We met to discuss John Hersey’s 1947 non-fiction novel “Hiroshima” via ZOOM.  We had twelve bookclubbers on ten screens!  Participants were:  Jay Carr (our host),  Mark Hudson (our moderator),  Bill Briscoe and Susannah Wendell,  John Sturman and Karen Last, Sarona Burchard, Kathleen Angelone, Ron Elkins, John Hawn,  Gene Helveston, and Dave Young.

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management. 

I should start this summary with a second disclaimer.  I  spent 35 years of my life working with various nuclear weapons programs both in the military and the federal civil service.  Excuse me if I come across as somewhat jaded.  Just call me Cpl. Strangelove.  I never learned how to love the bomb, but I sure as hell learned how to live with it.  

Mark set the stage by telling us that he wanted to talk about this book because the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing is coming up this 

August.  John Hersey, a war correspondent, conceived this book after reading Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,”  which examines the lives of five people killed in a bridge collapse and raises all kinds of existential questions.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize.  Hersey, himself, went on to win a Pulitzer for a later novel “A Bell for Adono.”  In “Hiroshima, Hersey traces the lives of six survivors (two clergymen, two physicians, and two Japanese women – a clerk and a widow) from the moment of the blast until about one year afterwards.

The text of “Hiroshima” first appeared in an August 1946 issue of the New Yorker Magazine.  It was initially planned to be serialized in four installments but the magazine’s brilliant editor William Shawn made a last minute decision to devote a whole issue to the story.  Even the staff was surprised.  Ironically, the magazine cover which had been laid on in advance displayed a tranquil New York playground in its summer glory.  Almost 40 years later, Hersey added a fifth chapter “Aftermath,” in which he updated the six lives.  Unfortunately many of us were cheated out of this chapter as several recent editions chose not to include it.  Those who read Chapter 5 thought it improved the book.

We talked about the concept of total warfare.  Apparently our government knew that American GI’s were being held as prisoners of war in Nagasaki where the second A-bomb hit.  But that didn’t matter.   More people probably died from American fire-bombing of Japanese cities.  Not dramatic enough to get anyone’s attention.  Harry Truman was reportedly kept in the dark about the Manhattan project and didn’t learn about the A-Bomb until FDR’s death in April, 1945.  Some suggested HST was ignorant about the destructive power of the A-bomb and may not have used it if he had only known.  It was said that Truman spared Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, for sentimental reasons.  Even though Japan had been defeated in sea and air, a land war on Japanese soil would have cost thousands of American lives.  Was dropping the bomb a good thing?   Did we really have to drop the second A-bomb on Nagasaki three days later?  Some of us believe that the first bomb might have been necessary but the second bomb was an act of inhumanity.  Did the Japanese know that we only had two A-bombs ready to go?   So the Emperor Hirohito surrendered and cut a deal.  All he asked was that he be allowed to continue his ceremonial role of Emperor.  No Nurenberg trial for him!

John Dower’s critique of post-war Japan,  “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII” (1999),  deals with the way Japan recreated itself during the ten year American Occupation.  Sadly, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the Hibakusha)  were discriminated against by their fellow Japanese.  They were a reminder of a period of shame and had difficulty getting jobs or finding a spouse.  There was an irrational fear that their unborn children would be defective.   Medical care was also a problem as Japan did not have a strong public health system.  Citizens relied on sole practitioners who set up hospitals with 20-30 patients and demanded cash payment.    In 1954, toward the end of the occupation, the Japanese government recognized the problem with the Hibakusha and passed laws to give them some support.

We demonstrated our moral superiority by being offended by an old TV production.Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s will probably remember  creepy Ralph Edwards and his sappy weekly TV Show “This is Your Life.”   His shtick was to invite some unsuspecting subject to his studio on a pretext and then to ambush the subject with people who had made a difference in their lives.  Such an episode occurred in 1955, when survivor Rev.  Tanimoto  came on the show and was confronted by Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay who was overcome with guilt for his role in the bombing.  It was an awkward interface made even worse as Lewis was apparently drunk.  To complete the reality show, Edwards handed out prizes to the participants, remarking that it was the “American Way.”  Through the wonders of technology you  can watch the 30 minute show here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xl3jx5.  Capt. Robert Lewis appears around the 15th minute.

Sarona, who has apparently been watching way too much Fox News, told us about a recent book by Chris Wallace:   “Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World.”   This might answer some of your many questions.

We talked about historiography and how much writing about WWII was propaganda.  Hersey presented his account as fairly straight reportage even though it wasn’t straight non-fiction.  He must have supplemented the survivor’s account of their suffering with his imagination as to their thoughts and actions.  Later in life he took some pride in his contribution to the “New Journalism” and reportedly resented the attention Truman Capote and others received for their “non-fiction” novels.    “Hiroshima” was seen as an antidote to the propaganda America had generated during the war.  Japanese were seen as less than human.  A blindly obedient people who would defend their Emperor to “the last man.”  Indeed, long after the surrender, some Japanese soldiers who did not get the word continued to fight in the more remote islands.  Someone noted that Americans had their own “last man” problem.  Remember the Alamo?  

Hersey’s contribution was to see the Japanese as real flesh and blood people in all their humanity.  They were resourceful and concentrated all their energy on surviving.  The efforts of the women to care for their children under almost impossible conditions were also touching. If Hersey was correct, this was not a time for them to blame the Americans or Hirohito for their plight.  We gave this rather flat and solid work a stunning 9 points on the all-knowing 10 point KV Scale.

Please join us next month at 11AM on Thursday, August 27, 2020 when Susannah will guide us through Margaret Atwood’s  “The Testaments.”   This 2019 novel is a sequel to  “The Handmaid’s Tale.” This will probably be by ZOOM as it is unclear when the KV Memorial Library will reopen.  I will update this blog when information becomes available.

Dave Young

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From: Wikipedia (excerpts)

Hiroshima is a 1946 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey. It tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is regarded as one of the earliest examples of the New Journalism, in which the story-telling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reporting.

The work was originally published in The New Yorker,[1] which had planned to run it over four issues but instead dedicated the entire edition of August 31, 1946, to a single article.[2] Less than two months later, the article was printed as a book by Alfred A. Knopf. Never out of print,[3] it has sold more than three million copies.[1][4] “Its story became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust,” New Yorker essayist Roger Angell wrote in 1995.[1]

Background[edit]

Before writing Hiroshima, Hersey had been a war correspondent in the field, writing for Life magazine and The New Yorker. He followed troops during the invasions of Italy and Sicily during World War II.[5] In 1944, Hersey began working in the Pacific Theater and followed Lt. John F. Kennedy through the Solomon Islands.[6] One of the first Western journalists to view the ruins of Hiroshima after the bombing, Hersey was commissioned by William Shawn of The New Yorker to write articles about the impact of a nuclear explosion by using witness accounts, a subject virtually untouched by journalists.[6] Hersey interviewed many witnesses; he focused his article on six in particular.

Publication in The New Yorker[edit]

The issue of August 31, 1946, arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes bearing a light-hearted cover of a summer picnic in a park. There was no hint what was inside. Hersey’s article began where the magazine’s regular “Talk of the Town” column usually began, immediately after the theater listings. At the bottom of the page, the editors appended a short note: “TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.” One of the few people other than the principal editors of The New Yorker tipped to the forthcoming publication was the magazine’s principal writer E. B. White, to whom Harold Ross confided his plans. “Hersey has written thirty thousand words on the bombing of Hiroshima (which I can now pronounce in a new and fancy way)”, Ross wrote to White in Maine, “one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it … [William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker] wants to wake people up, and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it, if it is done.”[7]

Literary reception[edit]

Hiroshima in ruins, October 1945, two months after the atomic bomb exploded.

Containing a detailed description of the bomb’s effects, the article was a publishing sensation. In plain prose, Hersey described the horrifying aftermath of the atomic device: people with melted eyeballs, or people vaporized, leaving only their shadows etched onto walls.[8] The New Yorker article Hiroshima was an immediate best seller and was sold out at newsstands within hours.[5] Many requests for reprints were received by the magazine’s offices. The ABC Radio Network preempted regular programming to broadcast readings of the complete text by well-known actors in four half-hour programs.[9] Many radio stations abroad did likewise, including the BBC in Britain, where newsprint rationing that continued after the war’s end prevented its publication; Hersey would not permit editing of the piece to cut its length.[3][10] The Book of the Month Club rushed a copy of the article into book format, which it sent to members as a free selection, saying “We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more important [sic] at this moment to the human race.”[3][7]

Published a little more than a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the American public was shown a different interpretation of the Japanese from what had been previously described in the media.[11] The Americans could let go of some of the guilt knowing that the Japanese did not blame them for this terrible act of war.[11] After reading Hiroshima, a Manhattan Project scientist wrote that he wept as he remembered how he had celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb.[11] Scientists along with the American public felt shame and guilt at the suffering of the people of Hiroshima.[11] As voiced by witnesses in Hiroshima, the people of Hiroshima did not blame the Americans for the infliction but instead their own government.[4][12] Many Japanese believe that the dropping of the atomic bomb saved Japan and it was widely thought that the Japanese Government would have destroyed the entire country before losing the war.[11]

The 31,000 word article was published later the same year by Alfred A. Knopf as a book.[13] Hersey’s work is often cited as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism in its melding of elements of non-fiction reportage with the pace and devices of the novel. Hersey’s plain prose was praised by critics as a model of understated narrative. Hersey rarely gave interviews and abhorred going on anything resembling book tours, as his longtime editor Judith Jones recalled. “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima”, wrote Hendrik Hertzberg; “yet Hersey’s reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly.”[14]

The author said he adopted the plain style to suit the story he strove to tell. “The flat style was deliberate”, Hersey said 40 years later, “and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator. I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.”[7]

The founder of The New Yorker Harold Ross told his friend, author Irwin Shaw: “I don’t think I’ve ever got as much satisfaction out of anything else in my life.” But The New Yorker’s publication of Hersey’s article caused trouble with respect to Hersey’s relationship with Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time-Life and Hersey’s first mentor, who felt Hersey should have reported the event for one of Luce’s magazines instead. Despite Luce’s misgivings about Hersey’s choice of The New Yorker to print the Hiroshima story, the magazine’s format and style allowed the author much more freedom in reporting and writing. The Luce publications – Time, Life and Fortune – had nothing similar. Moreover, The New Yorker went to unprecedented lengths to keep the Hersey story secret. The weekly magazine’s top editors observed complete secrecy about the printing of the article. While editors Harold Ross and William Shawn spent long hours editing and deliberating every sentence, the magazine’s staff was not told anything about the forthcoming issue. Staffers were baffled when the normal weekly proofs were not returned, and their inquiries were not answered. Even the advertisement department was deliberately not informed.[7]

Time magazine said about Hiroshima:

Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilization, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr. Hersey. When this magazine article appears in book form the critics will say that it is in its fashion a classic. But it is rather more than that.[11]

The magazine later termed Hersey’s account of the bombing “the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II.”[15]

It was also met with approval by The New Republic which said “Hersey’s piece is certainly one of the great classics of the war”.[16] While the majority of the excerpts praised the article, Mary McCarthy said that “to have done the atomic bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead”.[17] It was quickly a book in the Book-of-the-Month Club; it was distributed for free because of the questions it raised about the humanity of the human race.[18] Hiroshima was also read word for word on the radio by the American Broadcasting Company, amplifying its effects.[2][19]

Publication in Japan[edit]

Although the US military government (headed by Douglas MacArthur)[20] dissuaded publishers from bringing out the book in Japan, small numbers of copies were distributed; in January 1947 Hersey gave a reading in English in Tokyo.[2] A Japanese translation of Hiroshima was first published in 1949 Japan (it has not been out of print since).[5][21][22] According to Gar Alperovitz in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, “Occupation authorities suppressed various accounts of the atomic bombings. A noteworthy instance involved the denial in later 1946 of a request by the Nippon Times to publish John Hersey’s Hiroshima (in English).”[23] MacArthur said in 1948 that despite numerous charges of censorship made against the censors office by the US news media Hiroshima was not banned in Japan.[24]

Outline[edit]

The article begins on the morning of August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped, killing an estimated 135,000 people.[25] The book begins with the following sentence:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

— Hiroshima, John Hersey, 1946[26]

Hersey introduces the six characters: two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a young female factory worker and a German Catholic priest.[27] It describes their mornings before the bomb was dropped. Through the book, the lives of these six people overlap as they share similar experiences. Each chapter covers a time period from the morning of the bombing to one year later for each witness. An additional chapter covering the aftermath 40 years after the bombing was added in later editions.

The six characters are:

Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Tanimoto was 3,500 yards from center. He was pastor at Hiroshima Methodist Church, a small man in stature, “quick to talk, laugh and cry”, weak yet fiery, cautious and thoughtful, educated in theology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, US, speaks excellent English, obsessed with being spied on, Chairman of Neighborhood Association.[4]

Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura

Nakamura was 1,350 yards from explosion center. She is a widow of a tailor who is raising her three children (10-year-old boy Toshio, eight-year-old girl Yaeko, and five-year-old girl Myeko), husband recently died in Singapore in the war effort.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii

Fujii was 1,550 yards from explosion center. He is described as hedonistic, owns private hospital that contains 30 rooms for patients with modern equipment, family living in Osaka and Kyushu, convivial and calm.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge (Makoto Takakura)

Kleinsorge was 1,400 yards from explosion center. Kleinsorge was 38 years old at the time, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, weakened by wartime diet, feels unaccepted by the Japanese people, “thin face, with a prominent Adam’s apple, a hollow chest, dangling hands, big feet.”.[4] His father superior within the mission station is Hugo Lassalle.[28]

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki

Sasaki was 1,650 yards from the center of the explosion. He was 25 years old, a young surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital. He lived with his mother in Mukaihara, an idealist, upset with poor health services and practiced medicine in communities with poor health care without a permit, not related to Miss Toshiko Sasaki.

Miss Toshiko Sasaki (Sister Dominique Sasaki)

Sasaki was 1,600 yards from the center of the explosion. She was 20 years old and engaged to soldier, as well as working as a “clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works”[4]

“A Noiseless Flash”[edit]

This chapter introduces the characters and details the witnesses’ accounts of the morning before and their perception of the explosion of the atomic bomb. The explosion occurred at exactly 8:15 am, local time. Miss Toshiko is at her desk and talking to a fellow employee at the Tin factory when the room filled with ” a blinding light”.[4] and the flash was so powerful that it pushed over a bookshelf crushing Miss Toshiko’s leg while she went unconscious. She was covered with a bookshelf while the building collapsed around her. While sitting on his porch, Dr. Masakuza Fujii witnessed a “brilliant yellow” flash and toppled into the river.[4] He injured his shoulder severely. After returning to her home from a safe area, Mrs. Nakamura saw a flash “whiter than any white she had” seen before.[4] She was thrown into the next room while her children were buried in debris. While reading his morning paper, Father Wilhem Kleinsorge witnesses a “terrible flash … [like] a large meteor colliding with the earth”.[4] He found himself in the vegetable garden of the missionary with only small cuts. Standing alone in a corridor, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki saw a “gigantic photographic flash”.[4] The explosion ripped the hospital apart but Dr. Sasaki remained untouched except his glasses and shoes had been blown off his body. Dr. Sasaki was now the only doctor to be unhurt in the hospital and the hospital was quickly filled with patients. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto saw a “tremendous flash of light cut across the sky”.[4] Tanimoto threw himself against a wall of his home and felt pressure, splinters, and debris falls on him.

“The Fire”[edit]

Chapter 2 documents the time immediately after the explosion where the fires are spreading and the witnesses are trying to save others and find safety for themselves. Immediately after the explosion, Reverend Tanimoto ran in search of his family and parishioners. He puts aside the search for his family when he comes across people in need of help and then resumes the search for his family. Mrs. Nakamura travels with her children and neighbor to Asano Park at the Jesuit mission house. Mrs. Nakamura and her children are continuously vomiting. Father Kleinsorge is found wandering the mission grounds with numerous pieces of glass in his back. Father Kleinsorge ran into his room and grabbed a first aid kit and his suitcase containing money and paperwork of the mission. Father Kleinsorge and others go out and bring food back for everyone at Asano Park.

Dr. Fujii’s hospital was in the nearby river while he was trapped between its beams, unable to move. Dr. Fujii looks at the city and calls it “an endless parade of misery”.[4] Dr. Sasaki “worked without method” in deciding which patient would receive care next.[4] Patients filled every inch of the hospital. People were throwing up everywhere. He became like a robot, repeating treatment on patient after patient. Miss Sasaki still lies unconscious under the bookshelf and crumbled building. Her leg is only severely broken. She is propped up alongside two badly wounded people and left. Father Kleinsorge sets off for Asano Park. Mr. Tanimoto has crossed town to find his family and parishioners. He apologizes to the wounded as he passes by for not being injured. Only out of luck does he run into his wife and child on the banks of the Ōta River. They split up so that she may return to Ushida and he may take care of the church.

“Details are Being Investigated”[edit]

Chapter three chronicles the days after the dropping of the bomb, the continuing troubles faced by the survivors, and the possible explanations for the massive devastation that the witnesses come across.

On August 12, the Nakamuras continued to be sick and discovered the rest of their family had perished. Mr. Tanimoto continues to ferry people from one side of the river to the other in hopes of bringing them to safety from the fires. Father Kleinsorge, weakened by his injuries and previous illness, remains in the Park. He is finally welcomed by the Japanese and no longer feels like a foreigner. Dr. Fujii sleeps on the floor of his destroyed family’s home. His left clavicle is broken and is covered in many deep cuts. Ten thousand wounded have shown up at the Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Sasaki is still trying to attend to as many people as possible. All that can be done is to put saline on the worst burns. Dead patients were lying everywhere. Miss Sasaki is still left with no help outside the factory. Finally friends come to locate her body and she is transferred to a hospital.

At the end of the chapter, on August 15, the war is over.

“Panic Grass and Feverfew”[edit]

It has been twelve days since the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Four square miles of the city had been completely destroyed. Since the bombing, Hiroshima has been flooded which continued chaos and destruction. Many people are now developing radiation sickness and a hatred for the Americans has been festering but decreased once Hiroshima was designated to have safe radiation levels. Father Kleinsorge’s wounds were examined and found to have reopened and become inflamed. Even into September, Father Kleinsorge is getting worse. He was taken to the hospital for a high fever, anemia and low leukocyte levels. Mrs. Nakamura still felt nauseated and her hair began to fall out. Once given the okay that the radiation levels in Hiroshima were acceptable and her appearance was presentable, she returned to her home to retrieve her sewing machine but it was rusted and ruined. Mr. Tanimoto also fell ill without any notice. His fever reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit and he was given Vitamin B1 injections to combat the radiation disease. Miss Sasaki remains hospitalized and in pain. The infection has prevented doctors from being able to set her fractured leg. She was discharged from the hospital at the end of April but was severely crippled. Dr. Fujii is still living in a friend’s summer home and his injuries have progressed well. He has been noting that many survivors are continuing to experience strange problems. He bought a new clinic in a Hiroshima suburb and once healed began a successful practice. Dr. Sasaki has been studying the progression of patients and assigned three stages to the disease. After six months, the Red Cross Hospital began to function normally. He remained the only surgeon on staff but finally had time to get married in March.

One year after the bombing, Miss Sasaki was a cripple; Mrs. Nakamura was destitute; Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he had once done; Dr. Fujii had lost the thirty-room hospital it took him many years to acquire, and no prospects of rebuilding it; Mr. Tanimoto’s church had been ruined and he no longer had his exceptional vitality.[4]

“The Aftermath”[edit]

This chapter was added forty years after the initial publication in The New Yorker.[1]:p66 It appeared in the July 15, 1985 issue of The New Yorker.[6] Hersey returned to Hiroshima to learn what has become of the six survivors. His record of what he found became chapter 5 in subsequent editions of the book.[5] The survivors of the Hiroshima bombing are now referred to as hibakusha (explosion-affected people). The Japanese initially refused to take any responsibility for the American atomic bombing or the population affected. The victims were discriminated against, and many employers refused to hire a hibakusha because they could not work as hard. Their exposure, called “A-bomb sickness” in Japan, left them with chronic weakness, dizziness and digestive issues, among others. In 1954, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 contamination incident created a political movement for the hibakusha and created the A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law. This law allowed for medical attention for the hibakusha and a monthly allowance for them.

For a time, Mrs. Nakamura made only enough income to get by and feed her family. She fell ill and could no longer work. To receive treatment, she was forced to sell her sewing machine. She worked odd jobs like delivering bread where she could take three or four days off to recover before working again. She continued to earn just enough to survive. She worked at a mothball factory for 13 years but did not immediately sign up for her health allowance through the A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law. She was invited to be a member of the Bereaved Family Association and traveled the world.

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, who suffered no side effects from the bombing, was haunted by the images of the Red Cross Hospital after the bombing. In 1951, Dr. Sasaki quit working at the Red Cross Hospital. He started his own practice in his hometown and normally performed simple surgeries. He decided to build a geriatric hospital. He continued to regret not keeping better track of all the cremated bodies at the hospital.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge continued to suffer from radiation exposure. In 1958, he was named the priest at a much larger church in another part of town. He became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Father Makoto Takakura. He fell into a coma and died on November 19, 1977. There were always fresh flowers on his grave.

Toshiko Sasaki was abandoned by her fiancé after being left crippled. Over a 14-month period she underwent orthopedic surgery to improve the condition of her leg. After working in an orphanage for five years, she became a nun with the Society of the Helpers of Holy Souls. Taking her final vows in 1953, she adopted the name of Sister Dominique. She was quickly noticed for her potential and made a director of the Garden of St. Joseph, an old people’s home. She retired in 1978 and was rewarded with a trip to the Holy See. She did volunteer work and spent two years as Mother Superior at Misasa, where she had undergone her novitiate.

In 1948, Dr. Fujii built a new medical practice in Hiroshima. He was lucky and faced no long-lasting effects of the A-bomb sickness. Dr. Fujii died on January 12, 1973.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto continued to preach the gospel to the people rebuilding in Hiroshima. He was brought to the United States by the Methodist Board of Missions to raise money for his church. On March 5, 1949, his memorandum, Hiroshima Ideas, was published. In 1950, he returned to America for his second speaking tour. On this trip, he spoke to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Because of his worldwide tours, he was nicknamed “The A-bomb minister”. In 1955, he returned to America with more Hiroshima Maidens, women who were school-age girls when they were seriously disfigured as a result of the bomb’s thermal flash, and who went to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. During this trip, he appeared on This Is Your Life with Ralph Edwards. He was surprised to meet Captain Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay.

Lasting impact[edit]

The publication of the article placed Hiroshima and the atomic bomb at the heart of the nuclear war debate. In Hiroshima in History and Memory, Michael J. Hogan writes that Hiroshima created a realization of the magnitude of the event and an entrance into the analysis of the event.[29] It put forward three issues that before had not been faced: the force of modern science, the bomb and the future of nuclear weapons.[29]

The events of the dropping of the atomic bomb live in the psyche of everyone and were brought to gruesome light by Hersey.[29] Hiroshima has and will continue to be “part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust”.[30] The effects of the radiation sickness have continued to be a concern for the world and the safety of nuclear power.[31] These concerns have resurfaced since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor incident.[31] The images brought to the public after the publishing of Hiroshima were revived in the world’s eyes.[31][32]

The grotesque images depicted in Hiroshima led the way for a new wave of science fiction literature. A wave of “future-war” stories such as Flash Gordon are “narrated from the point of view of an ‘everyman’ who witnesses the invasion of his country first hand. As the narrators struggle to survive, we get to witness the horror of the attack through their eyes, and come to loathe the enemy aliens that have so cruelly and unjustly invaded their country.”[2]

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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met via ZOOM for ninety minutes and had a well-attended and rousing discussion of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague.”   We were led by the very knowledgeable John Sturman, who informed us about the various forms of plague and helped us relate them to the current COVID-19 crisis.  Those joining in were Celia Latz, Mark Hudson, Ron Elkins, Susan Wendell, Bill Briscoe, Kathleen Angelone, Jay Carr, Sarona Burchard, and Dave Young.

This less than cheerful novel opens with the mysterious death of hordes of rats, who come out of the sewers to die in heaps in the filthy gutters of Oran.  The high point of this 308 page novel seems to come on page 265, when the rats return to be welcomed by the citizens as a sign that the plague is almost over after almost a year of misery.

After our update on yersinia pestsis, we focused on the Algerian port city of Oran, Algeria’s second city located about 200 miles southwest of Algiers.  Camus was born there in 1913 and lived there as a pied noir (except for periods of education in Algiers) until the Nazis set up the Vichy regime in 1940 at which time he fled to Paris.  Paris soon fell also and he was trapped there until the end of the war.  During the war he was active in La Resistance, primarily as a writer.   Camus lived another twenty years in France before dying in an automobile wreck in 1960 at the age of 47.

Camus spends a lot of time describing Oran’s unappealing landscape.  Hot, dry, and colorless, the city is at sea level and there is little view of the great natural harbor.  In 1940, there were about 200,000 souls living in Oran, half of them European settlers or their descendants (the pied noir) and half a mix of Arab and Berber,  who were treated as second-class French Citizens.  We noted that Camus barely mentioned Arabs or women.

Later in the novel, Camus speaks of the city gates which are closed to prevent the citizens of Oran from escaping.  We thought that Camus was probably taking artistic license as it seemed unlikely that such a remote city would have walls or gates at this time in history.  The novel is set in the 1940’s and does not describe any historical event, although Oran had been ravaged by many plagues in its long history.

Camus is usually lumped in with others as an “existentialist,” a categorization that has become so broad that it has little meaning.  He preferred to be called an “absurdist.”  For an absurdist, the human condition is to constantly search for meaning  in a life which is essential meaningless.  The rational man addresses this problem in one of three ways, all of which are illustrated by characters in “The Plague.”   The first is suicide, the solution Cottard attempts because he is confused about his role.  The second is a “leap to faith” such as that taken by Father Panelouxz who decides that clarity demands an absolute choice between everything and nothing.  He chooses to go with an unquestioning belief in Catholic doctrine.  The third choice, taken by the narrator,  Dr. Rieux, is to accept the absurdity and to continue on the life course one has chosen.  He completely dedicates himself to his medical profession.  

Right in the middle of the book, Camus indulges in a little metafiction.   Drawing on his earlier experience as a producer of plays, he has two of his characters go to a performance of Gluck’s”Orpheus.”  In the opera as in legend, Orpheus descends into Hell to rescue his lover, Eurydice.  On the way back to the surface, the actor portraying Orpheus is overcome by the plague and pitches himself into the orchestra pit.  The audience flees in terror. Art imitates life.

What does this novel have to say about tyranny?  Tyranny is a theme in this novel but never well developed.  Living under Nazi rule, Camus certainly would have had some opinions.  We have become so accustomed to big government that what seems understated today was perhaps damning seventy years ago.   “Never let a crisis go to waste” so allegedly said Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel.   The municipal government of Oran uses the plague to tightly control the populace, yanking families apart in quarantines, shooting those who try to exit the city’s gates.  Even the good Dr. Rieux is a tool of the state as he determines which family members must be taken away to buildings requisitioned for quarantine.   The only functionary mentioned is M. Othon, a magistrate whose son dies an agonizing death described in detail.  Like Rieux, Othon is a man committed to his work and does not resist the establishment.   Everyone, except Rambert, is passive in the face of authority.   Rambert, a writer who was visiting Oran and was trapped when the plague erupted, desperately wants to return to France and his lover.  After plans for his escape are laboriously put into motion, he has a change of heart and decides to stay with the people of Oran for the duration of the plague.  There was some talk of masks.  On page 207, Tarrou gives Rambert a sterilized mask of cotton wool encased in muslin.  “The journalist asked if it was really any use.  Tarrou said no, but it inspired confidence in others.”  And here we are today!

The novel ends on this baleful note: “…[Yersinia Pestis] never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”  What would Kurt think of this?  We know he hated semi-colons.

We voted this work an 7.8 on the immaculately conceived KV ten point scale.  Most agreed that it was not a fun read, but was timely and thought-provoking.…..Susie and Bill announced their recent marriage.  In better times we would have taken them to lunch, but oh well!

The Vonnegut Library does not intend to re-open until August, so our next gathering in July will also be via ZOOM.    We hope that we will be able to do a hybrid format after we resume in-person meetings so that we can stay in touch with Karen and John who will be permanently relocating to California and Sarona whose Hoosier roots have been transplanted to Phoenix.   So we will meet at 11AM on Thursday, July 23, 2020 via ZOOM to discuss John Hersey’s 1946 “non-fiction” novel  “Hiroshima.”  It is mercifully short and the print is large.  Another work of death and destruction!   Please join us.  The link to join the meeting via ZOOM (thanks to Jay Carr) is: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89613724168.

Dave Young

Excerpt from Wikipedia

The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story from the point of view of an unknown narrator of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The novel presents a snapshot of life in Oran as seen through the author’s distinctive absurdist point of view.[1]

Camus used as source material the cholera epidemic that killed a large proportion of Oran’s population in 1899, but situated the novel in the 1940s.[2] Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease several times before Camus published his novel. According to an academic study, Oran was decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks (in 1921 – 185 cases, 1931 – 76 cases, and 1944 – 95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.[3]

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus’ objection to the label.[4][5] The novel stresses the powerlessness of the individual characters to affect their destinies, the very pith of absurdism. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka’s, especially in The Trial, whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings; the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage.[citation needed]

  • Dr. Bernard Rieux: Dr. Bernard Rieux is described as a man about age 35, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair. At the beginning of the novel, Rieux’s wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic. However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realise the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town’s population of two hundred thousand within a couple of months.
  • During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims. He injects serum and lances the abscesses, but there is little more that he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on. It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person’s home because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often, the relatives plead with him not to do so since they know they may never see the person again.
  • Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, like Paneloux (Rieux does not believe in God), or as part of a high-minded moral code, like Tarrou. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, but he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.
  • Jean Tarrou: Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out for unknown reasons. He is not there on business since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot. Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which the Narrator incorporates into the narrative.
  • It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague. He wants to do so before the authorities begin to conscript people, and he does not like the official plan to get prisoners to do the work. He takes action, prompted by his own code of morals; he feels that the plague is everybody’s responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty. What interests him, he tells Rieux, is how to become a saint even though he does not believe in God.    Later in the novel, Tarrou tells Rieux, with whom he has become friends, the story of his life. His father, although a kind man in private, was also an aggressive prosecuting attorney who tried death penalty cases, arguing strongly for the death penalty to be imposed. As a young boy, Tarrou attended one day of a criminal proceeding in which a man was on trial for his life. However, the idea of capital punishment disgusted him. After he left home before 18, his main interest in life was his opposition to the death penalty, which he regarded as state-sponsored murder. However, years of activism, and fighting for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War have left him disillusioned.   When the plague epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims but puts up a heroic struggle before dying.
  • Raymond Rambert: Raymond Rambert is a journalist who is visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town. When the plague strikes, he finds himself trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection. He misses his girlfriend who is in Paris and uses all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to persuade the city bureaucracy to allow him to leave. When that fails, he contacts smugglers, who agree to help him escape for a fee of ten thousand francs. However, there is a hitch in the arrangements, and by the time another escape plan is arranged, Rambert has changed his mind. He decides to stay in the city and continue to help fight the plague, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he pursued a merely private happiness. He now feels that he belongs in Oran, and that the plague is everyone’s business, including his.
  • Joseph Grand: Joseph Grand is a fifty-year-old clerk for the city government. He is tall and thin. Poorly paid, he lives an austere life, but he is capable of deep affection. In his spare time, Grand polishes up his Latin, and he is also writing a book, but he is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the first sentence and can get no further. One of his problems in life is that he can rarely find the correct words to express what he means. Grand tells Rieux that he married while still in his teens, but overwork and poverty took their toll (Grand did not receive the career advancement that he had been promised), and his wife Jeanne left him. He tried but failed to write a letter to her, and he still grieves for his loss.   Grand is a neighbor of Cottard, and it is he who calls Rieux for help, when Cottard tries to commit suicide. When the plague takes a grip on the town, Grand joins the team of volunteers, acting as general secretary, recording all the statistics. Rieux regards him as “the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups.” Grand catches the plague himself and asks Rieux to burn his manuscript, but then makes an unexpected recovery. At the end of the novel, Grand says he is much happier; he has written to Jeanne and made a fresh start on his book.
  • Cottard: Cottard lives in the same building as Grand. He does not appear to have a job and is described as having private means although he describes himself as “a traveling salesman in wines and spirits.” Cottard is an eccentric figure, silent and secretive, who tries to hang himself in his room. Afterwards, he does not want to be interviewed by the police since he has committed a crime by attempting suicide and fears arrest.
  • Cottard’s personality changes after the outbreak of plague. Whereas he was aloof and mistrustful before, he now becomes agreeable and tries hard to make friends. He appears to relish the coming of the plague, and Tarrou thinks it is because he finds it easier to live with his own fears now that everyone else is in a state of fear, too. Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor.
  • As the epidemic wanes, Cottard’s mood fluctuates. Sometimes he is sociable, but at other times, he shuts himself up in his room. Eventually, he loses his mental balance and shoots at random at people on the street, wounding some and killing a dog. The police arrest him.
  • Father Paneloux: Father Paneloux is a learned, well-respected Jesuit priest. He is well known for having given a series of lectures in which he championed a pure form of Christian doctrine and chastised his audience about their laxity. During the first stage of the plague outbreak, Paneloux preaches a sermon at the cathedral. He has a powerful way of speaking, and he insists to the congregation that the plague is a scourge sent by God to those who have hardened their hearts against him. However, Paneloux also claims that God is present to offer succor and hope. Later, Paneloux attends at the bedside of Othon’s stricken son and prays that the boy may be spared. After the boy’s death, Paneloux tells Rieux that although the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained, it should nonetheless be accepted. Paneloux joins the team of volunteer workers and preaches another sermon saying that the death of the innocent child is a test of faith. Since God willed the child’s death, so the Christian should will it, too. A few days after preaching this sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. He refuses to call for a doctor, trusting in God alone, and dies. Since his symptoms did not seem to resemble those of the plague, Rieux records his death as a “doubtful case.”

Minor characters[edit]

  • The Narrator: the narrator presents himself at the outset of the book as witness to the events and privy to documents, but does not identify himself with any character until the ending of the novel.
  • The Prefect: The Prefect believes at first that the talk of plague is a false alarm, but on the advice of his medical association, he authorizes limited measures to combat it. When they do not work, he tries to avoid responsibility, saying he will ask the government for orders. Then, he takes responsibility for tightening up the regulations relating to the plague and issues the order to close the town.
  • Dr. Castel: Dr. Castel is one of Rieux’s medical colleagues and is much older than Rieux. He realizes after the first few cases that the disease is bubonic plague and is aware of the seriousness of the situation. He works hard to make an antiplague serum, but as the epidemic continues, he shows increasing signs of wear and tear.
  • M. Othon: M. Othon is a magistrate in Oran. He is tall and thin and, as Tarrou observes in his journal, “his small, beady eyes, narrow nose, and hard, straight mouth make him look like a well-brought-up owl.” Othon treats his wife and children unkindly, but after his son dies of the plague, his character softens. After he finishes his time at the isolation camp, where he is sent because his son is infected, he wants to return there because it would make him feel closer to his lost son. However, before Othon can do this, he contracts the plague and dies.
  • Philippe Othon: Philippe Othon is M. Othon’s young son. When he contracts the plague, he is the first to receive Dr. Castel’s antiplague serum. But the serum is ineffective, and the boy dies after a long and painful struggle.
  • Mme. Rieux: Mme. Rieux is Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him when his sick wife goes to the sanatorium. She is a serene woman who, after taking care of the housework, sits quietly in a chair. She says that at her age, there is nothing much left to fear.
  • Dr. Richard: Dr. Richard is chairman of the Oran Medical Association. He is slow to recommend any action to combat the plague for fear of public alarm. He does not want even to admit that the disease is the plague, referring instead to a “special type of fever.”
  • M. Michel: M. Michel is the concierge of the building in which Rieux lives. An old man, he is the first victim of the plague.
  • Raoul: Raoul is the man who agrees, for a fee of ten thousand francs, to arrange for Rambert to escape. He introduces Rambert to Gonzales.
  • Gonzales: Gonzales is the smuggler who makes the arrangements for Rambert’s escape and bonds with him over football.
  • Asthma Patient: the asthma patient receives regular visits from Dr. Rieux. He is a seventy-five-year-old Spaniard with a rugged face, who comments on events in Oran that he hears about on the radio and in the newspapers. He sits in his bed all day and measures the passing of time by putting peas from one jug into another.
  • Louis: Louis is one of the sentries who take part in the plan for Rambert to escape.
  • Marcel: Marcel, Louis’s brother, is also a sentry who is part of the escape plan for Rambert.
  • Garcia: Garcia is a man who knows the group of smugglers in Oran. He introduces Rambert to Raoul.

Plot summary[edit]

The text of The Plague is divided into five parts.

Part one[edit]

“… Dr Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle …”

In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially unnoticed by the populace, begin to die in the streets. Hysteria develops soon afterward, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.

The main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building’s concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Dr. Castel, about the illnesuntil they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic. Meanwhile, Rieux’s wife has been sent to a sanatorium in another city, to be treated for an unrelated chronic illness.

Authorities, including the Prefect, are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A “special ward” is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined; corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is enough to treat only existing cases, and the country’s emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed, and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.

Part two[edit]

The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to “urgent” calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.

One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his wife in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some underground criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God punishing the citizens’ sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves but would not have done so under normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide but fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Jean Tarrou, a vacationer; Joseph Grand, a civil engineer; and Dr. Rieux, exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.  Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that there are others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, who have loved ones outside the city whom they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and offers to help Rieux fight the epidemic until he leaves town.

Part three[edit]

In mid-August, the situation continues to worsen. People try to escape the town, but some are shot by armed sentries. Violence and looting break out on a small scale, and the authorities respond by declaring martial law and imposing a curfew. Funerals are conducted with more speed, no ceremony and little concern for the feelings of the families of the deceased. The inhabitants passively endure their increasing feelings of exile and separation. Despondent, they waste away emotionally as well as physically.

Part four[edit]

In September and October, the town remains at the mercy of the plague. Rieux hears from the sanatorium that his wife’s condition is worsening. He also hardens his heart regarding the plague victims so that he can continue to do his work. Cottard, on the other hand, seems to flourish during the plague because it gives him a sense of being connected to others, since everybody faces the same danger. Cottard and Tarrou attend a performance of Gluck‘s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, but the actor portraying Orpheus collapses with plague symptoms during the performance.After extended negotiations with guards, Rambert finally has a chance to escape, but he decides to stay, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he left.  Towards the end of October, Castel’s new antiplague serum is tried for the first time, but it cannot save the life of Othon’s young son, who suffers greatly, as Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou tend to his bedside in horror.  Paneloux, who has joined the group of volunteers fighting the plague, gives a second sermon. He addresses the problem of an innocent child’s suffering and says it is a test of a Christian’s faith since it requires him either to deny everything or believe everything. He urges the congregation not to give up the struggle but to do everything possible to fight the plague.A few days after the sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. His symptoms do not conform to those of the plague, but the disease still proves fatal.Tarrou and Rambert visit one of the isolation camps, where they meet Othon. When Othon’s period of quarantine ends, he chooses to stay in the camp as a volunteer because this will make him feel less separated from his dead son. Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life and, to take their mind off the epidemic, the two men go swimming together in the sea. Grand catches the plague and instructs Rieux to burn all his papers. However, Grand makes an unexpected recovery, and deaths from the plague start to decline.

Part five[edit]

By late January the plague is in full retreat, and the townspeople begin to celebrate the imminent opening of the town gates. Othon, however, does not escape death from the disease. Cottard is distressed by the ending of the epidemic from which he has profited by shady dealings. Two government employees approach him, and he flees. Despite the epidemic’s ending, Tarrou contracts the plague and dies after a heroic struggle. Rieux is later informed via telegram that his wife has also died.

In February, the town gates open and people are reunited with their loved ones from other cities. Rambert is reunited with his wife. Cottard goes mad and shoots at people from his home, and is soon arrested after a brief skirmish with the police. Grand begins working on his novel again. The narrator of the chronicle reveals his identity and states that he tried to present an objective view of the events. He reflects on the epidemic and declares he wrote the chronicle “to simply say what we learn in the midst of plagues : there are more things to admire in men than to despise”.

Critical analysis[edit]

Germaine Brée has characterised the struggle of the characters against the plague as “undramatic and stubborn”, and in contrast to the ideology of “glorification of power” in the novels of André Malraux, whereas Camus’ characters “are obscurely engaged in saving, not destroying, and this in the name of no ideology”.[6] Lulu Haroutunian has discussed Camus’ own medical history, including a bout with tuberculosis, and how it informs the novel.[7] Marina Warner has noted the lack of female characters and the total absence of Arab characters in the novel, but also notes its larger philosophical themes of “engagement”, “paltriness and generosity”, “small heroism and large cowardice”, and “all kinds of profoundly humanist problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and mutual connection”.[8].  Thomas L Hanna and John Loose have separately discussed themes related to Christianity in the novel, with particular respect to Father Paneloux and Dr Rieux.[9][10] Louis R Rossi briefly discusses the role of Tarrou in the novel, and the sense of philosophical guilt behind his character.[11] Elwyn Sterling has analysed the role of Cottard and his final actions at the end of the novel.[12]

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met again via ZOOM to discuss Arthur Koestler’s 1940 dystopian novel “Darkness at Noon.”    Karen Lystra led the discussion from sunny California.  Not being in the Indiana time zone,  she arose early to join us.   Others participating were John Sturman, Jay Carr,  Bill Briscoe,  Mark Hudson, Suzanne Wendell, Kathleen Angelone and Dave Young.  The ZOOM experience was again flawless, but ZOOM has limits as to what it will provide for free, so we were unexpectedly limited to 40 minutes of air time, ten of which was wasted on getting started.  Next month, through the generosity of one of our own we will have access to a paid ZOOM account and should be able to ramble on for our accustomed 90 minute session.

Well, the novel was certainly dark.  It was set in a prison replete with deprivation and torture and the protagonist was resigned to his certain demise, he just didn’t know when.  Nevertheless, the work was well written and those who stuck with it called it a “page turner.”  Karen gave us the background of the novel and put out a series of questions.  We did not know until we were half-way into our session that the clock was running, so our discussion was truncated.  

The main character and unfortunate soul, Rubashov, had been an “Old Bolshevik” who had run afoul of the new way of running things in the USSR.  He had much to atone for as he had betrayed and killed many because of his idealistic devotion to the Soviet state.  Twenty years had passed since the revolution and the “dictatorship of the proletariat” was no where in sight.  A major theme of the novel is the tension between the individualist “I” and the collectivist “we.”  

Koestler was careful not to name names in this work and it is easy to assume that he did not mention Stalin, Hitler, or the names of his fellow prisoners out of fear for his own life at the outbreak of WWII.  But the effect of moving from the specific to the general was to make us think of these themes on a larger stage.  We, in America, are also living in troubled times and individualism is again under assault.

Rubashov’s execution was a certainty, so there was no suspense.  It was just a matter of time.  We examined the last paragraph of the novel and compared the recent translation to the original, hasty, translation of 1940.    “A second, shattering blow hit him on the ear.  Then all went still. The sea rushed on.  A wave gently lifted him up.  It came from afar and travelled serenely onward, a shrug of infinity.”   A more poetic rendering of a well-written novel as its ill-fated protagonist shuffles off this mortal coil.

We gave this work a very solid 9.0 on the fabulous KV ten point scale before being unceremoniously dumped by ZOOM.  In all fairness they did show us a countdown clock so it wasn’t a big surprise.

Our next venture into dystopia (has this become our club’s raison d’être?) will be the Albert Camus 1946 novel “The Plague,” a timely piece for the dark days we are living in.   Meet us on ZOOM at 11AM (EDT) on Thursday, June  25, 2020.   Thanks to Jay, who will be our ZOOM host, the hook-up link is:  https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84054100402.  [Updated 6/20/20 – DEY].

Dave Young

***************************************

Summary excerpted from WikiPedia

Darkness at Noon (German: Sonnenfinsternis) is a novel by Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, first published in 1940. His best known work, it is the tale of Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik who is arrested, imprisoned, and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create.

The novel is set in 1939 during the Stalinist Great Purge and Moscow show trials. Despite being based on real events, the novel does not name either Russia or the USSR, and tends to use generic terms to describe people and organizations: for example the Soviet government is referred to as “the Party” and Nazi Germany is referred to as “the Dictatorship”. Joseph Stalin is represented by “Number One”, a menacing dictator. The novel expresses the author’s disillusionment with the Bolshevik ideology of the Soviet Union at the outset of World War II.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Darkness at Noon number eight on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, even though Koestler wrote it in German.

Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon as the second part of a trilogy: the first volume was The Gladiators (1939), first published in Hungarian. It was a novel about the subversion of the Spartacus revolt. The third novel was Arrival and Departure (1943), about a refugee during World War II. Koestler, who was by then living in London, rewrote that novel in English after the original German version had been lost.[citation needed]

Darkness at Noon was written in German while Koestler was living in Paris. Koestler’s companion, the sculptor Daphne Hardy, hastily translated it into English during early 1940 while she was living in Paris with him. For decades the German text was thought to have been lost during the escape of Koestler and Hardy from Paris in May 1940, just before the German occupation of France. However, a copy had been sent to Swiss publisher Emil Oprecht. Rupert Hart-Davis, Koestler’s editor at Jonathan Cape in London had misgivings about the English text but agreed to publish it when a request to Oprecht for his copy went unanswered.[1] At Hart-Davis’ prompting, and unable to reach Koestler, Hardy changed the title from The Vicious Circle to Darkness at Noon.[1] The new title is a reference to Job 5:14: “They meet with darkness in the daytime, and grope in the noonday as in the night”- a description of the moral dilemmas faced by the book’s protagonist, as well as Koestler’s own escape from the Nazis.[2] In August 2015, Oprecht’s copy was identified in a Zurich library by a doctoral candidate of the University of Kassel.[1][3] The original German manuscript was published as Sonnenfinsternis (Solar Eclipse) in May 2018 by Elsinor Verlag.[4] A new professional English translation based on the newfound text was published in 2019.[5]

In his introduction to the 2019 translation, Koestler biographer Michael Scammell writes that a fresh translation was desirable because Hardy’s, though ″serving the novel well for over seven decades,″ had difficulties. ″She had been forced by circumstances to work in haste, with no dictionaries or other resources available for consultation, which exposed her understandable lack of familiarity with the Soviet and Nazi machinery of totalitarianism. … The text she worked on was not quite final either. … It seemed that a fresh and up-to-date translation of the novel would be helpful, preferably by a seasoned translator with the knowledge and experience to clarify the jargon of Marxism-Leninism and present it in terminology that is both accurate and makes sense to an English-speaking reader.″ Philip Boehm, Scammell writes, ″proved the ideal choice for the job.″

In his autobiographical The Invisible Writing (1954), Koestler states that he finished Darkness at Noon in April 1940, after many troublesome months of 1939, caused mainly by financial difficulties and the later outbreak of World War II. Koestler notes: “The first obstacle was that, half-way through the book, I again ran out of money. I needed another six months to finish it, and to secure the necessary capital I had to sacrifice two months -April and May 1939- to the writing of yet another sex book ( L’Encyclopédie de la famille), the third and last. Then, after three months of quiet work in the South of France, came the next hurdle: on September 3 the War broke out, and on October 2 I was arrested by the French police.” Koestler, then, describes the unfolding of what he calls ‘Kafkaesque events’ in his life; spending four months in the concentration camp in the Pyrenees and being released in January 1940, only to be continuously harassed by the police. “During the next three months I finished the novel in the hours snatched between interrogations and searches of my flat, in the constant fear that I would be arrested again and the manuscript of Darkness at Noon confiscated”.

After Hardy mailed her translation to London in May 1940, she fled to London. Meanwhile, Koestler joined the French Foreign Legion, deserted it in North Africa, and made his way to Portugal.[6][7] Waiting in Lisbon for passage to Great Britain, Koestler heard a false report that the ship taking Hardy to England had been torpedoed and all persons lost (along with his only manuscript); he attempted suicide.[8][9] (He wrote about this incident in Scum of the Earth (1941), his memoir of that period.) Koestler finally arrived in London, and the book was published there in early 1941.

Setting[edit]

Darkness at Noon is an allegory set in the USSR (not named) during the 1938 purges, as Stalin consolidated his dictatorship by eliminating potential rivals within the Communist Party: the military, and the professionals. None of this is identified explicitly in the book. Most of the novel occurs within an unnamed prison and in the recollections of the main character, Rubashov.

Koestler drew on the experience of being imprisoned by Francisco Franco‘s officials during the Spanish Civil War, which he described in his memoir, Dialogue with Death. He was kept in solitary confinement and expected to be executed. He was permitted to walk in the courtyard in the company of other prisoners. Though he was not beaten, he believed that other prisoners were.

Plot summary[edit

Darkness at Noon is divided into four parts: The First Hearing, The Second Hearing, The Third Hearing, and The Grammatical Fiction. (Koestler′s word that Hardy translated as ″Hearing″ was ″Verhör.″ In the 2019 translation, Boehm translated it as ″Interrogation.″ In his introduction to that translation, Michael Scammell writes that ″hearing″ made the Soviet and Nazi regimes look somewhat softer and more civilized than they really were.

The First Hearing[edit]

The line “Nobody can rule guiltlessly”, by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, appears as the epigraph. The action begins with Rubashov’s arrest in the middle of the night by two men from the secret police (in the USSR, this would be the NKVD). When they came for Rubashov they woke him from a recurring dream, a replay of the first time he was arrested by the Gestapo.[20] One of the men is about Rubashov’s age, the other is somewhat younger. The older man is formal and courteous, the younger is brutal.[21] The difference between them introduces the first major theme of Darkness at Noon: the passing of the older, civilised generation, and the barbarism of their successors.

Imprisoned, Rubashov is at first relieved to be finished with the anxiety of dread during mass arrests. He is expecting to be kept in solitary confinement until he is shot.[22] He begins to communicate with No. 402, the man in the adjacent cell, by using a tap code. Unlike Rubashov, No. 402 is not an intellectual, but rather a Tsarist army officer, who hates Communists. Their relationship begins on a sour note as No. 402 expresses delight at Rubashov’s political misfortune; however No. 402 has non-political urges too, and when he pleads for Rubashov to give him details about the last time he slept with a woman, once Rubashov does so No. 402 warms up to him. The two grow closer over time and exchange information about the prison and its inmates.[23]

Rubashov thinks of the Old Bolsheviks, Number One, and the Marxist interpretation of history. Throughout the novel Rubashov, Ivanov, and Gletkin speculate about historical processes and how individuals and groups are affected by them. Each hopes that, no matter how vile his actions may seem to their contemporaries, history will eventually absolve them. This is the faith that makes the abuses of the regime tolerable as the men consider the suffering of a few thousand, or a few million people against the happiness of future generations. They believe that gaining the socialist utopia, which they believe is possible, will cause the imposed suffering to be forgiven.

Rubashov meditates on his life: since joining the Party as a teenager, Rubashov has officered soldiers in the field,[24] won a commendation for “fearlessness”,[25] repeatedly volunteered for hazardous assignments, endured torture,[26] betrayed other communists who deviated from the Party line,[27] and proven that he is loyal to its policies and goals. Recently he has had doubts. Despite 20 years of power, in which the government caused the deliberate deaths and executions of millions, the Party does not seem to be any closer to achieving the goal of a socialist utopia. That vision seems to be receding.[28] Rubashov is in a quandary, between a lifetime of devotion to the Party on the one hand, and his conscience and the increasing evidence of his own experience on the other.

From this point, the narrative switches back and forth between his current life as a political prisoner and his past life as one of the Party elite. He recalls his first visit to Berlin about 1933, after Hitler gained power. Rubashov was to purge and reorganise the German Communists. He met with Richard, a young German Communist cell leader who had distributed material contrary to the Party line. In a museum, underneath a picture of the Pieta, Rubashov explains to Richard that he has violated Party discipline, become “objectively harmful”, and must be expelled from the Party. A Gestapo man hovers in the background with his girlfriend on his arm. Too late, Richard realises that Rubashov has betrayed him to the secret police. He begs Rubashov not to “throw him to the wolves”, but Rubashov leaves him quickly. Getting into a taxicab, he realises that the taxicab driver is also a communist. The taxicab driver offers to give him free fare, but Rubashov pays the fare. As he travels by train, he dreams that Richard and the taxicab driver are trying to run him over with a train.

This scene introduces the second and third major themes of Darkness at Noon. The second, suggested repeatedly by the Pieta and other Christian imagery, is the contrast between the brutality and modernity of Communism on the one hand, and the gentleness, simplicity, and tradition of Christianity. Although Koestler is not suggesting a return to Christian faith, he implies that Communism is the worse of the two alternatives.

The third theme is the contrast between the trust of the rank and file communists, and the ruthlessness of the Party elite. The rank and file trust and admire men like Rubashov, but the elite betrays and uses them with little thought. As Rubashov confronts the immorality of his actions as a party chief, his abscessed tooth begins to bother him, sometimes reducing him to immobility.

Rubashov recalls being arrested soon after by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two years. Although repeatedly tortured, he never breaks down. After the Nazis finally release him, he returns to his country to a hero’s welcome. Number One’s increasing power makes him uncomfortable but he does not act in opposition; he requests a foreign assignment. Number One is suspicious but grants the request. Rubashov is sent to Belgium to enforce Party discipline among the dock workers. After the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the League of Nations and the Party condemned Italy and imposed an international embargo on strategic resources, especially oil, which the Italians needed. The Belgian dock workers are determined not to allow any shipments for Italy to pass through their port. As his government intends to supply the Italians with oil and other resources secretly, Rubashov must convince the dock workers that, despite the official policy, as Communists they must unload the materials and send them to the Italians.

Their cell leader, a German communist immigrant nicknamed Little Loewy, tells Rubashov his life’s story. He is a communist who has sacrificed much for the Party, but is still completely dedicated. When all the workers have gathered, Rubashov explains the situation. They react with disgust and refuse his instructions. Several days later, Party publications denounce the entire cell by name, virtually guaranteeing arrest by the Belgian authorities, who were trying to suppress Communism. Little Loewy hangs himself. Rubashov then begins a new assignment.

In the novel, after about a week in prison, he is brought in for the first examination or hearing, which is conducted by Ivanov, an old friend. Also a veteran of the Civil War, he is an Old Bolshevik who shares Rubashov’s opinion of the Revolution. Rubashov had then convinced Ivanov not to commit suicide after his leg was amputated due to war wounds. Ivanov says that if he can persuade Rubashov to confess to the charges, he will have repaid his debt. With confession, Rubashov can lessen his sentence, to five or 10 years in a labour camp, instead of execution. He simply has to co-operate. The charges are hardly discussed, as both men understand they are not relevant. Rubashov says that he is “tired” and doesn’t “want to play this kind of game anymore.” Ivanov sends him back to his cell, asking him to think about it. Ivanov implies that Rubashov can perhaps live to see the socialist utopia they’ve both worked so hard to create, and gives Rubashov two weeks to think matters over.

The Second Hearing[edit]

The next section of the book begins with an entry in Rubashov’s diary; he struggles to find his place and that of the other Old Bolsheviks, within the Marxist interpretation of history.

Ivanov and a junior examiner, Gletkin, discuss Rubashov’s fate in the prison canteen. Gletkin urges using harsh, physical methods to demoralise the prisoner and force his confession, while Ivanov insists that Rubashov will confess after realising it is the only “logical” thing to do, given his situation. Gletkin recalls that, during the collectivisation of the peasants, they could not be persuaded to surrender their individual crops until they were tortured (and killed). Since that helped enable the ultimate goal of a socialist utopia, it was both the logical and the virtuous thing to do. Ivanov is disgusted but cannot refute Gletkin’s reasoning. Ivanov believes in taking harsh actions to achieve the goal, but he is troubled by the suffering he causes. Gletkin says the older man must not believe in the coming utopia. He characterises Ivanov as a cynic and claims to be an idealist.

Their conversation continues the theme of the new generation taking power over the old: Ivanov is portrayed as intellectual, ironical, and at bottom humane, while Gletkin is unsophisticated, straightforward, and unconcerned with others’ suffering. Being also a civil war veteran, Gletkin has his own experience of withstanding torture, yet still advocates its use. Ivanov has not been convinced by the younger man’s arguments. Rubashov continues in solitary.

News is tapped through to Rubashov that a prisoner is about to be executed. The condemned man is Michael Bogrov, the one-time distinguished revolutionary naval commander, who had a personal friendship with Rubashov. As Bogrov is carried off crying and screaming, all the prisoners, as is their tradition, drum along the walls to signal their brotherhood. Bogrov, as he passes Rubashov’s cell, despairingly calls out his name; Rubashov, having watched him pass by through the spy-hole in the door, is shocked at the pathetic figure Bogrov has become.

Some time later Ivanov visits Rubashov in his cell. He tells Rubashov that every aspect of Bogrov’s execution had been orchestrated by Gletkin to weaken Rubashov’s resolve, but that he (Ivanov) knows it will have the opposite effect. Ivanov tells Rubashov that he knows Rubashov will only confess if he resists his growing urge to sentimentality and instead remains rational, “[f]or when you have thought the whole thing to a conclusion – then, and only then, will you capitulate”. The two men have a discussion about politics and ethics. Afterwards Ivanov visits Gletkin in his office and insultingly tells him he was able to undo the damage that Gletkin’s scheme would have done.

The Third Hearing and The Grammatical Fiction[edit]

Rubashov continues to write in his diary, his views very much in line with Ivanov’s. He tells No. 402 that he intends to capitulate, and when No. 402 scolds him they get into a dispute over what honor is and break off contact with each other. Rubashov signs a letter to the state authorities in which he pledges “utterly to renounce [my] oppositional attitude and to denounce publicly [my] errors”.

Gletkin takes over the interrogation of Rubashov, using physical stresses such as sleep deprivation and forcing Rubashov to sit under a glaring lamp for hours, to wear him down. Later, when Gletkin refers to Ivanov in the past tense, Rubashov inquires about it, and Gletkin informs him that Ivanov has been executed. Rubashov notices that news of Ivanov’s fate has not made a meaningful impression on him, as he has evidently reached a state that precludes any deep emotion. Rubashov finally capitulates.

As he confesses to the false charges, Rubashov thinks of the many times he betrayed agents in the past: Richard, the young German; Little Loewy in Belgium; and Orlova, his secretary-mistress. He recognises that he is being treated with the same ruthlessness. His commitment to following his logic to its final conclusion—and his own lingering dedication to the Party—cause him to confess fully and publicly.

The final section of the novel begins with a four-line quotation (“Show us not the aim without the way …”) by the German socialist Ferdinand Lasalle. Rubashov has a final tapped conversation with No. 402, and then is led away from his cell as the other prisoners, from behind the walls, drum in fraternity. The novel ends with Rubashov’s execution.

Reception[edit]

Darkness at Noon was very successful, selling half a million copies in France alone.[29] Kingsley Martin described the novel as “one of the few books written in this epoch which will survive it”.[30] The New York Times described Darkness at Noon as ” a splendid novel, an effective explanation of the riddle of the Moscow treason trials. . . written with such dramatic power, with such warmth of feeling and with such persuasive simplicity that it is absorbing as melodrama”.[30]

George Steiner said it was one of the few books that may have “changed history”, while George Orwell, who reviewed the book for the New Statesman in 1941, said:

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened—for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society—but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.[31]

Adaptations[edit]

The novel was adapted as a stage play by Sidney Kingsley circa 1950, which was later made into a 1955 television production on the American television series Producer’s Showcase.

Influence[edit]

Writers interested in the political struggles of the time followed Koestler and other Europeans closely.[citation needed] Orwell wrote, “Rubashov might be called Trotsky, Bukharin, Rakovsky or some other relatively civilised figure among the Old Bolsheviks”.[32] In 1944, Orwell thought that the best political writing in English was being done by Europeans and other non-native British. His essay on Koestler discussed Darkness at Noon.[33] Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War, sold poorly; he decided after reviewing Darkness at Noon that fiction was the best way to describe totalitarianism, and wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.[29] When reviewing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Arthur Mizener said that Orwell drew on his feelings about Koestler’s handling of Rubashov’s confession when he wrote his extended section of the conversion of Winston Smith.[34]

In 1954, at the end of a long government inquiry and a show trial, Lucreţiu Pătrăşcanu, the former high-ranking Romanian Communist Party member and government official, was sentenced to death in Romania.[35][36] According to his collaborator Belu Zilber, Pătrăşcanu read Darkness at Noon in Paris while envoy to the 1946 Peace Conference, and took the book back to Romania.[35][36]

Both American and European Communists considered Darkness at Noon to be anti-Stalinist and anti-USSR. In the 1940s, numerous scriptwriters in Hollywood were still Communists, generally having been attracted to the party during the 1930s. According to Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley in an article published in 2000, the Communists considered Koestler’s novel important enough to prevent its being adapted for movies; the writer Dalton Trumbo “bragged” about his success in that to the newspaper The Worker.[37]

US Navy admiral James Stockdale used the novel’s title as a code to his wife and the US government to fool his North Vietnamese captors’ censors when he wrote as a POW during the Vietnam War. He signaled the torture of American POW’s by Communist North Vietnam: “One thinks of Vietnam as a tropical country, but in January the rains came, and there was cold and darkness, even at noon.” His wife contacted US Naval Intelligence and Stockdale confirmed in code in other letters that they were being tortured.[38]

At the height of the media attention during the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal, US President Bill Clinton reportedly referred to Koestler’s novel, telling an aide, “I feel like a character in the novel Darkness at Noon“, and, “I am surrounded by an oppressive force that is creating a lie about me and I can’t get the truth out.”[39]

Bob Dylan references the book in his song, It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding), in the lyric “Darkness at the break of noon”. [40]

Theory of the masses[edit]

Rubashov resigns himself to the reality that people are not capable of self-governance nor even of steering a democratic government to their own benefit. This he asserts is true for a period of time following technological advancements—a period in which people as a group have yet to learn to adapt to and harness, or at least respond to the technological advancements in a way that actually benefits them. Until this period of adaptation runs its course, Rubashov comes to accept that a totalitarian government is perhaps not unjustified as people would only steer society to their own detriment anyway. Having reached this conclusion, Rubashov resigns himself to execution without defending himself against charges of treason.

Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization. (Hardy translation)

And so every leap of technical progress brings with it a relative intellectual regression of the masses, a decline in their political maturity. At times it may take decades or even generations before the collective consciousness gradually catches up to the changed order and regains the capacity to govern itself that it had formerly possessed at a lower stage of civilization. (Boehm translation)

― Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon

 

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The Woo-Hoo Virus has us in Indianapolis under house arrest, but that did not stop five brave souls from  ZOOMING through a discussion of Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission.”  ZOOM worked flawlessly for 90 minutes.  The only problem was some feedback, but that was on our end.   Participants were:  Kathleen Angelone, Bill Briscoe, Susie Windell, John Sturman, and me, Dave Young, who more or less led the discussion.

I  launched with a long bio of the 64 year old author, Michel Houellebecq (a pen name from his grandmother’s family) and made some attempt to link him up with our hero, Kurt.  Like Kurt, Michel is never seen without a cigarette and his appearance is always somewhat ruffled, to put it mildly.  Like Vonnegut, he is not accepted by the literary establishment but unlike Vonnegut, his novels are instant best-sellers widely translated and popular throughout Europe.  One critic summed him  (and our topical novel)  up this way: “Les prédictions du mage Houellebecq : en 2015, je perds mes dents, en 2022, je fais ramadan.”    Which I render using two years of college French taught 60 years ago:  “Houellebecq predicted that in 2015 he lost his teeth and in 2022 he performed Ramadan.”  More to the point,  his novels often have dystopian elements as he sees Western civilization falling apart.  His breakout novel “The Elementary Particles” (1998) does some time shifting to a point 55 years in the future.  One of the protagonists invents a chemical which will end human reproduction.  So, he flirts with science fiction.   Francophiles will love the way he works in Parisian and French geography, politics, and literature.  He will make you swim in French wine, cheeses, and cuisine, a Wolfeian cataloging of consumer goods.   Michel has used his fortune to produce several record albums recording his singing and has also produced some small films.  Apparently he is still attractive to women.  After divorcing two wives,  he recently married a 24 year-old Chinese woman who was drawn to him through his published works.

Even though not a lot is going on in this novel,  it is difficult to summarize.  You could view it as the story of the narrator’s obsession with his unreliable dick or as the canary-in-the-coal-mine indicator that Western society as we know it is almost dead.  Take your choice. Houellebecq was already an enfant terrible in the French literary establishment despite having written several best-sellers before this one.  By a very strange coincidence, “Submission” came out the very week that Muslim terrorists shot up the offices of the periodical Charlie Hebdo which had recently published an uncomplimentary cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.  Houellebecq and his novel were on the cover of the issue about to be distributed.  Surely, this helped to hype sales.

We all agreed that the narrator, François, was unlikeable.  Self-absorbed, obsessed with sex, and full of contempt for himself and his contemporaries, he was facing a mid-life crisis.  His career as a lit prof at a second-tier Sorbonne college was coming to an end and his body was no longer a source of sexual pleasure.  He had never wanted to teach anyway and his best scholarship ended with his dissertation on a minor nineteenth century French writer of the decadent school,  J. K. Huysman.  He stayed in the teaching game because he was only required to work on campus one day a week and it provided him with a steady stream of new students to satisfy his sexual needs.  

Being bookish, atheistic, and cynical,  I found myself identifying with him to some extent, but the degree of his alienation soon became intolerable.  The point at which he lost me came on one of his rare trips outside Paris.  As the ultimate consumer, François had purchased American hiking boots and a powerful off-road VW Toureg.  Two items a Parisian would never need.  On a rare trip outside Paris,  he learns that his vehicle needs gas and his dashboard GPS advises him that there is a small gas station at the next intersection.  He is disappointed as he is hoping to make it to a major intersection where the rest-stop would undoubtedly be fitted-out with a deli that would put Whole Foods to shame.  He reluctantly pulls off and enters the station to discover that the sole clerk has been murdered and is lying dead in the aisle.  He gingerly steps over her body and helps himself to some deplorable snacks before exiting.  In the parking lot he barely notices two dead Africans who were apparently involved.  He gets in his car anxious to make it down the road to a more civilized place where he can purchase some local cheese and imported sausage.  I had this feeling once before when I read Camus’  “The Stranger” many years ago and this was reinforced later in the novel when François ambivalently attends the reading of his father’s will.  This seemed to echo Mersault’s lonely trip to his mother’s funeral in Algeria.  François and Meursault are both dedicated chain-smokers.   Such emptiness!

In full existential mode, François, decides to use his summer vacation/retirement to discover the meaning of life.   He keys on the object of his studies, J.K. Huysman, who solved his mid-life crisis by turning away (more or less) from a life of debauchery, committing himself to the Baby Jesus and the Black Madonna, and becoming a lay member (or oblate) of a religious order.  This does not work out well and after spending several days meditating in front of the Black Madonna he returns to Paris where, no longer having access to students, he finds prostitutes to indulge his perversions.  He is open to returning to teaching at the Sorbonne, but, wait, there is a catch;  the French government has been taken over by Muslims and all professors at state universities must now submit to Islam.  François finds this unappealing.

But the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization behind the takeover of the French Government, is nothing if not patient over its 100 year history.  Their aim is to control the educational system and subtly propagate the faith through the public schools.

The Saudis have lavishly funded the Sorbonne and François’s chair and president slowly recruits him, intellectually and materially.  Because he is a published scholar who will add to the prestige of his less-than-stellar school, he is offered a new position at three times his previous salary, a guarantee that he will not have to teach classes or deal with pesky graduate students, and three wives selected by a university match-maker.  He makes the conversion to Islam with minimal effort – all he has to do is recite in memorized Arabic the phrase that there is only one god Allah and his messenger is Mohammed and he is in.  No religious instruction or examination.  Easy for him.

He looks forward to having one wife to cook and clean for him, another to satisfy his sexual needs,  and a third to fill in all of the blanks in-between.  Life is good!

And so, this misogynistic novel ends on a positive (?) note.  We had problems with the characterization of women and the treatment of French politics.  There was a little bit of the it-can’t-happen-here motif but, hey,  it’s only a fuckin’ novel.  Perhaps Houellebecq is only the rabbateur who is flushing game for our amusement.

We rated this opus a 7.5 on the magnificent KV ten-point scale.   Obviously, we did not do lunch after we adjourned.   Our next venture will be Arthur Koestler’s 1940 novel of Soviet oppression “Darkness at Noon.”  Karen Lystra, who very well may still be in California Confinement will get us through this.  The Vonnegut Library will apparently be closed through the month of May, so we again  will convene by ZOOM at 11AM on Thursday, May 28, 2020.  The link will be sent out be email when it becomes available – or check this site in a few weeks.

Dave Young

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Excerpted from Wikipedia

Submission (French: Soumission) is a novel by French writer Michel Houellebecq.[1] The French edition of the book was published on 7 January 2015 by Flammarion, with German (Unterwerfung) and Italian (Sottomissione) translations also published in January.[2][3] The book instantly became a bestseller in France, Germany and Italy.[4][5] The English edition of the book, translated by Lorin Stein, was published on 10 September 2015.[6]. The novel imagines a situation in which a Muslim party upholding Islamist and patriarchal values is able to win the 2022 presidential election in France with the support of the Socialist Party. The book drew an unusual amount of attention because, by macabre coincidence, it was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo shooting.[7]. The novel mixes fiction with real people: Marine Le Pen, François Hollande, François Bayrou, Manuel Valls, and Jean-François Copé, among others, fleetingly appear as characters in the book.[8]

In 2022, François, a middle-aged literature professor at Paris III and specialist in Huysmans, feels he is at the end of his sentimental and sexual lives – composed largely of year-long liaisons with his students. It has been years since the last time he created any valuable university work. France is in the grip of political crisis – in order to stave off a National Front victory, the Socialists ally with the newly formed Muslim Brotherhood Party, with additional support of the Union for a Popular Movement, formerly the main right-wing party. They propose the charming and physically imposing Islamic candidate Mohammed Ben-Abbes for the presidency against the National Front leader Marine Le Pen. In despair at the emerging political situation, and the inevitability of antisemitism becoming a major force in French politics, François’ young and attractive Jewish girlfriend, Myriam, emigrates to Israel. His mother and father die. He fears that he is heading towards suicide, and takes refuge at a monastery situated in the town of Martel. The monastery is an important symbol of Charles Martel‘s victory over Islamic forces in 732; it is also where his literary hero, Huysmans, became a lay member.

Ben-Abbes wins the election, and becomes President of France. He pacifies the country and enacts sweeping changes to French laws, privatizing the Sorbonne, thereby making François redundant with full pension as only Muslims are now allowed to teach there. He also ends gender equality, allowing polygamy. Several of François’ intellectually-inferior colleagues, having converted to Islam, get good jobs and make arranged marriages with attractive young wives. The new president campaigns to enlarge the European Union to include North Africa, with the aim of making it a new Roman Empire, with France at its lead. In this new, different society, with the support of the powerful politician Robert Rediger, the novel ends with François poised to convert to Islam and the prospect of a second, better life, with a prestigious job, and wives chosen for him.

The book generated controversy and criticism for its portrayal of Islam.[9] In advance of the novel’s publication, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “‘France is not Michel Houellebecq . . . it’s not intolerance, hatred, fear.”[10] Lydia Kiesling, writing for Slate, stated, “There is a way in which Submission is not, strictly speaking, Islamophobic. But it does Aylan Kurdi no favors.”[11] The New York Times likewise argued Submission “plays on French fears of terrorism, immigration and changing demographics.”[12]

Houellebecq commented on the novel in an interview with The Paris Review:

… I can’t say that the book is a provocation — if that means saying things I consider fundamentally untrue just to get on people’s nerves. I condense an evolution that is, in my opinion, realistic.[1]

Rob Doyle of The Irish Times found the themes of the book favourable to Islam, stating Houellebecq “suggests that yielding to the rule of Islam, with its reassuring social and sexual hierarchies, might be a good option for an otherwise terminal Europe.”[10] Steven Poole, writing for The Guardian, noted that the book was “arguably, not primarily about politics at all. The real target of Houellebecq’s satire — as in his previous novels — is the predictably manipulable venality and lustfulness of the modern metropolitan man, intellectual or otherwise”.[13] Adam Shatz, writing for the London Review of Books, states that it “is the work of a nihilist not a hater – the jeu d’esprit of a man without convictions”.[14]

Some critics also suggested the novel promoted misogynistic views. Erik Martiny’s review in The London Magazine highlighted that “gender hierarchy is presented in the novel as the essential backbone to a healthy, stable society.”[15] Heller McAlpin’s review for the NPR concluded with the line, “I’m hoping that women, at least, won’t take this insulting scenario lying down,” while Lydia Kiesling contextualized the book’s depiction of women by stating Submission contains a “Evo-Psych 101 correlation of women’s worth with their sexual viability” prevalent in both Houellebecq’s work and his personal comments.[16][17]

On 5 January 2015, French president François Hollande announced in an interview for France Inter radio that he “would read the book, because it’s sparking a debate”.[18]

The author appeared in a caricature on the front page of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015, the day when the offices of the newspaper were attacked by masked gunmen who killed eight Charlie Hebdo employees. The title on the cover was: “Les prédictions du mage Houellebecq : en 2015, je perds mes dents, en 2022, je fais ramadan.” (English: “The predictions of the sorcerer Houellebecq: In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I observe Ramadan.”)[19]

On the day of the publishing of the book and hours before the attack on Charlie Hebdo, Houellebecq said in an interview for France Inter radio:

There’s a real disdain in this country for all the authorities… You can feel that this can’t continue. Something has to change. I don’t know what, but something.[20]

The German translation (Unterwerfung) by Norma Cassau and Bernd Wilczek was published on 16 January 2015 by DuMont Buchverlag.[21] Lorin Stein translated the book into English.

The book was an instant bestseller.[4][22]

Several critics, including Bruno de Cessole of Valeurs Actuelles and Jérôme Dupuis of L’Express, compared the novel to Jean Raspail‘s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a novel about the political impotence of Europe during a massive wave of immigration from India.[23][24] Grégoire Leménager of Le Nouvel Observateur downplayed the similarities to The Camp of the Saints, as Submission does not deal with ethnicity, and instead placed Houellebecq’s novel within a trend of recent French novels about immigration and Islam, together with La Mémoire de Clara by Patrick Besson, Dawa by Julien Suaudeau and Les Événements by Jean Rolin, speculating that the concept of the “Great Replacement” (“Grand Remplacement”), as formulated by Renaud Camus, was becoming fashionable as a literary device.[25]

Marine Le Pen commented in an interview with France Info radio that the novel is “a fiction that could one day become reality.”[20]

Mark Lilla, in The New York Review of Books, stated similarly that “Europe in 2022 has to find another way to escape the present, and ‘Islam’ just happens to be the name of the next clone.”[26]

French novelist Emmanuel Carrère compared Submission to George Orwell‘s 1984.[27]

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Due to the Wuhan Virus and the Stay-at-Home decree,  we attempted to discuss KV’s “Bluebeard” via a teleconference which was plagued with problems.  We had set up the telecom on two different free apps, both of which disappointed.  Both apps seemed to connect and accepted camera input but we were never invited to join any discussion.  When we went to straight telecom, one app was constantly busy.  The other app did finally allow us to connect but the connection was in and out and after about 20 minutes it began to hang up on us one at a time.  So that ended the discussion.  Next time, if we have to go the telecom route, we are going to try to use ZOOM (well, maybe not as ZOOM is plagued by hackers and has numerous security and privacy problems) and set up a dry run beforehand to make sure it is operational.   There is probably a great strain on the internet as so many are working and communicating from home.

Back to business.  Those who connected at times between 11:25 and 11:45 were:  Susie Windell, Kathleen Angelone, Mark Hudson, Bill Briscoe Dave Young and John Sturman who was our excellent and knowledgeable discussion guide. 

Among the brief comments,  we heard that Vonnegut’s narrative often got lost.  There were too many asides that didn’t play well into the overall narrative.  Kurt was trying to tell us that “representational art” had run its course and was redundant because of photography.  Abstract Expressionism, however, was about the moment of creation and not about the event or the final product.

His protagonist, Rebo, became famous even though his works eventually fell apart when the cheap paint he used separated from the canvas.  So KV’s dark humor and satire come out.  Rebo’s last work was a sixty foot painting that was incredibly representational.  “Now its the Women’s Turn” featured some 5,000 human beings in a valley at the moment WWII ended.  Each carefully drawn.

This was one of KV’s later novels but it still had a Slaughterhouse Five Trope and Rebo, perhaps better drawn that most of KV’s characters, reflected some of KV’s experiences in war and life.

Like KV, Rebo had two troubled marriages.  He also had lengthy relationships with two very strong women which did not go particularly well.  There seems to be a motif that men had pretty much messed up the world and the time had come for women to take over.

KV put a lot of creativity into this novel and it was clear that he was not just following an outline.

Well, needless to say, we did not get around to voting on this work and lunch was out of the question. We are waiting for this national nightmare to end.   Soldiering on, we have scheduled our next meeting for Thursday,  April 23, 2020 when at 11AM we will try to put a teleconference together to discuss Michel Houellebecq’s “Submission.”   Someone has characterized Houellebecq as France’s version of KV due to his dark humor, self-effacing characters, and fascination with dystopias.  The anti-hero in “Submission” is a lit prof in a second-tier Sorbonne college. The novel is replete with long references to French literary figures and perverted sex.  Who would want to read a French novel that didn’t have some hot sex scenes?  The novel was written in 2015 and the time is from the present until 2024 when the Muslims peacefully take over the French government and reorder academia and French society.  Dave Young will attempt to lead the discussion…..if it happens.  When someone tells me the plan for a teleconference I will get the details out to everyone,   A summary of “Bluebeard” from Wikipedia appears below.

Update: 4/16/2020. Bill has furnished the link for our telecom for the 4/23/20 meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club discussing Michel Houellebecq’s novel “Submission”.    Susanna Windell will host the telecom and Dave Young will attempt to lead the discussion.   You may wish to set this up at least a few minutes before the beginning of the meeting at 11AM as you will need to download the ZOOM package which is very easy to do.   To get started and to join the meeting (Topic: Book Club) copy and paste or enter:  https://us04web.zoom.us/j/77766569269  .  (That character after zoom.us is a “j” as in Juliet not an “I” as in India.)  You may be prompted to enter the meeting ID which is:  777 6656 9269.  ZOOM has had some unfavorable publicity in the past few weeks due to privacy and hacking issues but this should not be a problem for us.   Thanks,  Bill and Susan,  for setting this up.  “Les prédictions du mage Houellebecq : en 2015, je perds mes dents, en 2022, je fais ramadan.” 

 

Dave Young

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from: Wikipedia

Bluebeard, the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916–1988) is a 1987 novel by best-selling author Kurt Vonnegut. It is told as a first person narrative and describes the late years of fictional Abstract Expressionist painter Rabo Karabekian, who first appeared as a minor character in Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). Circumstances of the novel bear rough resemblance to the fairy tale of Bluebeard popularized by Charles Perrault. Karabekian mentions this relationship once in the novel.

At the opening of the book, the narrator, Rabo Karabekian, apologizes to the arriving guests: “I promised you an autobiography, but something went wrong in the kitchen…” He describes himself as a museum guard who answers questions from visitors coming to see his priceless collected art. He shares the lonely home with his live-in cook and her daughter, Celeste.

One afternoon, Circe Berman wanders onto Karabekian’s private beach. When he reaches out to greet her, she catches him by surprise with the forward statement “Tell me how your parents died.” He tells her the story and proceeds to invite her back to his home for a drink. After a drink and supper, Karabekian invites her to stay with him, as Paul Slazinger does. After a time, he begins to find her charmmanipulative“, as she typically gets her way. Mrs. Berman does not respect his abstract art collection, including works by Jackson Pollock. She explores every inch of Karabekian’s home, constantly asking him questions. The only place that is off-limits to her is the potato barn.

The potato barn is the home of Karabekian’s studio and holds his “secret”. The barn has no windows, and Karabekian has gone through the trouble of nailing one end shut and immobilizing the other with six padlocks. The mystery of the potato barn has enticed collectors to make outrageous offers and to raise suspicions of stolen masterpieces. Upon help from Berman, Karabekian comes to a realization in his life, that he was merely afraid of people, and opens the painting in the potato barn to the public.

Characters[edit]

  • Rabo Karabekian — Karabekian is a 71-year-old, one-eyed, first-generation Armenian-American painter. He lives in a 19-room house on the waterfront of East Hampton, Long Island, which he inherited from his second wife Edith.
  • Circe Berman – Circe selects Karabekian’s home as a place to research and write about working-class adolescents living with multi-millionaires. While living there she more or less takes charge of Karabekian’s life and tells him to start writing an autobiography, which he does. After she impulsively renovates Karabekian’s foyer without his permission—removing many of the things Karabekian’s dead wife had used to decorate it in doing so—the two get into a heated argument which results in her departure, although she soon returns and is accepted back. This is the most notable example of Circe’s disregard for other people’s privacy and personal space. Although Rabo does most of the things she wants him to, he will not tell her what is in the potato barn no matter how much she pressures him to do so. She is a well-published novelist under the pen name “Polly Madison.” Her novels, although very popular, are criticized for tainting the world’s youth.
  • Paul Slazinger – Slazinger is a poor, wounded World War II veteran. Though he owns his own home, he stays with Karabekian and eats from his kitchen. He refuses permanent residence on the grounds that “he can only write at home”. He has had eleven novels published, but is not in the league of Circe Berman. Circe is pretending not to be Polly Madison, so Paul looks down on her and condescendingly gives her writing advice.
  • Dan Gregory – Originally named Dan Gregorian before moving to America and changing his name. A magazine article estimated him to be the highest-paid artist in American history. That he is Armenian like Rabo’s family causes Rabo’s mother to believe he is a great man, an example of an Armenian who has become a success in America. She insists that her son write to “Gregorian”, as she calls him, to ask for an apprenticeship. Karabekian became “Gregorian’s” apprentice at the age of 17. He is extremely pro-fascist and is obsessed with Benito Mussolini, whom he greatly admires. His high opinion of Mussolini results in him getting into arguments with such men as W.C. Fields and Al Jolson, who subsequently refuse to associate with him. He eventually goes to Italy to work directly for Mussolini during the Second World War. He is accepted by Mussolini, who welcomes the public support of such a famous artist, but is finally killed in battle by British troops.
  • Marilee Kemp – Marilee was Dan Gregory’s mistress, who persuaded Gregory to take Karabekian as his apprentice. She eventually becomes Rabo’s love interest and later the two of them are expelled from Gregory’s studio when he catches them leaving the Museum of Modern Art together. They have a very brief affair which Marilee ends, claiming that Rabo is not the man she needed at the time. Through a series of events she becomes a rich Countess in Italy.
  • Edith Taft – Edith was Karabekian’s second wife of twenty years.
  • Dorothy Roy – Dorothy is Karabekian’s first wife. She left with their two boys, Terry and Henri.
  • Rabo’s Parents – Karabekian’s parents were survivors of the Armenian Genocide who were then tricked by a con man into buying a fake deed for a house in San Ignacio, California, where they moved in order to create a better life. His father, who was a teacher in Turkey, ends up becoming a cobbler when they reach their new home. When the Great Depression hits the family falls on very hard times.
  • Allison White – She is Karabekian’s live-in cook, though he never refers to her as anything besides that until she becomes upset with him for never using her name. She has a daughter Celeste, who also lives with them.

Major themes[edit]

A number of critics have suggested that the possibility of creating art with meaning is a major theme in Bluebeard. According to David Rampton in “Studies in Contemporary Fiction,” Circe Berman’s approaching Rabo with the challenge of making meaningful, moral art is Vonnegut himself directly addressing meaninglessness in art by asking for “committed art.”[1] Rampton also proposed that Vonnegut may be questioning the possibility of truly moral art by writing about the lack of morality in the lives of many artists.[1] Critics have also said that meaningful art is Karabekian’s way of battling his own demons. Donald Morse said that Karabekian’s accomplishment in the novel is realising that “through self-acceptance, and the serious use of imagination and creativity, human beings can become reconciled to their weaknesses while still remaining outraged at human greed.”[2] Morse added that Karabekian’s final masterpiece, “Now It’s the Women’s Turn,” achieves the goal of meaningful art by developing a backstory for each of the 5,219 characters in the composition before painting it.[2]

Other themes that critics have discussed are Survivor’s syndrome, family, and relationships with women. One critic wrote that Rabo escapes the Survivor’s syndrome that his parents suffered from by painting “Now It’s the Women’s Turn.”[3] It has also been said that Karabekian’s mission in the narrative is to find a family that he feels a part of, which he achieves with the army and the Abstract Expressionism community.[3] Lastly, women are certainly a theme in Bluebeard. New York Times writer Julian Moynahan said that Circe Berman sees Karabekian’s main life struggle as strained relationships with women.[4]

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Bluebeard received positive reviews from many critics. Some considered the novel a milestone in Vonnegut’s career; Philadelphia Inquirer called it “Vonnegut at his edifying best,” and the Chicago Tribune said it was “a major breakthrough for Vonnegut,” and “a new and vital phase in his career.” Newsday said it was “worth reading twice,” and Atlanta Journal & Constitution wrote that “Bluebeard ranks with [Vonnegut’s] best and goes one step beyond.”

Bluebeard was also met with significantly negative reception. Julian Moynahan wrote in a New York Times book review that Bluebeard was a “minor achievement” and that Vonnegut “isn’t moving ahead.”[4] In Library Journal, the novel is identified as “not among [Vonnegut’s] best.” [5]

Style[edit]

There were several unique aspects of the style in which Vonnegut wrote Bluebeard. Donald Morse identified a difference between Bluebeard and other Vonnegut’s novels, which was that the protagonist was happy and satisfied at the end of the narrative. Morse also said that Karabekian as a writer is very similar to Vonnegut as a writer, and that the criticism Circe Berman gives to Karabekian about his writing is a parallel to the issues critics have with Vonnegut’s writing.[2]

Paintings[edit]

In the novel several of Karabekian’s paintings are described in detail. The first is a photo-realistic painting of Dan Gregory’s studio. The second is an abstract painting of a lost Arctic explorer and a charging polar bear. It consists of a white background with two strips of tape, one white, one orange. The third painting is of six deer and a hunter, titled “Hungarian Rhapsody Number Six” which later fell apart in storage at the Guggenheim Museum. The scene is represented by a greenish-orange background with six brown strips of tape for the deer on one side, and one strip of red tape on the opposite side for the hunter. His most famous, which once hung in the lobby of GEFFCo headquarters on Park Avenue, is titled “Windsor Blue Number Seventeen.” The entire painting consisting of eight 8×8 panels hung side by side displays nothing but the paint by Sateen Dura-Luxe in the shade of the title of the work. The painting however literally fell apart when the Sateen Dura-Luxe began to shred itself from the canvas upon which it was painted becoming Rabo Karabekian’s biggest embarrassment as an abstract expressionist. These very panels upon which Windsor Blue used to cover fully became the canvases Karabekian would prime back to pure white and use for his last work locked within his potato barn.

The last painting is the secret in the potato barn. The painting is an enormous photo-realistic picture of Karabekian’s experience of World War II where he and 5,219 other prisoners of war, gypsies, and concentration camp victims were dumped in a valley when the German forces realized that the war was lost. The painting, which becomes enormously successful as a tourist attraction, is meant to be the only painting that Karabekian created which contained “soul”.

Snow was on the ground, but Spring was in the air as five of us gathered at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to discuss Truman Capote’s 1966 non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.”   Regulars Bill Briscoe, John Sturman, John Hawn and Dave Young welcomed a new member, Susie Windell.  Sturman,  well-prepared as usual,  guided us through this work which he supplemented with copious hand-outs.

My long winter vacation has apparently addled my brain as my notes of our discussion are a mess.   It seems that we did not really spend much time talking about that charming duo Dick and Perry and their gruesome crime.  We were more interested in the curious lives of the author, Truman Capote, and his researcher, Harper Lee, who went on win a Pulitzer for “To Kill a Mocking Bird.”  Truman was pissed because he never received a Pulitzer even though he became very wealthy and set a new standard for the crime novel.   There was a rumor that he might have started that he was the true author of “Mockingbird.”  And, of course, we riffed on the turbulent 1960’s through which most of us lived.   The assassination of JFK and other atrocities along with more realistic reporting exposed the various sicknesses in our society and killed the comfortable Norman Rockwell vision of America that we grew up with.

It isn’t clear how much time, if any, Tru and KV spent together.  They were both part of a writer’s colony (including George Plimpton, E. L. Doctorow and others) that periodically escaped Manhattan for the Hampton’s community of Sagaponack where the rents in the 70’s were dirt cheap.  The tall, gangly KV, two years older than Tru, recalls seeing the 5’4” author wheeling around Long Island in a roadster with a steering wheel over which he could barely see.  They both had a fondness for alcohol and may have hung out together in that famous bar, the name of which I forget,  on the Main Sagg.  At some point,  after he had fallen out with many friends and supporters, Tru left New York for the West Coast where he died in 1984.  Tru was rich and famous long before Vonnegut and died 23 years before him after a life of dissipation.

“In Cold Blood” was Tru’s last novel although he continued to write memoirs and short pieces that earned him more scorn than money.  But he was already rich from “Blood” which brought him about 6 Million in the currency of the time.  He took the project on an assignment from The New Yorker Magazine and worked on it for six years.  Publication was held up until the well-deserved execution of the two perps.  It was said that Tru refused to join in efforts to delay the execution because he wanted his money, but this is just speculation.  

I recall being sent to Kansas City, MO on a 30 day detail sometime In the 1980’s.  One day I crossed over the river to Olathe, KS and was astounded to see this sign on the Interstate:  “Colorado Border 400 Miles.”   I was instantly filled with a feeling of emptiness.  This is the route that our misguided duo must have taken when they left the Kansas State Prison up the Missouri River for the Clutter farm in far-western Kansas [corrected – DEY]  back in 1959.

Tru arrived at the Clutter farm not long after the murders.  He was accompanied by his research assistant Harper Lee (his childhood neighbor in Monroeville, Alabama)  who over six years racked up some 8,000 pages of notes following interviews of the principals and the locals and meticulously going through evidence and trial data.  Despite all the attention to detail, Tru manipulated the facts to suit his narrative.  It took a while for people to realize that the “new journalism” as expounded in the “non-fiction novel” took liberties with the truth in search of an alternate reality.  

The book received much critical acclaim, but Stanley Kaufmann wrote a rather negative review for the New York Times.  Some noted that the book took too long to get to the finish line and seemed to run out of steam toward the end.     Tru seemed to have bonded with the more psychopathic and violent Perry Smith.   They both experienced a lot of trauma and abandonment in their childhoods.   Tru used the metaphor of a house for their upbringing and noted that while he went out the front door, Perry went out the back door.  Perry was a bed-wetter and Dick experienced head injuries and may have suffered PTSD.   All three seemed to have had confused sexual lives but Tru never got into that.  What the Hell, it was the sixties!   A summary from Wikipedia is copied below.

After 90 minutes of palaver,  the group rated this masterpiece as an “8” on the incredibly accurate Vonnegut ten-point scale.   We then retreated to a new hamburger joint “Baby’s” at 2147 N. Talbott Street for further discussion,   Our next meeting will happen on March 26, 2020 when John Hawn will help us understand KV’s attempt to explain the world of Abstract Expressionism in his 1987 novel “Blue Beard.”   Please join us at 11:00 AM at the KV Memorial Library for what promises to be a lively discussion.

We are still attempting to finalize our reading schedule for 2020.  Due to our shrinking membership several slots are still open and we are looking for volunteers.

Dave Young

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From:  Wikipedia

.In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences

In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel[1] by American author Truman Capote, first published in 1966; it details the 1959 murders of four members of the Herbert Clutter family in the small farming community of Holcomb, Kansas.

Capote learned of the quadruple murder before the killers were captured, and he traveled to Kansas to write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and they interviewed residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. Killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested six weeks after the murders and later executed by the state of Kansas. Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book.

In Cold Blood was an instant success and is the second-best-selling true crime book in history, behind Vincent Bugliosi‘s Helter Skelter (1974) about the Charles Manson murders.[2] Some critics consider Capote’s work the original non-fiction novel, although other writers had already explored the genre, such as Rodolfo Walsh in Operación Masacre (1957).[3][4] In Cold Blood has been lauded for its eloquent prose, extensive detail, and triple narrative which describes the lives of the murderers, the victims, and other members of the rural community in alternating sequences. The psychologies and backgrounds of Hickock and Smith are given special attention, as is the pair’s complex relationship during and after the murders. In Cold Blood is regarded by critics as a pioneering work in the true crime genre, although Capote was disappointed that the book failed to win the Pulitzer Prize.[5] Parts of the book differ from the real events, including important details.[6]

Herbert “Herb” Clutter was a prosperous farmer in western Kansas. He employed as many as 18 farmhands, who admired and respected him for his fair treatment and good wages. His two elder daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, had moved out and started their adult lives; his two younger children, Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were in high school. Clutter’s wife Bonnie had reportedly been incapacitated by clinical depression and physical ailments since the births of her children, although this was later disputed.[citation needed]

Two ex-convicts recently paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, robbed and murdered Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon in the early morning hours of November 15, 1959. A former cellmate of Hickock’s, Floyd Wells, had worked for Herb Clutter and told Hickock that Clutter kept large amounts of cash in a safe. Hickock soon hatched the idea to steal the safe and start a new life in Mexico. According to Capote, Hickock described his plan as “a cinch, the perfect score.” Hickock later contacted Smith, another former cellmate, about committing the robbery with him.[7] In fact, Herb Clutter had no safe and transacted all of his business by check.[citation needed]

After driving more than 400 miles across the state of Kansas on the evening of November 14, Hickock and Smith arrived in Holcomb, located the Clutter home, and entered through an unlocked door while the family slept. Upon rousing the Clutters and discovering there was no safe, they bound and gagged the family, and continued to search for money, but found little of value in the house. Still determined to leave no witnesses, the pair briefly debated what to do; Smith, notoriously unstable and prone to violent acts in fits of rage, slit Herb Clutter’s throat and then shot him in the head. Capote writes that Smith recounted later, “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.”[8] Kenyon, Nancy, and then Mrs. Clutter were also murdered, each by a single shotgun blast to the head. Hickock and Smith left the crime scene with a small portable radio, a pair of binoculars, and less than $50 in cash.[citation needed]

Smith later claimed in his oral confession that Hickock murdered the two women. When asked to sign his confession, however, Smith refused. According to Capote, he wanted to accept responsibility for all four killings because, he said, he was “sorry for Dick’s mother.” Smith added, “She’s a real sweet person.”[9] Hickock always maintained that Smith committed all four killings.[citation needed]

Investigation and trial[edit]

On the basis of a tip from Wells, who contacted the prison warden after hearing of the murders, Hickock and Smith were identified as suspects and arrested in Las Vegas on December 30, 1959. Both men eventually confessed after interrogations by detectives of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. They were brought back to Kansas, where they were tried together at the Finney County courthouse in Garden City, Kansas, from March 22 to 29, 1960. They both pleaded temporary insanity at the trial, but local general practitioners evaluated the accused and pronounced them sane.[citation needed]

Hickock and Smith are also suspected of involvement in the Walker family murders, which notion is mentioned in the book, although this connection has not been proven.[citation needed]

A defense motion that Smith and Hickock undergo comprehensive psychological testing was denied; instead, three local general practitioners were appointed to examine them to determine whether they were sane at the time of the crime.[10] After only a short interview the doctors determined the defendants were not insane and were capable of being tried under M’Naghten rules. Defense lawyers sought the opinion of an experienced psychiatrist from the state’s local mental hospital, who diagnosed definite signs of mental illness in Smith and felt that previous injuries to Hickock’s head could have affected his behavior.[11] This opinion was not admitted in the trial, however, because under Kansas law the psychiatrist could only opine on the defendant’s sanity at the time of the crime.[11]

The jury deliberated for only 45 minutes before finding both Hickock and Smith guilty of murder. Their convictions carried a mandatory death sentence at the time.[citation needed]

On appeal, Smith and Hickock contested the determinations that they were sane, and asserted that media coverage of the crime and trial had biased the jury,[12] and that they had received inadequate assistance from their attorneys. Aspects of these appeals were submitted three times to the United States Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case.[13]

After five years on death row at the Kansas State Penitentiary, Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965. Hickock was executed first and was pronounced dead at 12:41 a.m. after hanging for nearly 20 minutes. Smith followed shortly afterward and was pronounced dead at 1:19 a.m.[14]

Coverage and public discussion[edit]

During the first few months of their trial and afterward, Hickock and Smith’s murder case went unnoticed by most Americans. It was not until months before their executions that they became “two of the most famous murderers in history.”[15] On 18 January 1960, Time magazine published “Kansas: The Killers”, a story about the murders.[16] Inspired by that article, Truman Capote wrote, in 1965 serialized in The New Yorker, and in 1966 published as a “non-fiction novel“, titled In Cold Blood, a true-crime book that detailed the murders and trial. Due to the brutality and severity of the crimes, the trial was covered nationwide, and even received some coverage internationally.[citation needed]

The notoriety of the murders and subsequent trial brought lasting effects to the small Kansas town, and Capote became so famous and related to trials that he was called to help the Senate in an examination of the court case.[11] The trial also brought into the national spotlight a discussion about the death penalty and mental illness.[15] Capote expressed that after completing the book and interviewing Hickock and Smith, he opposed the death penalty.[11]

This trial has also been cited as an example of “the limitations of the M’Naghten rules (also called M’Naghten test).”[15] The M’Naghten rules are used to determine whether or not a criminal was insane at the time of their crime and therefore incapable of being tried fairly. Authors such as Karl Menninger strongly criticized the M’Naghten test, calling it absurd. Many “lawyers, judges, and psychiatrists” have sought to “get around” the M’Naghten rules.[17] In Intention – Law and Society, James Marshall further criticizes the M’Naghten rules, calling into question the psychological principles upon which the rules are based. He stated that “the M’Naghten rules… are founded on an erroneous hypothesis that behavior is based exclusively on intellectual activity and capacity.”[18]

In 2009, 50 years after the Clutter murders, the Huffington Post asked Kansas citizens about the effects of the trial, and their opinions of the book and subsequent movie and television series about the events. Many respondents said they had begun to lose their trust in others, “doors were locked. Strangers eyed with suspicion.” Many still felt greatly affected and believed Capote had in a way taken advantage of their “great tragedy.”[19] An article in The New York Times states that in the small Holcomb, Kansas community, “neighborliness evaporated. The natural order seemed suspended. Chaos poised to rush in.”[20]

Capote’s research[edit]

Capote became interested in the murders after reading about them in The New York Times.[21] He brought his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee (who would later win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel To Kill a Mockingbird) to help gain the confidence of the locals in Kansas.

Capote did copious research for the book, ultimately compiling 8,000 pages of notes.[22] His research also included letters from Smith’s Army buddy, Don Cullivan, who was present during the trial.[23]

After the criminals were found, tried, and convicted, Capote conducted personal interviews with both Smith and Hickock. Smith especially fascinated Capote; in the book he is portrayed as the more sensitive of the two killers. The book was not completed until after Smith and Hickock were executed.

An alternate explanation for Capote’s interest holds that The New Yorker presented the Clutter story to him as one of two choices for a story; the other was to follow a Manhattan cleaning woman on her rounds. Capote supposedly chose the Clutter story, believing it would be the easier assignment.[24] Capote later wrote a piece about following a cleaning woman, which he entitled “A Day’s Work” and included in his book Music for Chameleons.

Veracity[edit]

In Cold Blood brought Capote much praise from the literary community. Yet critics have questioned its veracity, arguing that Capote changed facts to suit the story, added scenes that never took place, and manufactured dialogue.[6][25] Phillip K. Tompkins noted factual discrepancies in Esquire in 1966 after he traveled to Kansas and talked to some of the people whom Capote had interviewed. Josephine Meier was the wife of Finney County Undersheriff Wendle Meier, and she denied that she heard Smith cry or that she held his hand, as described by Capote. In Cold Blood indicates that Meier and Smith became close, yet she told Tompkins that she spent little time with Smith and did not talk much with him. Tompkins concluded:

Capote has, in short, achieved a work of art. He has told exceedingly well a tale of high terror in his own way. But, despite the brilliance of his self-publicizing efforts, he has made both a tactical and a moral error that will hurt him in the short run. By insisting that “every word” of his book is true he has made himself vulnerable to those readers who are prepared to examine seriously such a sweeping claim.

True crime writer Jack Olsen also commented on the fabrications:

I recognized it as a work of art, but I know fakery when I see it…. Capote completely fabricated quotes and whole scenes…. The book made something like $6 million in 1960s money, and nobody wanted to discuss anything wrong with a moneymaker like that in the publishing business.

His criticisms were quoted in Esquire, to which Capote replied, “Jack Olsen is just jealous.”[26]

That was true, of course…. I was jealous—all that money? I’d been assigned the Clutter case by Harper & Row until we found out that Capote and his cousin [sic] Harper Lee had been already on the case in Dodge City for six months…. That book did two things. It made true crime an interesting, successful, commercial genre, but it also began the process of tearing it down. I blew the whistle in my own weak way. I’d only published a couple of books at that time—but since it was such a superbly written book, nobody wanted to hear about it.[26]

The prosecutor in the case was Duane West, and he claims that the story lacks veracity because Capote failed to get the true hero right. Richard Rohlader took the photo showing that two culprits were involved, and West suggests that Rohlader was the one deserving the greatest praise. Without that picture, West believes, the crime might not have been solved. West had been a friend of Capote’s for a while during the writing of the book, including being Capote’s guest in New York City for Hello, Dolly! and meeting Carol Channing after the show. Their relationship soured when Capote’s publisher attempted to get West to sign a non-compete agreement to prevent him from writing his own book about the murders.

Alvin Dewey was the lead investigator portrayed in In Cold Blood, and he said that the scene in which he visits the Clutters’ graves was Capote’s invention. Other Kansas residents whom Capote interviewed have claimed that they or their relatives were mischaracterized or misquoted.[27] Dewey said that the rest of the book was factually accurate, but further evidence indicates that it is not as “immaculately factual” as Capote had always claimed it to be. The book depicts Dewey as being the brilliant investigator who cracks the Clutter murder case, but files recovered from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation show that Floyd Wells came forward to name Hickock and Smith as likely suspects, but Dewey did not immediately act on the information, as the book portrays him doing, because he still held to his belief that the murders were committed by locals who “had a grudge against Herb Clutter”.[6]

Ronald Nye is the son of Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Harold R. Nye, and he collaborated with author Gary McAvoy in disclosing parts of his father’s personal investigative notebooks to challenge the veracity of In Cold Blood. Their book And Every Word is True[28] lays out previously unknown facts of the investigation suggesting that Herbert Clutter’s death may have been a murder-for-hire plot.

Publication[edit]

In Cold Blood was first published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, beginning with the September 25, 1965, issue. The piece was an immediate sensation, particularly in Kansas, where the usual number of New Yorker copies sold out immediately. In Cold Blood was first published in book form by Random House on January 17, 1966.[29][30] The book, however, was copyrighted in 1965, and this date appears on the title page of most printings of the book and even in some library indices as the original publication date. The Library of Congress lists 1966 as the publication date and 1965 as the copyright date.[31]

The cover, which was designed by S. Neil Fujita, shows a hatpin with what appeared originally as a red drop of blood at its top end. After Capote first saw the design, he requested that the drop be made a deeper shade of red to represent the passage of time since the incident. A black border was added to the ominous image.[32]

Reviews and impact[edit]

Writing for The New York Times, Conrad Knickerbocker praised Capote’s talent for detail throughout the novel and declared the book a “masterpiece” — an “agonizing, terrible, possessed, proof that the times, so surfeited with disasters, are still capable of tragedy”.[33]

In a controversial review of the novel, published in 1966 for The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann, criticising Capote’s writing style throughout the novel, states that Capote “demonstrates on almost every page that he is the most outrageously overrated stylist of our time” and later asserts that “the depth in this book is no deeper than its mine-shaft of factual detail; its height is rarely higher than that of good journalism and often falls below it.”[34]

Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay “Pornoviolence“: “The book is neither a who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught, since the answers to both questions are known from the outset… Instead, the book’s suspense is based largely on a totally new idea in detective stories: the promise of gory details, and the withholding of them until the end.”[35]

In The Independent‘s Book of a Lifetime series, reviewer Kate Colquhoun asserts that “the book – for which he made a reputed 8000 pages of research notes – is plotted and structured with taut writerly flair. Its characters pulse with recognisable life; its places are palpable. Careful prose binds the reader to his unfolding story. Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist.”[36]

Adaptations[edit]

Three film adaptations have been produced based upon the book. The first focuses on the details of the book, whereas the later two explore Capote’s fascination with researching the novel. In Cold Blood (1967) was directed by Richard Brooks and stars Robert Blake as Perry Smith and Scott Wilson as Richard Hickock. It features John Forsythe as investigator Alvin Dewey from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation who apprehended the killers.[37][38] It was nominated for Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Adapted Screenplay.[38][39]

The second and third films focus on Capote’s experiences in writing the story and his subsequent fascination with the murders. Capote (2005) stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Truman Capote, Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith, and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee.[40] The film was critically acclaimed[41] and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Keener), Best Director (Bennett Miller), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Dan Futterman).[42]

J. T. Hunter’s novel In Colder Blood (2016) discusses Hickock and Smith’s possible involvement in the Walker family murders. Oni Press published Ande Parks and Chris Samnee‘s graphic novel Capote in Kansas (2005).[43] Capote’s book was adapted into the two-part television miniseries In Cold Blood (1996), starring Anthony Edwards as Dick Hickock, Eric Roberts as Perry Smith, and Sam Neill as Alvin Dewey.[44][45]

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Eight of us met at the stupendous new Vonnegut Library to talk about KV’s 1990 novel “Hocus Pocus.”    Joining our discussion leader, Max Goller, were Bill Briscoe, John Sturman, Karen Lystra, Kathleen Angelone, Dave Young, John Hawn, and Mack Hudson.

What is, we wondered, the etymology of ”hocus locus?”   Apparently the source is lost in antiquity but it may have come from the sham Latin phrase used in the ultimate magic show, the RCC mass “Hoc est corpus Meum.”

The structure of this novel is significant.   As KV explains in the set-up,  the protagonist has written the entire novel on scraps of paper,  bubble-gum wrappers and what have you.  These are then assembled into the novel as separate paragraphs.  Writing in bursts seems to suit KV’s style and  he often characterizes such short passages as “jokes” used to help make some point.  He never seems to take himself all that seriously.  We were impressed by the way that KV would plant a seed early in the novel and, to our surprise, develop it later, going full circle.  The scrappy motif seemed to facilitate such riffs.

The naming of characters always occupies KV.   The anti-hero here is Eugene Debs Hartke.  Hoosiers will recognize Eugene Debs as the Terre Hautean socialist who ran for US President several times in the early 20th Century.  Vance Hartke was the hapless mid-century US Senator from Evansville whose conflict with his fellow Democrat LBJ turned him into a strong opponent of the War in Viet Nam which ended fifteen years before the novel and which KV also strongly opposed.  Unlike WWII, it was not a good war.     The man who wanted to be the prison’s shop teacher, John Donner,  brought to mind the phrase “People who eat people, are the luckiest people in the world.”     Although KV’s favorite writer, Kilgore Trout, did not make an appearance by name,  he was surely the author of “The Protocols of the Elders of Trafalmadore” which appeared serially in the porno mag “Black Garter Belt.”

Strangely enough, in 1990, the Japanese were buying up all the high-priced real estate in the US and there was speculation that they would own us.  Thirty years later, the Japanese seem to have receded and the Chinese are temporarily taking their place.  Maybe Trump will stop them.     Although KV would surely have detested Donald J. Trump,  he voiced the displeasure with the ruling class that led half the country to elect that outsider.   The Japanese are running the now-segregated prison where Hartke works after he was fired by the joke junior college for  his politically incorrect behavior.   Like our soldiers in the middle-east,  the Japanese prison guards are rotated through for six month periods.  It is seen as a plus that there is a language barrier between them and the Afro-American convicts they guard.

There are no heroes or villains in KV’s world.  The anti-hero, Eugene Debs Hartke,  has no set values and is pushed around by fate.  He seems to be consumed later in his life with thoughts about the  number Vietnamese he has killed and the number  of women he has laid.  He ends the novel with a relatively long, but simple, arithmetic problem.  If the reader bothers to solve it, he or she will arrive at the number 82 which, quite coincidentally,  satisfies his quest.  That number will be the epitaph on his tombstone.

We gave this novel a rousing 8.4 on the fabulous ten-point KV scale. 

We adjourned for lunch at St Joseph’s Brewery and Public House,  540 N. College, Indianapolis, IN.  Our next convergence will be at 11AM on December 12, 2019 when Phill Watts will help us get through KV’s “Slapstick” (1976).    Please join us next month at the KV Memorial Library, 543 Indiana Avenue for another engaging discussion and conversation. 

 

Dave Young

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Hocus Pocus (novel)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Like many of Vonnegut’s novels, Hocus Pocus uses a non-linear narrative and has a plot centered on a major event heavily alluded to until the final chapters.

The main character is Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam War veteran, college professor, and carillonneur who realizes that he has killed exactly as many people as the number of women he has had sex with. The character’s name is a homage to American labor and political leader Eugene V. Debs and anti-war senator Vance Hartke, both from Vonnegut’s home state, Indiana.[1]

The main character’s name-sharing with Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist Party of America candidate for President of the United States (one of his candidacies occurred while he was in prison), is explicitly discussed in the book. The following quote from Eugene V. Debs appears several times: “…while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

In an editor’s note at the beginning of the book, Vonnegut claims to have found hundreds of scraps of paper of varying sizes, from wrapping paper to business cards, sequentially numbered by their author (Hartke) in order to form a narrative of some kind.[2] The breaks between pieces of paper often signal a sort of ironic “punchline”. This theme of an episodic narrative and scraps of information is echoed in one recurring feature of the novel, a computer program called GRIOT. By entering the details of a person’s life, the user can be given an approximation of what sort of life that person might have had based on the database of lives the program can access. The main pieces of information required for GRIOT to work are: age, race, degree of education, and drug use.

Hartke mentions early on that he is suffering from tuberculosis at the time of his writings, and writes the word “cough” in the text every now and again as well as other descriptors to represent times when he coughed aloud while writing.

One of Hartke’s quirks is to use numerals rather than words to represent numbers (e.g. “1” instead of “one” or “1,000,000” instead of “one million”). In the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book, Vonnegut speculates that Hartke thought “…that numbers lost much of their potency when diluted by an alphabet”.

Throughout the novel, Hartke wants to write a list of all the women he has made love to and another list consisting of all those he had killed during the Vietnam War. He becomes fascinated with how large each number will be. At the end of the novel, Eugene says that these numbers are the same and gives a method for calculating the number using other numbers mentioned in the book (e.g., “… the greatest number of children known to have come from the womb of just 1 woman”). The number is 82.

The entire narrative is laced with Eugene’s thoughts and observations about the Vietnam war, history, and social conditions, especially class and prejudice.

Like almost all of Vonnegut’s books, this is an account told in the past tense by a character who shares his background with Vonnegut.

Plot summary:

Eugene is fired from his job as a college professor after having several of his witticisms surreptitiously recorded by the daughter of a popular conservative commentator. Eugene then becomes a teacher at a nearby overcrowded prison run by a Japanese corporation. His employer, and occasional acquaintance, is the prison’s warden, Hiroshi Matsumoto. After a massive prison break, Eugene’s former college is occupied by escapees from the prison, who take the staff hostage. Eventually the college is turned into a prison, since the old prison was destroyed in the breakout. Eugene is ordered to be the warden of the prison, but then becomes an inmate, presumably via the same type of “hocus pocus” that led to his dismissal from his professorship.

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to talk about Lyne Olson’s “Citizens of London” (2015) with the knowledgeable help of Karen Lystra who expertly guided our discussion. Others participating were: John Sturman, Diane Richards, Phil Watts, John Hawn, Bill Briscoe, Dave Young, Mack Hudson, and Max Goller.

This deeply researched and well-written 400 page tome describing a fascinating period in 20th Century history gave us plenty to talk about. We had to grouse about the conflict between detailed coverage and manageable length. Alternative subtitles for this work might well have been “How American Ex-Pats Saved the British Empire” or “No Sex Please, We’re British.”

Some were disappointed that there was little detail about the actual D-Day Landing in Normandy. Olson must have concluded that that was well-covered elsewhere. A good account was given of the decisions that led up to that fateful day. Stalin wanted a second front to take the pressure off Russia, but Churchill resisted and pushed for an invasion through Italy.  Fortunately he did not prevail. Olson does not sugar-coat the strife among the Allies. FDR and Churchill struggled to overcome animosities that dated back to the first World War.

Olson devoted much space to the role of technology in winning the war. American General “Hap” Arnold was a strong supporter of high-altitude bombers and had little interest in developing aircraft that could protect them. Tommy Hitchcock (1900-1944), a famous playboy and polo player in his younger years became a WWI pilot in the Lafayette Esquadrille and a lifetime supporter of aviation. His advocacy for the P-51 Mustang fighter made a huge difference in the air war – particularly after the fighter’s Allison engine was replaced but the much more powerful Rolls-Royce engine. F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled his Tom Buchanan in the “Great Gatsby” (1925) on Hitchcock and used him again for Tommy Barban in “Tender is the Night” (1934). Hitchcock, famous as a “chase” pilot often served as a test pilot and was doing so when he was killed in a crash in April, 1944.

Diane Richards shared with us a photo of her aunt, Helen Richards Prosser (1921-1976) who was one of “the originals” in Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) organization. She was in the first class of 28 to train as ferry pilots at Houston, TX. Eventually 1,074 women graduated in this program and made a huge contribution to the war effort by delivering planes from the manufacturer to air bases. They also helped in training fighter pilots by towing targets for target practice. Unfortunately, some of them were shot down. Initially, they were not considered part of the military and received few benefits. When they were killed in accidents, their families were expected to pay to have their bodies shipped home. Ms. Prosser’s personal papers are archived at Texas Women’s University, Denton, TX.

Note was taken of the egotism of the Generals and Field Marshalls, particularly Montgomery.  Eisenhower was a chain smoker and he famously would rearrange the order of formal dinners so that he could have a smoke break.

The “citizens of London” (Ambassador John “Gil” Winant, Edward R. Murrow, and Averell Harriman) supported the Brits during the Blitz when much of America was still isolationist.  King George and Churchill cultivated them and they each had sexual relationships with Churchill’s relatives. Murrow and Harriman were simultaneously shagging Churchill’s ex-daughter-in-law, Pamela Churchill while the married Winant was diddling Churchill’s daughter, Sarah. Pamela, the consummate courtesan, was said to have been an expert in the bedroom ceilings of rich men. Decades later, she married Harriman and was appointed by Bill Clinton US Ambassador to France, a primo diplomatic post if there ever was one. Winant, unhappy with his life and marriage after the war (and rejected by Sarah Churchill) put a bullet in his head in 1947. The chain-smoking Murrow endeared himself to the Brits by reporting back to America the difficulties they were experiencing and chipping away at Yankee isolationism. Harriman was not so well-liked. His focus seemed to be on preserving the economic interests of the American elites.

Olson draws a comprehensive picture of life in London (Airstrip One in Orwell’s 1984) during the war. The grit of the citizenry who often spent their nights in fetid bomb shelters but nevertheless got up and went to work the next day was applauded. We wondered if Americans would rise to the occasion in similar circumstances. Women played an important role in “lubricating” a war-torn society to keep it running. They cleaned up the shelters and kept the home fires burning. Although American help was greatly appreciated there was some resentment shown toward American GI’s. The problem was that they were “over-fed, over-sexed, and over-here.” According to Olson, the Brits preferred Black Americans to the White Yankees as they were more polite, soft-spoken, and Southern. Many pubs and shops posted signs encouraging Blacks to enter while discouraging White GI’s.

How does all of this relate to our famous WWII veteran, Kurt Vonnegut? Some saw in Winant the strain of kindness that runs through KV’s approach to life. That was apparent in Winant’s speech to the striking coal miners he addressed in an effort to get them to keep producing during the war. We also reflected on the absurdity of war, which appears in KV’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and more pointedly in Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22.”

The Dresden/Coventry thing came up. KV was obsessed and may have had a form of PTSD over witnessing the horrific bombing of Dresden in which 100,000 souls were initially thought to have been incinerated. The number was probably closer to 25,000. This relentless bombing of a city with little military value only three months before the end of the war was thought by some to have been revenge for the German bombing of Coventry, a center of engineering and manufacturing. The Luftwaffe sent 400 Bombers on 11/14/1940 to kill 568 citizens of Coventry and sporadically bombarded the city until 8/3/1942 ultimately killing 1,236. The bombing of Dresden on 2/13/45 involved 722 British Bombers and 527 US Army Air Force Bombers. Apparently they were trying to use up all the excess bombs at the end of the war. Some revenge!

We concluded that Olson’s heart was with Winant and that Murrow and Harriman were just added attractions. The coda to this novel is Eric Sevareid’s observation that the phrase “I was a citizen of London” could be said with as much pride as any military man relating his war-time battles.

We rated this an outstanding 9.25 of the stellar KV ten-point scale (Gene Helveston, who could not be with us, e-mailed in a ten.)  We then adjourned for lunch to the Stardust Cafe in the Indiana History Center, a short walk away from the library.

Because of the holidays, our next two meetings will be on the 2nd Thursday of each month, November 14, 2019 and December 12, 2019.   In November, Max Goller will lead us through the adventures of Eugene Debs Hartke in KV’s anti-war novel “Hocus Pocus” (1990). Join us at 11AM at the new Kurt Vonnegut Library, 543 Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis, IN.

Dave Young

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From: warhistoryonline.com
CITIZENS OF LONDON – Review by Mark Barnes
FEBRUARY 20, 2015

Quite a few years ago I was working on a paper in London where one of the newer staff was an American lady who was bullish about the superiority of American culture over what we mere mortals had here in the OldeWorld. She would illustrate this with the sorry claim that there were “no songs about London” as opposed to many of the showstoppers about New York or Chicago everyone knew at a time when Frank Sinatra, especially, was still going strong. Now, maybe its because I’m a Londoner, but I found this immensely irritating and she was actually quite wrong. Fair to say much of the lyrical output relating to London came before radio in the golden age of music hall, but this was stuff that the times dictated would stay at home in a country with strong regional tastes and identities and in my youth the songs we knew were alive and kicking even if we younger people preferred pop, rock or whatever.  Family weddings were usually the epitome of the archetypal Cockney knees up and there was no dissent. Then, as now, the power and reach of American music was undisputed, but we knew our roots if nothing else.
In 1941 Noël Coward penned his love song to the city as it brushed off the Blitz and got on with life.  While London Pride is another one of those songs that hasn’t really sustained in the eyes and ears of a modern audience it will have resonated with the Americans who form the backbone of this convincing history by Lynne Olson.
I was born at the tail end of the 1950s when the war was still a very recent experience for many of the people around me and the scars of it were visible everywhere. I could walk anywhere with my parents and they would point out the new builds in our neighbourhood and my mum would recall the sisters from her school year who died in the house that stood there or the cobbler who wouldn’t leave his shop and who died where that place now stands. Some of the stories were colourful and others quite horrible. A shelter where bombs broke the water pipes and all the people drowned. A policeman decapitated after shoving my mum and my aunt into a safe place. A school hit by a V2 rocket, but, mercifully, on a weekend. My grandfather on his very last leave from the war at sea narrowly escaping a chunk of gravestone blown through the window from a bomb exploding in the local cemetery. (The lump of stone was kept for years as a reminder). A factory where my mother and grandmother worked was the subject of threats by the pro-Nazi propagandist William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’; and although the factory was still there the last time I looked, all around it was the post war housing from where the Heinkels had missed the target.

This was the London that entranced the fabled journalist Ed Murrow and US Ambassador John G Winant. The contribution they made to building understanding between Britain and America was immense and the relationship we have inherited today is as much a consequence of their belief as all the other elements we have grown used to since 1945.
Olson tells us what an important man Winant became across the strata of wartime British life. I have to be honest here, because I had never heard of him before and I feel a little ashamed by that. He seems to have had an almost evangelical approach to Anglo-American relations and his role in promoting the British position to the US establishment as the Nazi threat mushroomed is quite remarkable. Breaking down the often implacable perceptions of isolationism was no mean feat. Now, obviously we know it was the Day of Infamy followed up by the reckless brinkmanship of a chauvinistic and unworldly Fuhrer that actually brought the USA into the world war and not the clear as daylight reality Winant and Churchill had regularly espoused that the Nazis would have to be stopped before it really was too late.  But of course once they were in, the Americans would insure there could only be one result.
Winant built a strong bond with Churchill, for whom he was a direct link to the ear of the American establishment. I’ve not made my failure to buy into the enduring myth of Winston Churchill a secret. He has more minuses than pluses for me and his attitudes towards domestic issues in Britain and Ireland colour my overall opinion of him, although his record during the period of greatest threat in 1940-41 is immense.  A keen artist in her youth, my mother keeps two of her drawings from those years framed in her house – Churchill and Monty. Their place in the hearts and minds of Britons who lived through the war are secure but don’t always assume it is one of universal blind admiration. Monty we can leave aside, but Churchill is so important to 20th Century British history, even the fiftieth anniversary of his funeral has created a large slice of news in the UK.
For all his faults, Churchill could see that the Nazi threat to the United States was real, but he could never separate it from the precipitous state of affairs affecting Britain and it was easy for isolationists to trump this state of affairs in any argument for action by the United States before Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war. He was an undoubted Anglophile, but Winant could see the writing on the wall, too. It is no wonder he became so central to promoting the British argument but he never really won it because events more or less caught up by themselves. He was at times isolated by the attentions of politicians in Washington and by rivals fetching up in London and his hopes for a significant role in the post war world were stymied by Roosevelt and the changing face of world politics.

Ed Murrow is a towering figure in so many ways and his importance to the history of broadcast news and the way it can be used to influence hearts and minds is crucial. He really was a giant of his age. World War II was perhaps a series of episodes in his life and work,but his adherence to strong principles may well have been crowned by his deconstruction of McCarthyism at a time when America faced new threats. Murrow loved London and returned as often as he could to a city he very much saw as a home from home. Olson tells us he was quite uncomfortable returning to America during wartime to a land without air raids, the blackout or the privations of shortages of food, fuel and clothing. We learn about his strong bond with friends at the BBC who would really have liked to have stolen him from CBS. The book underlines how we must never underestimate the importance of people like Murrow.

The third arm of the book is Averell Harriman and I detect that of the three he is the one the author has the least empathy for. He was an opportunist who sort to advance himself by any means in pursuit of power, influence and business opportunities. Can we blame him? The short answer is no. He turns up in this book during important episodes of the war’s story or when he is making hay and I suppose from the British perspective he seems the least sincere with a kind of detachment I can’t admire. Harriman cultivated a relationship with Churchill and usurped Winant in his contacts with Washington at critical times. He was living the dream and promoted himself at every opportunity. I remember him as one of the talking heads in the ground breaking World At War documentary series of the 1970s when he was one of few survivors from the movers and shapers of the wartime period.

The author delves much further into the complicated impact Americans had on Britain during the war and does not avoid the overpaid, oversexed and over here legend that follows the story of US servicemen during their stay in Britain. The thorny issue of Roosevelt’s antipathy to the British Empire and his quest to undermine it is central to the man’s relationship with Churchill and his Cabinet. I do not defend empire. I was at the National Portrait Gallery recently looking at the great, the lucky and the brave who built the edifice looking down from the safety of their years. I don’t have a smug feeling of wonder that Britain could have dominated so many countries and peoples for good or ill for the best part of two centuries but am rather in awe that people from a small island could have achieved it.
It’s all pretty academic now. The British Empire was in decline after the ruinous Great War and the financial and political tsunami that devastated it from 1939-45 combined with a yearning for change within Britain itself gave all the nails the coffin needed for hammering in. Nothing lasts forever and all empires fall in the end. The thing that annoyed imperialists and modernising realists alike in Britain on the end of Roosevelt’s lectures was that his vision of American altruism in having takenterritories from Spain and lands from Mexico, quite apart from the stark truth of racial segregation within the United States did not put him in a position to be telling them what to do.

The author makes effort to point out that the relationship between Britain and America was far from a rosy one. I said I’d leave Monty aside, but he and others were bound to butt up against the people other writers readily describe as Anglophobes and it really comes down to how much the exposure to the class system and culture of particular Britons exacerbated the problem. Some of these Brits were steadfastly peeing off their own countrymen, quite apart from what they did to foreigners and we know it wasn’t all one-way traffic.

Britain went to war on the principle of Polish liberty and it remains the tragic irony that the victory achieved in 1945 came with it utterly blown away by the harsh reality of the real politik practiced by Stalin and Roosevelt. Churchill’s immense frustration at his powerlessness to intervene must have been a painful experience as the truth of the new world order washed over him. There is no comfort that he folded in the end and acquiesced to the absorption of Poland into the Soviet sphere. But worse was to come for him in the summer of 1945 when the first general election held in Britain for ten years swept him and his party away in an outpouring of rejection for his policies and prejudices.

My dad used to tell me his generation were never going to miss out on what the men of 1918 believed they had earned. He was patriotic, avowedly socialist in a way I would find difficult to define for an American audience with fixed views of what that means. But he was a monarchist, possessing a pragmatic view that having a king or queen saved us from the misery of watching the political class squabbling over who might be president of a British republic. Believe me, in a general election year such as this, that view makes a whole lot of sense.

I’ve had this argument with my mates over a few beers that Britain didn’t so much win World War II as survived it. What did she win other than years of debt and decline? But at least she was free and the much-needed changes in society were taking hold. Looking at things now with the recession still biting in our era of austerity when the latest in a periodic series of recoveries looks a little pale it is easy to identify with aspects of the post war world when the sun was well on the way to setting on the empire and the United States was in the ascendant position the Greatest Generation had earned for it. Winant, Murrow and even Harriman and others espoused the so-called special relationship between America and Britain that remains in the hearts of elements of the British political elite today, if no one else. I am not sure there really is one.Franklin Roosevelt really was a great man, but his vision of American power and greatness had no room for sentiment and why should it have? He was doing his job.

It all comes down to timing. The period when Britain stood alone against the Nazi menace has a rightful place in our history. But it marked the end of days as Churchill and the men of his political era knew it. Murrow may have been there to record it and perhaps John G Winant, in his own way, was there to make the pill easier to swallow even if he hadn’t recognised all the brutal realities himself.  But he never really escaped those times that were the high watermark of his days and he took his own life as his fortunes declined and I find that terribly sad because he is largely forgotten today as I have readily admitted.

Lynne Olson has her three main men entwined with Churchill politically and, even more so, romantically with women of his family. This book is full of opportunists! The connections between them have helped graft a genuinely fascinating history of Britain and America during those dramatic years. The place of London throughout it all is central and I take pride from that for obvious reasons.  My ancestors were building bits of the city in the century after the Great Fire and I lived with others who were there to see swathes of it destroyed again. I don’t live in London anymore and I couldn’t afford it even if I wanted to, but the city beloved by Winant and Murrow will always mean as much to me as it did to them and their deep attachment to it is perhaps the strongest thing that resonates from this wonderful book.
CITIZENS OF LONDON
The Americans Who Stood With Britain In Its Darkest, Finest Hour
By Lynne Olson
Random House 
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7935-0

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

On a glorious autumn day, sixteen of us gathered at the splendidly new yet-to-be-opened Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to discuss KV’s breakout novel: “Slaughterhouse Five.” We tackled this work in our inaugural meeting in 2010 and revisited it in 2011 and 2013. John Sturman led the discussion. Those participating were: John Sturman, Marissa Renald, J. T. Andrews (visiting from Cincinnati), Brett Stoker, John Hawn, Kathleen Angelone, Phil Watts, Bill Briscoe, Max Hudson, Mike Keys, Karen Lystra, Diane Richards, Max Goeller, Chris LaFave, Dave Young, and Jay Carr. The largest turnout we’ve had in many months!

We dispensed with the usual biography of the author as we have done that dozens of times. John, utilizing his training as a neurologist, launched with an examination of Billy Pilgrim’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We toured the many folds of the cerebral cortex and marveled at the tricks memory plays on us. Trauma results in suppression of memory which over time is recategorized and reintegrated, sometimes in different forms. The time travel and flashbacks in SH5 were KV’s attempts to work out the distressing events he and Billy witnessed in that terrible war.

Was Billy Pilgrim Cinderella? Much was made of the silver boot he found and how it fit him perfectly. KV had some interest in Cinderella. Shortly before his death in 2007 he published a short piece “At the Blackboard” in which he diagrammed the story arc of several stories (https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/arts-letters/blackboard). The bit that got the most attention was his comparison of Hamlet to Cinderella. He had worked up this theme before and some speculated that it reflected his antipathy toward the University of Chicago and its Department of Anthropology which had never had any respect for him. Anyway, he plots the story line of both on a good fortune/bad fortune axis and concludes that (their sex and standing notwithstanding) they both start in a state of bad fortune. Cinderella arcs through good and bad and ends up good when the prince tracks her down and elevates her status. Hamlet’s arc is not so clear in KV’s mind. At the end, he dies in a duel. It is not clear whether he goes to heaven or hell. In KV’s mind this inconclusive end proves that Shakespeare is not a good storyteller. So there you have it.

We bantered about KV’s problem about not having any kind of college degree until late in life. It was only after Harvard offered him a writer-in-residence job and withdrew it when they found that he did not even possess a bachelor’s degree. That’s when he leaned on the President of the University of Chicago who convinced his Department of Anthropology to accept his well-received novel “Cat’s Cradle” as his master’s thesis and approve his degree. We also talked about his complicated relationship with his patient editor, Knox Burger.

WWII was over and done twenty-three years before KV was able to get his thoughts about Dresden together and put them on paper. “Mother Night” was a somewhat lighter precursor about the dark Nazi era. John expounded that SH5 was a book that KV did not want to write but had to write to work out his feelings about the war. The book resounds with fatalism in the often (106 times) expressed phrase “So it Goes” to denote the passing of life.

Montana Wildhack was discussed and we speculated that she was based on a friend from Shortridge High School. Margaret “Mig” Jameson Wildhack. The happiest moments of Billy Pilgrim’s life were those he spent on the planet Tralfamadore with her, performing sex for the amusement of the extra-terrestrials. The first and last chapters of SH5 frame the rest of the book and are written in the voice of KV. His physical description of Billy somewhat resembles his own. We were left to wonder if Billy’s enormous “wang” really belonged to KV.   Ah, the stuff of dreams!

We rated this a 9.0 on the stupendous ten point KV Scale. Then ten of us were off to lunch at Burgerhaus (on the Canal at 335 West Ninth Street, Indianapolis). Our next effort will be on October  24, 2019:  “Citizens of London” (2010)  by Lynne Olson.    Karen Lystra will guide us through this non-fiction tale of three Americans who fell under the spell of Churchill while living and working in London during WWII. Join us at 11AM for discussion at the KV Library, 543 Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis, IN. There should be ample off-street parking. Lunch will follow at 12:30 at a venue of Karen’s choice.

Dave Young

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Plot (from Wikipedia)

The story is told in a non-linear order, and events become clear through flashbacks and time travel experiences from the unreliable narrator. The narrator describes the stories of Billy Pilgrim, an American man from the fictional town of Ilium, New Yorkwho believes he was held in an alien zoo on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore and has experienced time travel.

As a chaplain’s assistant in the United States Army during World War II, Billy is an ill-trained, disoriented, and fatalistic American soldier who finds he does not like war and refuses to fight (“Billy wouldn’t do anything to save himself”).[4] He is captured in 1944 by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy approaches death due to a string of events. Before the Germans capture him, he meets Roland Weary, a patriot, warmonger, and sadistic bully who derides Billy’s cowardice. When the two are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has and force him to wear painful wooden clogs. Weary eventually succumbs to gangrene caused by wounds from the stiff clogs. While dying in a rail car full of prisoners, Weary convinces fellow soldier Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame for his death. Lazzaro vows to avenge Weary’s death by killing Billy, because revenge is “the sweetest thing in life.”

At this moment, Billy becomes “unstuck in time” and has flashbacks from his former life. Billy and the other prisoners are transported by the Germans to Luxembourg. By 1945, the prisoners have arrived in the German city of Dresden to work in “contract labor” (forced labor). The Germans hold Billy and his fellow prisoners in an empty slaughterhousecalled Schlachthof-fünf (“slaughterhouse five”). During the extensive bombing of Dresden by the Allies, German guards hide with the prisoners in the slaughterhouse, which is partially underground and well-protected from the damage on the surface. As a result, they are among the few survivors of the firestorm that rages in the city between February 13 and 15, 1945. After V-E Day in May 1945, Billy is transferred to the United States and receives his honorable discharge in July 1945.

Soon, Billy is hospitalized with symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder and placed under psychiatric care. There, he shares a room with a man named Eliot Rosewater, who introduces Billy to the novels of an obscure science fiction author named Kilgore Trout. After his release, Billy marries Valencia Merble, whose father owns the Ilium School of Optometry that Billy later attends. Billy becomes a successful and wealthy optometrist. In 1947, Billy and Valencia’s first child, Robert, is born, and two years later their daughter Barbara is born. On Barbara’s wedding night, Billy is captured by an alien spaceship and taken to a planet many light-years away from Earth called Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians are described as being able to see in four dimensions, simultaneously observing all points in the space-time continuum. They universally adopt a fatalistic worldview: death means nothing to them, and their common response to hearing about death is “so it goes”.

On Tralfamadore, Billy is put in a transparent geodesic dome exhibit in a zoo; the dome represents a house on Earth. The Tralfamadorians later abduct a pornographic film star named Montana Wildhack, who had disappeared on Earth and was believed to have drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean. They intend to have her mate with Billy. She and Billy fall in love and have a child together. Billy is instantaneously sent back to Earth in a time warp to relive past or future moments of his life.

In 1968, Billy and a co-pilot are the only survivors of a plane crash in Vermont. While driving to visit Billy in the hospital, Valencia also crashes and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning. Billy shares a hospital room with Bertram Rumfoord, a Harvard history professor. They discuss the bombing of Dresden, which the professor claims was justified despite the great loss of civilian lives and the complete destruction of the city.

Billy’s daughter takes him home to Ilium. He escapes and flees to New York City. In Times Square he visits a pornographic book store, where he discovers books written by Kilgore Trout and reads them. Later in the evening, when he discusses his time travels to Tralfamadore on a radio talk show, he is evicted from the studio. He returns to his hotel room, falls asleep, and time-travels back to 1945 in Dresden, where the book ends.

Due to the non-chronological storytelling, other parts of Billy’s life are told throughout the book. After being evicted from the radio studio, Barbara treats Billy as a child and often monitors him. Robert becomes starkly anti-Communist and a Green Beret. Billy eventually dies in 1976 after giving a speech in a baseball stadium in which he predicts his own death and proclaims that “if you think death is a terrible thing, then you have not understood a word I’ve said.” Billy is soon after shot by an assassin with a laser gun, commissioned by the elderly Lazzaro.

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Image:BookCYKAC.jpgImage:MarkTwain.jpg

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We gathered among the rolling hills of Carmel-by-the-Interstate at the Woodland Country Club to discuss Mark Twain’s (1889) Alternative History and Satire “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” We chomped our lunch down as we spent 90 minutes going back to the 6th Century AD and followed the episodic adventures of Sir Pissalot as Twain makes light of the Arthurian legend. Those going along for the joust were Phil Watts, Karen Lystra, Bill Briscoe, John Sturman, Mark Hudson, Gene Heleveston, Jay Carr, and Dave Young. Bill led the discussion and our resident Twain scholar, Karen, chipped in with stories about the Missouri steamboat pilot and various intrigues in the Twain community. Bill supplied us with a colorful printout of several book covers of the work at hand.

Out of the plethora of editions, Karen recommends the annotated version from the University of California Press at Berkeley where Twain’s papers are maintained by the Mark Twain Project. This edition is illustrated by Dan Beard whose drawings Twain considered critical additions to the text. Many would consider Twain to be the progenitor of time/travel fiction. However, he was only one of several American authors to work in the genre in the late 19th century.

Some of us found Twain’s circumloquacious style to be tedious. Why couldn’t he just get to the point? Karen explained that for much of his career Twain was a “subscription” writer, paid by the word and expected to pad his novels and stories so that his subscribers felt they got their money’s worth. Twain’s literary reputation has endured better than most of his contemporaries and his diverse work is still widely read. However, due to censorship issues involving “Nigger Jim” and so forth he is not taught often in school.

Twain was not sentimental and hated romantic claptrap. He detested Sir Walter Scott and blamed his glorious treatment of battle for the attitude that led to the War Between the States. Twain was more comfortable with masculine tales such as the semi-autobiographical “Roughing It” which addressed his failed attempt to become a gold miner in California which led to his career as a writer. Twain was emphatically opposed to slavery and imperialism. He reacted to a mass lynching in Missouri with a bitter essay “The United States of Lyncherdom” (1902) which was never published in his lifetime for fear it might affect the market for his works. Twain dabbled in science fiction. He constructed a mythical universe in the unfinished “3,000 Years Among the Microbes” which was subtitled “the autobiography of a microbe.”

Twain was unrestrained in his contempt for the Catholic religion, but nevertheless had an amiable 25 year relationship with his Irish housekeeper, Katy Leary.

Twain’s humor could not be suppressed. One of the funniest passages in “Connecticut Yankee” described the discomfort of Knights in their plated armor as they attempted to scratch themselves. Nitpickers have noticed that plated armor was not used until 300 years later but we allowed Twain literary license to compress time. His image of Knights of the Round Table riding bicycles also brought out a chuckle.

Parsing through this this lengthy, satirical, episodic novel is beyond the scope of this blog, so read the Wikipedia summary of the plot below if you wish to be reminded of the content. Twain would live for another twenty years, but the bitterness and pessimism that characterized his final years comes through in the final pages of this work.

The protagonist Yankee from Connecticut, Hank  Morgan (aka “The Boss”) and a few dozen of his cadets are fighting off 30,000 Roman Catholic Knights who are out to do him in. He and his crew are able to mow them all down with their Gatling guns, land mines, and electrified fencing. Unfortunately, they are trapped within a wall of dead bodies and eventually die of disease. So some fifty years before the advent of nuclear warfare, Twain foresaw the terrible role of technology in battle.  Someone in the group characterized this as “hubris of the highest order”  and a brilliant satire of Western Civilization.   The novel is relevant for today’s troubled world.

We assigned this novel an eight point rating on the fabulous ten point KV Scale. Our next adventure will happen at 11:00AM [time updated – DEY] on Thursday, September 26, 2019. We plan to meet at the new site of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, 543 Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis, IN. This could change as the space may still be undergoing renovation at that time.  John Sturman will lead us through Slaughterhouse Five, a novel the club has addressed numerous times in its ten year history but seems to be appropriate for our inaugural meeting in the new place.  This will be a busy week at the library as it will be “Banned Book Week” with many planned events.  Some remembrance was given to the mysterious Jack Dakota, a hardworking and controversial volunteer who contributed (or maybe did not) much to the original Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library.

Dave Young

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Plot excerpt from the all-knowing Wikipedia:

The novel is a comedy set in sixth-century England and its medieval culture through Hank Morgan’s view; he is a nineteenth-century resident of Hartford, Connecticut, who, after a blow to the head, awakens to find himself inexplicably transported back in time to early medieval England where he meets King Arthur himself. Hank, who had an image of that time that had been colored over the years by romantic myths, takes on the task of analyzing the problems and sharing his knowledge from 1300 years in the future to try to modernize, Americanize, and improve the lives of the people.

Many passages are quoted directly from Sir Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur, a late medieval collection of Arthurian legends that constitutes one of the main sources on the myth of King Arthur and Camelot. The frame narrator is a nineteenth-century man (ostensibly Mark Twain himself) who meets Hank Morgan in modern times and begins reading Hank Morgan’s book in the museum in which they both meet; later, characters in the story retell parts of it in Malory’s original language. A chapter on medieval hermits also draws from the work of William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

The Stranger

“‘Bridgeport?’ said I, pointing. ‘Camelot’, said he.”

The story begins as a first-person narrative in Warwick Castle, where a man details his recollection of a tale told to him by an “interested stranger” who is personified as a knight through his simple language and familiarity with ancient armor.[2]

After a brief tale of Sir Lancelot of Camelot and his role in slaying two giants from the third-person narrative—taken directly from Le Morte d’Arthur—the man named Hank Morgan enters and, after being given whiskey by the narrator, he is persuaded to reveal more of his story. Described through first-person narrative as a man familiar with the firearms and machinery trade, Hank is a man who had reached the level of superintendent due to his proficiency in firearms manufacturing, with two thousand subordinates. He describes the beginning of his tale by illustrating details of a disagreement with his subordinates, during which he sustained a head injury from a “crusher” to the head caused by a man named “Hercules” using a crowbar.[3] After passing out from the blow, Hank describes waking up underneath an oak tree in a rural area of Camelot, where he soon encounters the knight Sir Kay, riding by. Kay challenges him to a joust, which is quickly lost by the unweaponed, unarmored Hank as he scuttles up a tree. Kay captures Hank and leads him towards Camelot castle.[4] Upon recognizing that he has time-traveled to the sixth century, Hank realizes that he is the de facto smartest person on Earth, and with his knowledge he should soon be running things.

Hank is ridiculed at King Arthur’s court for his strange appearance and dress and is sentenced by King Arthur’s court (particularly the magician Merlin) to burn at the stake on 21 June. By a stroke of luck, the date of the burning coincides with a historical solar eclipse in the year 528, of which Hank had learned in his earlier life. While in prison, he sends the boy he christens Clarence (whose real name is Amyas le Poulet) to inform the King that he will blot out the sun if he is executed. Hank believes the current date to be 20 June; however, it is actually the 21st when he makes his threat, the day that the eclipse will occur at 12:03 p.m. When the King decides to burn him, the eclipse catches Hank by surprise. But he quickly uses it to his advantage and convinces the people that he caused the eclipse. He makes a bargain with the King, is released, and becomes the second most powerful person in the kingdom. (Twain may have drawn inspiration for this part of the story from a historical incident in which Christopher Columbus exploited foreknowledge of a lunar eclipse.)

Hank is given the position of principal minister to the King and is treated by all with the utmost fear and awe. His celebrity brings him to be known by a new title, elected by the people—”The Boss”. However, he proclaims that his only income will be taken as a percentage of any increase in the kingdom’s gross national product that he succeeds in creating for the state as Arthur’s chief minister, which King Arthur sees as fair. Although the people fear him and he has his new title, Hank is still seen as somewhat of an equal. The people might grovel to him if he were a knight or some form of nobility, but without that, Hank faces problems from time to time, as he refuses to seek to join such ranks.

The Takeover

After being made “the Boss”, Hank learns about medieval practices and superstitions. Having superior knowledge, he is able to outdo the alleged sorcerers and miracle-working church officials. At one point, soon after the eclipse, people began gathering, hoping to see Hank perform another miracle. Merlin, jealous of Hank having replaced him both as the king’s principal adviser and as the most powerful sorcerer of the realm, begins spreading rumors that Hank is a fake and cannot supply another miracle. Hank secretly manufactures gunpowder and a lightning rod, plants explosive charges in Merlin’s tower, then places the lightning rod at the top and runs a wire to the explosive charges. He then announces (during a period when storms are frequent) that he will soon call down fire from heaven and destroy Merlin’s tower, then challenges Merlin to use his sorcery to prevent it. Of course, Merlin’s “incantations” fail utterly to prevent lightning striking the rod, triggering the explosive charges and leveling the tower, further diminishing Merlin’s reputation.

Hank Morgan, in his position as King’s Minister, uses his authority and his modern knowledge to industrialize the country behind the back of the rest of the ruling class. His assistant is Clarence, a young boy he meets at court, whom he educates and gradually lets in on most of his secrets, and eventually comes to rely on heavily. Hank sets up secret schools, which teach modern ideas and modern English, thereby removing the new generation from medieval concepts, and secretly constructs hidden factories, which produce modern tools and weapons. He carefully selects the individuals he allows to enter his factories and schools, seeking to select only the most promising and least indoctrinated in medieval ideas, favoring selection of the young and malleable whenever possible.

As Hank gradually adjusts to his new situation, he begins to attend medieval tournaments. A misunderstanding causes Sir Sagramore to challenge Hank to a duel to the death; the combat will take place when Sagramore returns from his quest for the Holy Grail. Hank accepts, and spends the next few years building up 19th-century infrastructure behind the nobility’s back. At this point, he undertakes an adventure with a wandering girl named the Demoiselle Alisande a la Carteloise—nicknamed “Sandy” by Hank in short order—to save her royal “mistresses” being held captive by ogres. On the way, Hank struggles with the inconveniences of plate armor (actually an anachronism, which would not be developed until the High Middle Ages or see widespread use until the Late Middle Ages), and also encounters Morgan le Fay. The “princesses”, “ogres”, and “castles” are all revealed to be actually pigs owned by peasant swineherds, although to Sandy they still appear as royalty. Hank buys the pigs from the peasants and the two leave.

On the way back to Camelot, they find a travelling group of pilgrims headed for the Valley of Holiness. Another group of pilgrims, however, comes from that direction bearing the news that the valley’s famous fountain has run dry. According to legend, long ago the fountain had gone dry before as soon as the monks of the valley’s monastery built a bath with it; the bath was destroyed and the water instantly returned, but this time it has stopped with no clear cause. Hank is begged to restore the fountain, although Merlin is already trying. When Merlin fails, he claims that the fountain has been corrupted by a demon, and that it will never flow again. Hank, in order to look good, agrees that a demon has corrupted the fountain but also claims to be able to banish it; in reality, the “fountain” is simply leaking. He procures assistants from Camelot trained by himself, who bring along a pump and fireworks for special effects. They repair the fountain and Hank begins the “banishment” of the demon. At the end of several long German language phrases, he says “BGWJJILLIGKKK”, which is simply a load of gibberish, but Merlin agrees with Hank that this is the name of the demon. The fountain restored, Hank goes on to debunk another magician who claims to be able to tell what any person in the world is doing, including King Arthur. However, Hank knows that the King is riding out to see the restored fountain, and not “resting from the chase” as the “false prophet” had foretold to the people. Hank correctly states that the King will arrive in the valley.

Hank has an idea to travel amongst the poor disguised as a peasant to find out how they truly live. King Arthur joins him, but has extreme difficulty in acting like a peasant convincingly. Although Arthur is somewhat disillusioned about the national standard of life after hearing the story of a mother infected with smallpox, he still ends up getting Hank and himself hunted down by the members of a village after making several extremely erroneous remarks about agriculture. Although they are saved by a nobleman’s entourage, the same nobleman later arrests them and sells them into slavery.

Hank steals a piece of metal in London and uses it to create a makeshift lockpick. His plan is to free himself and the king, beat up their slave driver, and return to Camelot. However, before he can free the king, a man enters their quarters in the dark. Mistaking him for the slave driver, Hank rushes after him alone and starts a fight with him. They are both arrested. Although Hank lies his way out, in his absence the real slave driver has discovered Hank’s escape. Since Hank was the most valuable slave—he was due to be sold the next day—the man becomes enraged and begins beating his other slaves, who fight back and kill him. All the slaves, including the king, will be hanged as soon as the missing one—Hank—is found. Hank is captured, but he and Arthur are rescued by a party of knights led by Lancelot, riding bicycles. Following this, the king becomes extremely bitter against slavery and vows to abolish it when they get free, much to Hank’s delight.

Sagramore returns from his quest, and fights Hank. Hank defeats him and seven others, including Galahad and Lancelot, using a lasso. When Merlin steals Hank’s lasso, Sagramore returns to challenge him again. This time, Hank kills him with a revolver. He proceeds to challenge the knights of England to attack him en masse, which they do. After he kills nine more knights with his revolvers, the rest break and flee. The next day, Hank reveals his 19th century infrastructure to the country. With this fact he was called a wizard as he told Clarence to do so as well.

Interdict

Three years later, Hank has married Sandy and they have a baby. While asleep and dreaming, Hank says, “Hello-Central”—a reference to calling a 19th-century telephone operator—and Sandy believes that the mystic phrase to be the name of a former girlfriend or lover of his, and thus to please him names their child accordingly. However, the baby falls critically ill and Hank’s doctors advise him to take his family overseas while the baby recovers. In reality, it is a ploy by the Catholic Church to get Hank out of the country, leaving it without effective leadership. During the weeks that Hank is absent, Arthur discovers Guinevere‘s infidelity with Lancelot. This causes a war between Lancelot and Arthur, who is eventually killed by Sir Mordred.

The church then places the land under interdict, causing all people to break away from Hank and revolt. Hank meets with his good friend Clarence who informs him of the war thus far. As time goes on, Clarence gathers 52 young cadets, from ages 14 to 17, who are to fight against all of England. Hank’s band fortifies itself in Merlin’s Cave with a minefield, electric wire and Gatling guns. The Catholic Church sends an army of 30,000 knights to attack them, but the knights are slaughtered by the cadets wielding Hank’s modern weaponry.

However, Hank’s men are now trapped in the cave by a wall of dead bodies. Hank attempts to go offer aid to any wounded, but is stabbed by the first wounded man he tries to help, Sir Meliagraunce. He is not seriously injured, but is bedridden. Disease begins to set in amongst them. One night, Clarence finds Merlin weaving a spell over Hank, proclaiming that he shall sleep for 1,300 years. Merlin begins laughing deliriously, but ends up electrocuting himself on one of the electric wires. Clarence and the others all apparently die from disease in the cave.

More than a millennium later, the narrator finishes the manuscript and finds Hank on his deathbed having a dream about Sandy. He attempts to make one last “effect”, but dies before he can finish it.

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