22 January 2016

Vonnegut's Worst Year and Best Novel: His Mother, Dresden, and the Price of Art

Kurt Vonnegut's family had money until the Great Depression. Then they didn't. His mother never seemed to reconcile herself to the depressing reality of living without wealth and was particularly devastated when Kurt dropped out of college to enlist in the army as a private.

In May of 1944 - when Kurt was 21 - he came home to visit his family. When he and and his sister went to wake his mother, they discovered that she'd killed herself. On Mother's Day.

In November of 1944, he turned 22. The next month, he was taken prisoner of war by the Nazis and spent Christmas day jammed into a boxcar, traveling to Dresden.

In February, the allies fire bombed Dresden, killing tens of thousands. When he emerged from underground, this is the city he would have walked into. When he first got there, he called it the fanciest city he had ever seen. Then this.

It is hard to imagine a more traumatic year, or one that could end in a way that would so belittle his own personal tragedies. This experience became the basis for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. It was an fabulous novel but that seems likes too high a price to pay for art.

Should you ever hear someone talk about paying a high price for art, just reply, "Well, yeah. But you only had to pay with money."

No comments: