calvino or Didion or Cormac McCarthy or other authors with a steelier response to life -- "Vonnegut," Mr. Klinkenborg writes, "is not, now, somehow serious enough."

Exactly. OK, so perhaps I am saying one author is more profound than the other. Even so, Mr. Klinkenborg encourages the reader to "revisit that earlier self." And I'd agree. It's not that I don't have a great deal of affection for Slaughterhouse-Five -- and George Roy Hill's film adaptation is one of the smartest cinematic treatments of a contemporary American novel, well worth re-visiting.

But I think Vonnegut weakened his case as a major writer by continuing to write in the same but decidedly thinner manner. Part of Slaughterhouse-Five's power came -- for me, at least -- from what seemed its freshness, its unwillingness to fall into the usual postures or attitudes (yes, it was anti-war but it wasn't an easy polemic, a howl of righteous outrage). Yet when Vonnegut continued to produce pretty much the same attitude, the same tone and approach, directed toward more trivial or merely timely topics, it weakened Slaughterhouse-Five in retrospect. "So it goes" now seemed an irritating avoidance of something deeper or more engaged, an understandably wounded response, but a response born from the fear that anything stronger or more thought-through would just be futile in its own way, trigger more violence, more pointlessness. So why make the effort?

Vonnegut's response suits a teen's early encounter with something as overwhelming or confounding as nuclear war or the Holocaust or cosmic meaninglessness. It's deeper than ordinary flippancy but it's more amusing than the usual adolescent anguish over hypocrisy. The stance seems more knowing, more wearily experienced, than it really is.

Still, if Beckett and Celine and DeLillo can make me laugh, make me cackle, it's Vonnegut who made me smile.

April 13, 2007 9:21 AM | | Comments (5)



Thanks, Scott, for the Vonnegut/Celine citation. I knew Vonnegut had written about Celine somewhere but couldn't find it. My editions of North and Castle to Castle are too old to have the Vonnegut preface.

As for your points, Ms. McDuffie, I was pondering how an author could be an 'influence' on an other EXCEPT through individual writings, but then, I suppose, public-figure authors such as Oscar Wilde or Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway are as much role models for many aspiring writers as they are admired masters of a craft: They present "an author's path," a way for an author to live (and die).

In this case, of course, Celine did NOT influence Vonnegut as a public figure -- witness the quotation that Scott McLemee offers in which Vonnegut acknowledges Celine's well-known anti-Semitism but distances himself from it -- and directs our attention back to the books themselves.

Finally, to the point about Vonnegut's obituaries and appreciations: I have written numerous newspaper obits myself. I hadn't expected such writers to question Vonnegut's value (although many do so quite properly by, say, quoting Alfred Kazin on him). But I was still surprised that even a passing reference to Celine was never made in the half-dozen articles I read, whereas large portions of each obit were devoted to Vonnegut as a '60s counter-culture figure, a role he denied, mocked, tried to run away from and finally came to accept as simply an unavoidable piece of the fame nonsense that attached itself to him. All of that ink devoted to Vonnegut's pop-culture reception and not a single line on the literary figure who helped him make the narrative breakthrough that led to his greatest success.

Vonnegut on Celine: "Compulsively, with no financial gain in prospect, and understanding that many people will believe that I share many of his authentically vile opinions, I continue to say good things about this man. And my name is most snugly tied to his in the Penguin paperback editions of his last three books, Castle to Castle, North, and Rigadoon. My name is on each cover: 'With a new introduction,' it says, 'by Kurt Vonnegut.'"

From KV's essay collection Palm Sunday (1981), which reprints the introduction.

This essay is very thought-provoking, very proportion-establishing, very grief-assuasing. Calming. Life must go on, as Edna Millay put it, I forget just why.

Thank you.

Should stop there, point made, but the grandmom in me nags: You've heard the most heinous criminal deserves the best possible defense, well, every person deserves the best possible memories and words when he/she dies. Do don't be surprised this connection you established isn't mentioned in the obits. Critical analysis has its time and place, in my mind, any time and any place, just not a part of the pause we make to note the impression someone had on us and on the world.

That kind of connecting goes on it seems between books. I came late to reading blogs in a search for infomation/examples of David Lodge's dialogism, which I have defined temporarily, for myself until I learn better as the possibility that books are composed as a response to another book,and act more direct and conscious than 'influences'. I think of the recent spate of books written from the point of view of a minor character in a well-known book. The best example so far comes from a recent 50 Books posting on books by Kingley Amis and his son Martin Amis. I have still to read those books for a point by point comparison, but would none the less like more examples and advice on an approach for getting information.

Do you perchance have any thoughts on this line of thinking. Did Vonnegut consciouly make an 'anything you can do' response to Celine? Or do you consider the similarities you've established between Vonnegut's style and subject and that of Celine to be an unconsious adoption of what was felt to be right on a sub-consciouls level?

Interesting diagnosis -- it hadn't occurred to me, but then, my father, a veteran of World War II and Korea, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from his war experiences . . . . only three years ago.

i am amazed how often slaughterhouse is classified as "science fiction." to me it's more like an early description of a very serious, untreated post-traumatic stress disorder with a one flew over the cuckoo's nest-style narrator.


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