“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – December meeting of the Vonnegut Library Book Club

The KVMLBC met for the last time in 2011 yesterday. Our book for this month was Vonnegut’s final published work, A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays published in 2005.

20111217-114303.jpg

When I was put on the spot during our meeting and asked, “Well, Jay, what did you think?” I replied, perhaps unfairly, with something like, “Well, it was another nearly lethal dose of pessimism.” But it IS full of pessimism. Vonnegut himself admits that late in life, one is less and less able to fend off the despair of life with humor, citing Mark Twain as an example and at one point saying that “Twain and Einstein gave up on the human race at the end of their lives.” I hope I don’t end up like this.

In spite of all the pessimism, however, the book is also thankfully sprinkled with little anecdotal pockets of uplifting moments. I enjoyed for example, reading about Vonnegut’s trips to the post office and how much he enjoyed meeting and talking to others waiting in line. And how he was “in love” with the cashier:

“I am secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t know it. My wife knows it. I am not about to do anything about it. She is so nice. All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. but every day she will do something with herself above the waist to cheer us all up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have it ironed flat. One day she wore black lipstick. This is all so exciting and generous of her, just to cheer us up, people from all over the world.”

I wonder if this woman ever read this book or knows she has been made famous in a small way. This also reminded me a little of the scene in his book, Jailbird, where a man walks into a coffee shop and finds kind of an oasis of gentle, comforting humanity. I’ve written about this before .

Another section I really liked was when Vonnegut compared his two uncles. One uncle (Dan) seemed to be just the kind of blowhard that he despises. He relates a scene that took place after the author had returned from World War II, and Uncle Dan kind of slaps him in the back and proclaims, “Well, you’re a man now!” (“So I killed him.” Vonnegut jokes)

By contrast, there is his “good uncle” Alex, whose principal complaint about his fellow human beings was that they “so seldom noticed it when they were happy.” He goes on to relate how Uncle Alex would occasionally, such as when the family was all sitting around sipping lemonade on a beautiful day, interrupt the others and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!” Vonnegut continues by telling us that he has taken up the banner of his uncle and makes sure he says this occasionally too, as do his children and grandchildren. He urges us to do the same.

I suppose if I were a witty fellow I would have said those words sometime during our club’s meeting last thursday. If those monthly meetings aren’t nice, I don’t know what is. They are almost invariably a struggle for me to get to, as they are held in the middle of the day on a weekday I have to tear myself away from work – and whatever the “crisis du jour” is that always seems to be going on – for a few hours (commute downtown time, meeting time, grab a bite to eat time – it adds up), but they always end up being kind of an oasis of thoughtful reflection, discussion, and culture in the midst of my daily version of the rat race. The meetings always seem to end far too soon, and I hate having to return to work afterward.

I should mention, too, that at this meeting there was displayed a show-and-tell item as a kind of centerpiece to our circled tables. It seems Bill, the library’s historian had seen for sale on eBay a trophy from a 1938 skeet-shooting championship in Indianapolis sponsored by none other than Vonnegut Hardware. He watched the lonely item gathering a bid-less dust on the eBay site and as its time was expiring, contacted the seller and asked if – in the case of no bids being received – they would be interested in donating it to the library. They were, and Bill picked it up on the way to the meeting. Somewhat humorously, I got the impression that he wasn’t fully appreciative of the scale of the item, which turned out to be “the size of a small man” (okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much). So, it presided over our discussion with a towering presence…

(Below: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Bibliophilopolis Indianapolis)

20111217-114235.jpg

Also, this month I’m going to append below the fold the “official” unofficial summary of our meeting, which one of our members (Dave) has been diligently creating for us in recent months.  It provides more detail of what was discussed than my personal impressions above and might give the reader a deeper impression of what our club is like.

MEETING OF THE KURT VONNEGUT BOOK CLUB,  DECEMBER 15, 2011

The Indianapolis regiment of the KV Book Club met on 12/15/11.  The alleged agenda was the discussion of KV’s collection of essays “A Man Without A Country”  published in 2005.  Many of the articles appeared previously in the left-wing rag “In Our Times”.

Those in attendance were Janet, Chris, Phil, Bob, Chuck, Jay,  Kathleen, Bill, Lorraine,  and Dave.

Susan also wandered in from a visit to the library and was a welcome addition  Lock up the children!  This summary discusses the twin threats to civil discourse:  Politics and Religion.   Rather than digress more than usual, I have appended some supplementary material for those who have nothing better to read.

Bill, who never fails to surprise us, brought to the meeting a 4 foot brass (or bronze) Skeet Shooting Trophy sponsored by Vonnegut Hardware in 1938.  He had attempted to buy it from a party in Martinsville (where everyone loves guns)  over e-bay.  When a reasonable price could not be negotiated, he convinced the owner to donate the trophy to the KVML.  So here it is.  All that remains is for some skilled workman to reattach the gold-toned shooter to the top of the trophy.  Phil questioned the appropriateness of such a gift as KV’s reading of the Second Amendment was probably very narrow. But he relented after being reminded that KV did write about firearms. “Dead-Eye Dick”  comes to mind, with its account of the devastating effects of a casually fired rifle.

Next we dealt with real estate and talked about the former Vonnegut home near 44th and Illinois.  Lorraine handled the sale of the property a few years ago and it is now again on the market.  It would be nice if the Museum could acquire it, but that does not seem to be realistic at this time.

Copies of Nuvo were circulated with book reviews concerning KV.  See appendix if interested.   Notice was also given of the current issue of “Traces” the periodical of the Indiana Historical Society.  It contains a nice portrait of KV – suitable for framing and also features an interesting account of the writing of Shield’s “And So It Goes” by the author’s wife, who did much of the research.  It seems that KV, who now is not in a position to embarrass anyone, can finally get a fair hearing in front of those who decide what is important in our culture and what is not. 

Phil distributed a quote from “Stop Smiling,”  which led to a discussion of Indianapolis’ German Heritage.  Many Germans who came to Indiana were peasant farmers who were forced off the land in the 1830’s and came to the New World for a better life.  Three of my four grandparents were descendants of these immigrants.  Later in the 19th Century, more prosperous Germans came to Indianapolis and had the cash to buy breweries and other such businesses.  KV descended from the latter.

Finally, we got to the book. 

KV seemed to be full of anger and negativity as he neared eighty years of age. His health was bad,  his marriage to Jill crappy, and he had lost the chops to write anything serious.  Yet there are some little rays of sunshine.  Janet, who loves to count, noted that while he bashed 12 people, he had nice things to say about 22 others.  Chris took perverse delight in noting KV’s  observation that our country was being led by bush, dick,  and colon.  Jay held forth on KV’s “lethal “ pessimism. The ending poem of the book “Requiem”  indicates to me that he had drunk too much of the global warming kool-aid.  What was the joke in that piece?

I researched KV’s college commencement speeches and they were much more  hopeful (see appendix).

We moved on to Religion, not knowing that the great atheist Hitchens left this world as we were trying to figure what was up with KV and the Gods.   Phil helped us out with a flyer he had prepared for a talk.  Several  quotes  were therein, the best being KV’s  suggestion for his epitaph:  THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC.   I doubt that that would satisfy Hitch, but there is a tradition among balletomanes and lovers of classical music that God can only reveal himself through the senses.  KV found much to admire in the Sermon on the Mount while the Ten commandments were a little too republican for his taste..  Bill and Lorraine noted that KV was more opposed to organized religion than the concept of Christianity.  KV bagged the mythology of  Christiandom,  while basing the ethical structure of his life on Christianity.  He was, after all, a German Free-Thinker. Kathleen recalled Clement Vonnegut’s remarks at KV’s funeral and believed that KV liked The New Testament of Thomas Jefferson, which was Christianity without the supernatural element.   Bob made the point that Karl Marx’s (no relation) dictum that Religion was the opiate of the people is misinterpreted today as a cynical brush-off of religion.  In fact, when life was more brutish, nastier, and shorter than it is today, religion was a great comfort to people.  On the other hand, it did help keep them in their place.

Karl Marx led us into politics.  Kathleen reminded us that KV had a lot of praise for the people of the mid-west,  though he clearly would rather hang out with bi-coastal types.   Jay noted that socialists were often “freshwater people”.   Those who breathe salt-walter air perhaps are less concerned about their neighbors than the unwashed masses existing in flyover country.   To me, Kurt had lost his critical thinking skills and threw in with the worst of the Democrat demagogues.  Yet, I can’t see him being any happier if the corrupt Florida Supreme Court had elevated the Gorebot to the presidency. Enough of that!

Ten of us voted on the experience of reading “A Man Without A Country.”  On the 1-10 Vonnegut scale the book rated an “8” which is about average for us.  And so it should have gone. 

A bit of history about the book club.  Our first meeting was on an evening in January, 2010. The first book was “Slaughterhouse Five.”  After a few months the time was switched to 11:30AM.  We currently meet on the last Thursday of each month.  The original scheme was to read KV’s 14 novels in chronological order. We have deviated from that to bring in books by authors who influenced KV or were liked by him.  Janet informed us that one of KV’s favorite authors,  Ambrose Bierce, is coming back into fashion and is on the reading list at several middle schools.  Bierce could someday be another diversion from the KV canon. 

Our next meeting will be on  1/26/12 when we will discuss Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.”  Five Weeks for Five Hundred Pages – we can do it!

Appendix:  (Stuff you may not have time to read)

Commencement Speeches

KV gave at least two commencement speeches and, through a hoax, was credited with a third.   All three are available on the internet.   Both show KV at his most hopeful and even touched a flinty old Republican like your scribe.  Common elements in both were Uncle Alex’s little speech after lemonade under the apple tree: “If this isn’t nice,  I don’t know what is,”  and his plea that each graduate remember the teacher that had meant the most to the student and to speak that teacher’s name. Kindergarden counts.

The first was given at Rice University in May 1988 and is much about money.

KV was at a party given by some ultra rich guy and asked Joe Heller, who had just made a shitload of money from “Catch 22,”  how he differed from his host.  Joe said he had “the knowledge that I have enough.”  A second quote was from Mark Twain (whose mustache and frizzy hair may have been a model for KV).  Someone asked Twain “What do we live for?”  and Twain answered,  “The good opinion of our neighbors.”  That fits well into KV’s communitarian philosophy.

The second was for the May 1994 graduation ceremony at Syracuse University.

KV wanted to apologize for the sorry state of the world that confronted the graduates, but he reminded them the planet has always been in a mess and that there never were any “Good Old Days.”  He went on to talk about the virtues of the extended family and even used his fellow Hoosiers,  Dan and Marilyn Quayle as examples of how far one could rise on the strength of family connections.  He concluded with a sappy letter sent to him, a  self-described “sappy life-long Democrat,” by a young woman who wanted to know if it was safe to bring children into this sorry world.  He replied, “what made being alive almost worthwhile for me was the saints I met. They could be almost anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently and honorably in societies which were so often obscene.  Perhaps many of us here, regardless of our ages or power or wealth, can be saints for her child to meet.”   The “almost worthwhile” is chilling, but the overall sentiment goes right to the heart.

The hoax commencement address, supposedly given to MIT by KV in 1997, was actually a spoof address written as a newspaper column by journalist Mary Schmich and appeared in the Chicago Tribune in that year under the title “Wear Sunscreen”.   Her point was that graduates would forget almost all the advice she gave them but “trust me, don’t forget the sunscreen.”   This “speech” has been set to music and has become quite popular.  In the early days of the world wide web, someone copied it and attributed it to KV because of its sardonic and hip attitude.  Schmich got another column out of this when she called KV to discuss this development.  She was surprised when KV answered the phone directly and talked freely with her.  He was aware of her prose poem and graciously praised it, but said it wasn’t exactly his kind of humor.

Nuvo Book Reviews

In the December 14, 2011 edition of  NUVO, Indy’s alternative voice,  David Hoppe (who knew he had it in him?) took on the huge task of reviewing all three of the recent books about KV.  Space apparently did not allow him to list the conventional price and publisher info that we expect with such reviews, but what the hell, you can look it up and who pays list price anyway?

(1) Charles Shields’  “And So It Goes”.  Probably this will will garner the most sales.  It started as an authorized biography but difficulties arose after KV’s death and the lack of cooperation from the Vonnegut family, who were portrayed by Shields and cold and neurotic. The knock on this book is that it does not touch much on his literary life, while personal details are, perhaps, over-researched – if that is possible.  Poor Shields.  His previous effort was the biography of the uber-reclusive Harper Lee, who would have nothing to do with Shields and tried to shut him down.  Apparently nobody ever told Shields what all of us insiders know:  “To Kill a Mockingbird” was really written by Truman Capote.

(2)  Gregory Sumner’s “Unstuck in Time; A Journey Through KV’s Life and Novels take the opposite approach by starting with the body of work and working backwards toward the body of KV, relating his life to the characters in his novels.  This will be more satisfying to those interested in the mechanics of fiction writing.

(3)  Lawrence Broer’s “Vonnegut and Hemingway: Writers at War”.  This disgusted me at first blush, then it appeared to be an interesting exercise – if you have to have something to write about.  Hemingway, who  drove an ambulance in WWI and had to deal with the stench of death, never dropped his bravado about the first industrialized war in which thousands probably died due to the lack of first aid.  KV had to deal with the firebombed corpses in Dresden and he apparently suffered from PTSD the rest of his life.

Anyway, the thing that they had in common was their suicidal intent.   Hemingway, because he had lost the ability to write and could no longer live up to his vastly inflated reputation and KV, for a host of reasons, but probably because the literary world would not take him seriously, despite (or perhaps because of) his commercial success.  Kurt’s suicide attempt came before helost his ability to  carefully craft a joke into a narrative.The pills were not powerful enough and he survived.  Hemingway, always more successful, made sure that his double-barreled shotgun did not fail.

Ewig der Mann der Tat.

Advertisements

4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    December 17, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Enjoyed this post very much, Jay! I need to remember those words!

    Like

  2. Jay said,

    December 17, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    Thanks Dale! I wish you were still in Indy as I think you would really enjoy this group and the meetings. They often make me wish I still worked downtown.
    -Jay

    Like

  3. December 19, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    It’s funny, but I always remember the Vonnegut’s story about how he would have missed out on that lady if he would have bought stamps and envelopes in bulk, shipped to him from the internet.

    My review here: http://eclectic-indulgence.blogspot.com/2009/12/man-without-country-kurt-vonnegut-jr.html

    Will you post a picture of the trophy?

    EI

    Like

    • Jay said,

      December 20, 2011 at 8:29 am

      Hello EI,

      If I were on the ball I would have snapped a shot of it with my camera at the meeting last week. Hopefully I can get one next month at the library.

      -Jay

      Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: