Hi ho

Kurt

Kurt Vonnegut: a tribute
The ultimate tribute, in fact. Today, I read a Kurt Vonnegut book. Or re-read, as I think I’ve read all his books, as previously stated. I chose Slapstick (subtitled Lonesome No More!), published in 1976, because I remember loving it the first time, and it was no less entertaining the second. I love the look of this 1978 Panther paperback edition, which I feel sure I picked up circa 1990 at Merton Abbey Mills market in South London, which used to have – and may still have, I’ve not been back since developers built a leisure complex on the car park – a perfect second hand book shop, the source of so many of my “used” books. I remember feeling quite odd when I found my own Billy Bragg book, Still Suitable For Miners on sale in there, but I have since come to celebrate having my books in second-hand circulation. This was back in the days before eBay orthodoxy. Let us celebrate the handing on of books. Slapstick cost me a pound. If I’d bought it in 1978 it would have cost me 75p brand new! (The best thing about old books is the musty aroma and the discoloured pages.)

Anyway, like many of Vonnegut’s books, it’s short, and chopped up into bite-sized fragments which are rarely as long as half a page, sometimes only a single line, each one separated from the next by a symbol made up of twelve little diamonds. A novel set a couple of generations into the future, it falls loosely under the sci-fi banner, but Vonnegut only uses the form to free up his imagination. It’s a darkly comic novel about a deformed brother and sister who are a genius when they get together and are cruelly separated not by twelve diamonds but by two uncaring rich parents, who allow a twisted psychoanalyst to allow her class-hatred to split the siblings up. Thus, he, Wilbur, who can read and write but not understand the words, is sent off to boarding school, while she, Eliza, who can’t read or write but has great understanding of everything, is banished to a hospital. Anyway, I won’t do the whole plot, which is punctuated with the phrase, “Hi ho” (Vonnegut lives for sly repetition) and takes in a flu epidemic that kills millions and a problem with gravity that causes a horse called Budweiser’s insides to fall out, but it’s such a breezy read, despite being loaded with philosophical ballast, and comment on the world we live in now, or lived in in 1976. Vonnegut’s books are all about the human condition, and despite the fantasy element, rooted in reality.

It begins with an autobiographical prologue, written with pith and depth, revealing how Vonnegut’s sister Alice died of cancer at 41 and that up until that point, he wrote everything he wrote for her (he never told her so): “She was the secret of whatever artistic unity I had ever achieved.” It’s very moving.

This is how the prologue ends (and if you like what you’ve heard, and what you’re about to read, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut Jr is for you. He is very much for me):

The old man is writing his autobiography. He begins it with the words which my late Uncle Alex told me one time should be used by religious skeptics as a prelude to their nightly prayers. These are the words: “To whom it may concern.”

Hi ho.

Advertisement

14 thoughts on “Hi ho

  1. A friend has just given me Cat’s Cradle to read and I’m enjoying it so far. I also liked the quote from Slapstick so you might have a convert in me.Cheers

  2. A friend has just given me Cat’s Cradle to read and I’m enjoying it so far. I also liked the quote from Slapstick so you might have a convert in me.Cheers

  3. The best thing about old books, I think, is that they’re usually smaller & thinner than books are now (especially 60s & 70s Penguin/Pan/Fontana paperbacks). You can put them in a pocket or a small bag, which mostly you can’t with the either very fat airport style novels or thinner but bigger ‘literary’ paperbacks (almost hardbacks in disguise) that you get now. I guess the ridiculous price of a lot of books comes down to the extravagant sizes, too. I really admire the French & Germans & Italians for somehow having managed to keep books small, even – or perhaps especially – very serious ones. Imagine, you could read philosophy or whatever inconspicuously on the train for a fiver if you so wish. Whereas in English you have to have to have a rucksack to carry around a breezeblock size book published by some American university press at twenty five quid…

  4. The best thing about old books, I think, is that they’re usually smaller & thinner than books are now (especially 60s & 70s Penguin/Pan/Fontana paperbacks). You can put them in a pocket or a small bag, which mostly you can’t with the either very fat airport style novels or thinner but bigger ‘literary’ paperbacks (almost hardbacks in disguise) that you get now. I guess the ridiculous price of a lot of books comes down to the extravagant sizes, too. I really admire the French & Germans & Italians for somehow having managed to keep books small, even – or perhaps especially – very serious ones. Imagine, you could read philosophy or whatever inconspicuously on the train for a fiver if you so wish. Whereas in English you have to have to have a rucksack to carry around a breezeblock size book published by some American university press at twenty five quid…

  5. Just been reading Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree in which he writes about going to a literary party in New York. Not really his thing and he’s dying for a smoke, so out to the balcony he goes to light up. There, he gets chatting with this other smoker … who turns out to be Kurt Vonnegut. As Hornby observes, if I didn’t smoke, I’d never have met the great man.

  6. Just been reading Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree in which he writes about going to a literary party in New York. Not really his thing and he’s dying for a smoke, so out to the balcony he goes to light up. There, he gets chatting with this other smoker … who turns out to be Kurt Vonnegut. As Hornby observes, if I didn’t smoke, I’d never have met the great man.

Do leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.