Arts & Entertainment / January 25, 2001

(1)Public Reading Event Article (2)Awards Ceremony Article


ALBANY ---- Kurt Vonnegut Jr. flung his arms in the air and stuck his tongue out while he explained what he says is really going on in society.

"The truth is, we don't know enough about life to know what the good news is and what the bad news is," Vonnegut said. His words softly echoed in the hushed amphitheater.

Vonnegut spoke Monday night at Page Hall on the downtown campus of the University at Albany. Earlier that day, he was inaugurated as the state author by the New York State Writers Institute, and the authors' group invited him to talk about writing.

Thousands of people who crammed into the performing arts center were leaning forward with bulging eyes to listen to Vonnegut. Some stood on their tiptoes in the hallway while craning necks to see over people in front of them. Some squatted out of sight in the fire aisles. Late-comers inched through the doors, wedging elbows between people standing anywhere there weren't seats.

"There's a chalkboard around here somewhere, I don't know if I'm supposed to dig it up," Vonnegut said. The 78-year-old writer turned to look behind him.

Two men carried out a chalkboard, and he assumed a professorial stance while holding a chalk stick in his hand.

He explained that he is an interim writing professor at Smith College, and that he's taught writing at the University of Iowa and Harvard, too.

"What I tell people is, there is no trade any more of writing, of storytelling." He gestured jauntily with his large hands in the air. "But you engage in it anyway, or in painting, in order to make your soul grow."

His glasses gleamed under the lights as he leaned toward the crowd, and he made "O"s with his lips in the hanging alliteration of his last two words.

Writers are people of every profession, Vonnegut said, and he himself studied chemistry at Cornell University before he pursued a master's degree in anthropology.

He said he had a simple formula for writing with simple and beautiful curves that even scientists and computers could understand.

Vonnegut strode over to the chalkboard and drew a vertical line.

"This is the G-I axis," he said. "G is for good fortune, I is for ill fortune."

He stretched his arm to the top of the line and said, "Good wealth, marvelous health."

Then he shrunk his body to point to the bottom of the line.

"Death, disease, poverty," he said.

The audience roared with laughter for perhaps the 20th time.

Vonnegut placed the chalk stick at the middle of the vertical line and drew a horizontal line to the right.

"This is the B-E axis; B is the beginning," he said. "E is for electricity." People were slapping their knees in laughter. The horizontal axis was the story's timeline.

Vonnegut drew lines that drooped and soared while he illustrated the good and bad circumstances of a few stories, like a Franz Kafka novel and Cinderella.

He covered the chalkboard with scribbled story lines. He paused and looked at his audience quizzically.

"What is the greatest treasure we have in our treasured house of English literature?" he said. "'Hamlet'?"

Vonnegut said the details of "Hamlet" couldn't be defined on the simplistic grid he had drawn. The situations were too complex.

For example, revenge for the sake of liberating a murder victim's haunting spirit. Is revenge a good thing or a bad thing?

The main character unwittingly murders someone, and Vonnegut asked, "Does he go to heaven, or does he go to hell?"

Shakespeare gives no indication in his written words, he said.

"I suspect it's quite probable that Shakespeare had the same opinion of heaven and hell that I do," Vonnegut said. "He really doesn't take it seriously."

Vonnegut proclaimed himself a humanist, which means, he said, he behaves as well as he can with no expectation of a reward, or a punishment, in the afterlife.

But if there were a heaven, Vonnegut said, he would like to go there to ask one question: "What was the good news, and what was the bad news?" he said.

He shrugged his shoulders and offered a comical expression.

Our reactions in life are based on what we learn as children, he said, and young people learn by imitating their parents and friends.

"Take a 3-year-old kid," he said. "The parents say to him, 'It's your birthday!' What could be a more empty piece of information?"

The amphitheater filled with laughter.

"But the kid, in order to please his parents, says, 'Blah, blah, blah,'" Vonnegut said sticking his tongue out and flopping his arms in futility.

"And it never stops!" he said.

There were a few examples of how people are taught to root for a particular team, or a certain political candidate. But Vonnegut's voice was almost smothered in a theater full of laughter.

"And so on," he said with a frown. "Good night."


ALBANY ---- Kurt Vonnegut Jr. stood solemnly with his hands clasped in front of more than 60 reporters, writers and bureaucrats Monday afternoon in the baroque Red Room of the Capitol.

Speakers from the governor's office and the New York State Writers Institute acclaimed Vonnegut's works as he was presented with the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for State Author.

"It's my Golden Globe," Vonnegut said.

Vonnegut was born in Indianapolis, Ind. He moved to Schenectady in 1947 when he took a job as a public relations officer for General Electric Co. "I was happy to work for General Electric back then," he said.

Later, he added, "GE poisoned the Hudson River with PCBs."

Some of his novels, including "Player Piano," "Hocus Pocus" and "Cat's Cradle," set a stage for his characters in Ilium, a fictitious town in upstate New York, which Vonnegut said is modeled after Schenectady.

Vonnegut mentions many area towns in his books. His most prominent character, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, lives in Cohoes.

The Capital District connection was stronger when Vonnegut's older brother, Bernard, was a professor at the University at Albany. His brother died in 1997.

Since the early 1980s, Vonnegut has lived in Manhattan and on Long Island.

"By now he is a staunch New Yorker," said George Plimpton, a biographer of literary figures.

Plimpton was the master of ceremonies at a Writers Institute celebration for Vonnegut and state poet John Ashbery on Monday at the University at Albany.

Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when the city was firebombed by British and American planes. The bombing killed 135,000 people, more than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Vonnegut became most well known for his graphic detail of war, including the firebombing of Dresden, in "Slaughterhouse Five."

War experiences and his education in anthropology give his readers a broad perspective of the human condition.

His perceptions are echoed in all of his books, which question the foundation of belief structures and, "the kind of crap parents fill their kids with before sending them off to college," he said.

Kurt Vonnegut
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