Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Notes: Palm Sunday by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is, I suspect by anyone's standards, an unusual writer. His novels, such as the famous Slaughterhouse Five reveal a man whose view of life though a somewhat warped lens, is transmitted to the reader via an idiosyncratic use of language.

Billed as an 'Autobiographical Collage', Palm Sunday, is an anthology of Vonnegut's shorter writings, articles, papers and speeches, gathered together under various headings and bound. Vonnegut writes with verve, wit, humour, and sarcasm as bitter as bitter. He writes of family history, America, of obscenity and censorship, of family, mental illness, of divorce and his lifelong love-hate (but mostly hate) relationship with religion. "I have six children", writes Vonnegut, "which is far too many for an atheist!" yet in the final chapter he contortedly describes himself as a "Christ-worshipping agnostic." His discussions of all things Christian are uniformly ill-informed, and deliberately and provocatively so, as he later all but admits many of his barbed comments are aimed at his Christian ex-wife! Yet despite my disagreements with his conclusions, the cunning way in which he sets up the propositions of his opponents, extends them ad absurdum only to sarcastically give them an approving nod, does hugely entertain. I don' t imagine that if I had ever met him I would have agreed with him, but I think I might have liked him.

In one strange passage, Vonnegut conducts an interview with himself. It begins like this:

INTERVIEWER: You are a veteran of the 2nd World War?
VONNEGUT: Yes. I want a military funeral when I die - the bugler, the flag on he casket, the ceremonial firing squad, the hallowed ground.
VONNEGUT: It will be a way of achieving what I've always wanted more than anything - something I could have had, if only I'd managed to get myself killed in the war.
VONNEGUT: The unqualified approval of my community.
INTERVIEWER: You don't feel you have that now?
VONNEGUT: My relatives say that they are glad that I am rich, but that they simply cannot read me. (p84-5)

In this anthology, Vonnegut demonstrates that he can be in equal measures, witty and appalling, brilliant and crass, insightful and vulgar; as he explores his warped take on life (and death). If any reader of this post is as anally retentive pedantic as the author of Eats Shoots and Leaves, they will be screaming about the lack of a comma in the title, "Oh Dear Kurt". They will be wanting to know if I meant, "Oh dear, Kurt" gently lamenting all that is bitter, profane, unthought-through and anti-Christian in it. Or, wondering if I meant "Oh, dear Kurt" celebrating all that is sparkling with life, wit, humanity and insight.

"I thank you for your sweetly faked attention" (p330)

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