Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, Delacorte Press, 436 pages ($35). Some of the claims currently being made for this book are more than a little excessive. The cover blurb actually offers up Vonnegut’s letters “as splendid in their own way as Keats’.” Nor does it carry much weight to say that a 400-page volume of letters functions as the autobiography that Vonnegut never wrote.
Vonnegut’s was not exactly an unwritten life. So much of it found its way into his novels, his commentaries on his novels and his essays that very little attracts readers not already committed fans – and even then they’ll already be more than familiar with both Vonnegut’s life and his somewhat bipolar way of writing about it. (His son Mark described himself as a “monopolar depressive descended from monopolar depressives.” His father, in a 1971 letter to novelist Jose Donoso, said Mark had been diagnosed as a “schizophrenic.”) What was left out was famously included by Mark in his own memoirs.
None of which is to say that Vonnegut wasn’t a singular figure from 1963 on when his book “Cat’s Cradle” vaulted him into another literary class altogether to the end of his life. He would, in a letter, tell an admiring relative that his reputation was a fad, like the hula hoop. In a 2000 letter to Norman Mailer, he complained that “my writing grows clumsier with each passing day.” That Mailer letter continues with a typical Vonnegut aside with a thunderous echo: “Gunter Grass asked me one time when you and I were born, Norman and I said ‘1923’ and ‘1922’ and he said ‘Do you know there is no male your age in Europe for you to talk to?’ ”That, of course, wasn’t accidental or an aside at all but rather a conscious sample of Vonnegut’s literary art. Wit, aphorism, charm, wisdom and joshery abound here as does “monopolar depression” or, at least, something in its neighborhood. Vonnegut’s voice was as unique as his art. It is ominpresent here.
– Jeff Simon