Ferndale Library Hosts Local Vonnegut Biographer's Literary Journey on March 27
Ferndale Reads Keynote Speaker Spotlight; Part 3 (of 3): U-D history professor and published author/biographer discusses the valiant defiance of narrative and certain biographical elements that defy language.
"What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time." -Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (Chapter 5)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is this year’s Ferndale Reads book - which the Ferndale Public Library is encouraging everyone in Ferndale to read this March... Click here for a schedule of special Ferndale-Reads Events.
This year’s keynote speech will feature local Ferndale resident and author, Gregory Sumner. His recent publication, Unstuck in Time, is a journey through Kurt Vonnegut’s life and work. Sumner will speak about Slaughterhouse-Five’s popularity and sign copies of his book.
He also called it a failure. "Short, jangled and jumbled..." and written as though by someone suffering a similarly salty fate as Lot's Wife.
"People aren't supposed to look back," wrote the famed writer who defied labels such as social commentator, sci-fi-invested satirist or humanistic-dark-humorist... (even whilst flirting coyly with each category).
Whatever Vonnegut was, says one of his numerous biographers, Dr. Gregory Sumner, (a local Professor of History at U-D Mercy,) he was also not a "literary type."
"He'd say: I'm a...scientist, or a mechanic. He came from a very unorthodox background and I think he felt an inferiority complex about that, because he hadn't read all the great books you're supposed to read."
He eventually did read all those "classics" like Madame Bovary and what-not, even if it took him until his 40's. Just the same - he eventually did write his "famous Dresden book" and lo and behold, it became his most famous work, to date.
Sumner strikes me when he uses the phrasing: "Accident of time." It echoes. "...a Coincidence."
Slaughterhouse Five is the wobbly and horrific, charming and disconcerting tale of Billy Pilgrim. Our "hero" has, somewhere along the line in his life, become mystically detached from from time-itself and is now stringing his way across a quantamly kinked-up web of his own personal history. Neither in this moment of his life or another, be it birth, death or somewhere in-between, like, particularly, as a malnourished, mal-equipped soldier in the middle of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, in 1943.
"Here's a guy," Sumner says, speaking of Vonnegut, "who actually lived through the apocalypse," Sumner said of Vonnegut, who often sprinkled in countless self-metaphors into his character's lives or mannerisms, thereby giving the aloof Billy Pilgrim a similar fate, witnessing the mad and senseless desetruction of a beautiful city like Dresden.
"He survived...by accident. Through it all, though, (Vonnegut) retained his humanity. He saw monstrous things and did not become a monster."
This book, Slaughterhouse Five, was potentially the most important work he ever set down to write, Sumner said.
"I think he had a higher standard for this book," Sumner said. "And that's why it took him 25 years to write."
A thousand pages were written and then torn up and thrown away. In the first chapter of Slaughter he speaks as himself, detailing the trevails of translating his experience and the struggle of conjuring (horrific/surreal) memories. He even goes so far as to apologize to his publishers within the first 20 pages for delivering "this book" that's not even as thick as a Bobsy Twins romp.
He considered it "a failure..." Sumner clarified, "because there's nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Like a lot of trauma survivors, there was this hole in the middle of his memory."
His artful strategy at wending his way round that "hole" is the crux of Slaughterhouse's ingenius spin on narrative structure (embodied through Billy Pilgrim's strange affliction).
"The Holocaust, the atomic bomb,...certain things defy language," Sumner said. "So he knew that a straight telling of the story just wasn't going to be the way he could do it."
While he began preparing his "war" book in the late 40's, this Greatest Generation/veteran and midwester old folky-type, reared on downhome charm, Twain-ian wit and Laurel & Hardy-type hysterics, wound up catching upon the zeitgeist of 1969, the anti-war movement, particularly.
It is the doomed and droll opera of the anti-hero:
-"There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters." (Slaughterhouse-Five, Ch. 8).
It is a soldier's tale, though, Sumner said. And that's why throughout the 70's, 80's and 90's it became such a popular book among returning veterans. At it's publication, though, it became championed by the anti-war movement and solidified Vonnegut's iconic status as a wickedly-stylized commentator. (Again, though, he would scoff at any attempts to have categorized him).
"It came out and he didn't have high hopes for it," Sumner said. "And it just smashed on the scene like nobody's-business! Even though he denied the importance of "the book" it became a work of international importance. The time was right for the experimental narrative and its message."
Wed. March 13 - 7:30 pm. Movie Night - Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). Rated R.
With Unstuck In Time, Sumner's recently published biography of the late author, we are ferried on a "journey" through his life primarily through his works. Books are unpacked, analyzed and reviewed similar to a study-guide, but enriched by historical / biograhical material that brings new light to the why's and the how's of each work's particular thematic nuances.
In his life, Vonnegut wrote 14 full length novels. He was elected honorary president of the American Humanist Association before his death in 2007. Slaughterhouse-Five, for the record, was potentially the most influential novel that I, personally, have ever read. Easily my favorite "...of all time."
Wed. March 27 – Gregory Sumner, Professor of History, University of Detroit Mercy will speak on the life and writings of Kurt Vonnegut – Ferndale Library – 7:00 pm