Thursday, April 12, 2007

Memories of Sagaponak, 1989 ...

In an e-mail this evening, Jay mentioned that he was hoping for more details of my Vonnegut interview.

Well, why not? I have a better time remembering what happened when I was 19 than what happened yesterday. So here we go:

Kurt gave excellent directions to his house, an old cedar-shingled salt box with a weather-beaten American flag hanging from the eaves. I walked from the front door back. He walked from the backyard forward. We converged in the sunroom.

"Hi, I'm Kurt Vonnegut," he said. I smiled at his casual tone of voice. Some people are so famous that their names hardly seems like their names anymore. The man standing before me wasn't Kurt Vonnegut, Sagaponak resident on an August afternoon, he was Kurt Vonnegut, literary icon.

"Do you prefer a lot of gushing or just a little bit of gushing?" I asked.

No gushing. He was a no-gushing kind of guy. He was wearing white shorts and a turquoise polo shirt.

He was not wearing shoes.

He settled into a chair (I got the feeling it was "his" chair) and I positioned myself on the sofa.

I extracted Linda's poster from my portfolio.

"My friend Linda asked if I'd have you sign this for her," I said, handing it to him. It was folded, about the size of an album cover. He unfolded it on the coffee table in front of us. It was the quintessential picture of him, very professorial with a hint of sardonic, as though he thought the publicity photo was a bit absurd. "She suggested a kicky adverb," I continued. "Like 'passionately.' "

He signed it with a black Flair pen. (Did I produce it? Or, when it comes to a writer of his esteem, can one ever be out of reach?)

"For darling Linda," he wrote, and signed it in his very exaggerated way. "Sagaponak, N.Y., August 29, 1989."

I put it away and proceeded to ask him about Cat's Cradle.

As I wrote in yesterday's post, I'd read Cat's Cradle before our interview. The book begins, "Call me Jonah." Later in the book, there's a reference to a headstone in a cemetery.

"So, what's the name on the headstone?" I asked.

He looked at me as if I was dense.

"Mine," he said.

"But, the book begins 'Call me Jonah.' Why would the reader think the narrator is you?" and as I was speaking the words, a voice in my head was saying, "Shut up, Beth. SHUT UP. You're arguing with Kurt Vonnegut about ONE OF HIS OWN BOOKS."

I quickly got off the topic.

I asked him about Nelson Algren, my reason for being there.

In 1989, for my paper Coming to know Nelson Algren, I wrote of Kurt:

"He did a good job of illustrating Algren's dark side - his bitterness, his decline. 'He had spectacular success, then thhpppp!, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing.' He has a theory about writers who end up like Nelson: 'Just because you're famous doesn't mean they send you a check every week. You know, they just live too long.' "

Their friendship was limited. They had taught together at the University of Iowa. He had nominated Nelson for a medal of merit from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was invited to a party Nelson was throwing in honor of a journalist friend from Chicago. And he called Nelson's house the day of the party, the day Nelson died.

Salman Rushdie was visiting Vonnegut, recently after the release of his first book. Nelson had written a favorable review of it, and Salman wanted to meet him. Mr. Vonnegut had called Nelson's house to see if it was all right if he and his wife brought along a guest.

'Sag Harbor Police Department.'

'Sorry," he said. 'Wrong number.'

'Who were you calling?'

'Nelson Algren.'

'This is his house, but Mr. Algren is dead.'

I wanted to hear about the funeral, the people who attended it. But Mr. Vonnegut didn't go to the funeral. He had a speaking engagement that day. He couldn't tell me about the funeral, but he had plenty to say about writers and injustice.

I mentioned that I had read in my research that we're experiencing a Nelson Algren renaissance. He shook his head.

'We're not experiencing a James Farrell renaissance, either. A renaisssance can only begin at the university and the university can only teach books they can get their hands on. And with certain writers, the computer at the publisher says it's not worth keeping them in print.' I asked if he thought there was any way to keep these writers' names alive.

'We live in a disposable culture where 40 million people can't read. That is one Spain, that is one South Korea. Talk about keeping something alive? Talk about a huge corpse. You don't need a fire to burn down a library. Apathy'll do it.'

He thinks that Algren will vanish entirely, and he thinks he'll vanish entirely, too."

He stood up and said, "I've gotta go get some MicroShakes for dinner, but if you're still here when I get back, we can keep talking."

(When I told my friend Rob that line later, his jaw dropped. "What were you going to do?" he asked. "Just hang out in Vonnegut's house?!")

But I thanked him and said I didn't want to take up any more of his time. He remembered that a friend who lived nearby knew Nelson as well and offered to call her for me. He tried, but no one was home.

We walked outside together. He met my father, who had made himself scarce, poking around Sagaponak during my interview. I didn't think to get a picture with Kurt. But this is his house. And his trees.

I regretted not getting a picture with him. I called him the next day from a phone booth and asked him if I could stop by.

"I don't want to talk anymore," he said.

Fair enough.

He'd already given me plenty.

He may be gone, but I'm quite sure history will prove him wrong: He'll never vanish entirely.

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Blogger Dave said...

Did you steal anything from his house?

Did you ask him about his cameo in "Back to School"?


10:32 PM  
Blogger Linda Landis said...

Hi Beth:

Thanks for the memories, and the poster. It is one of my most treasured possessions, not because the subject is famous, but because it reminds me that a 19-year-old student can go on wondrous journeys that resonate and make us feel part of something bigger the rest of our lives.

10:35 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Dave: Yeah, I swiped a silver candlestick when he wasn't looking. You goof. We didn't talk about "Back to School." And yeah, MicroShakes. You mean there's something you *don't* remember? They were frozen treats that you put in the microwave for a few seconds and then stirred to a milkshake consistency. Milkshakes, anytime. I never had one, myself.

Linda: What a sweet comment. Thank you. I was looking at the pictures from that trip last night, pictures I hadn't looked at in I don't know how many years, and it all seemed a little unreal. But I think that's just because it was nearly 20 years ago. I've lived half my life since that trip. Hard to fathom. Nice to have you around the blog!

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Mikeachim said...

I wonder what he thought about the blogging, self-publishing explosion....
On the one hand, 10 million websites encouraging people to read.
On the other hand, 10 million websites diverting readers from what's in physical print.
And I can't see University course recommended reading being a blog, anytime soon...?
(Discuss). :)

1:18 PM  
Blogger Beth said...

Well, I dunno, Mike. I think our blogs might be considered required reading! : o )

As for blogs diverting readers from books, I guess it depends: I think it would have been a damn hoot to read a Vonnegut blog. Surely would have driven me to read his longer works.

I think blogs make me read more. I don't view my blog-reading time as time that I'm not reading books.

3:23 PM  

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