Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

Vonnegut: Words from a Sage


I’ve just finished the late, great Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country. It’s a slim book, which the Sunday Times calls “part memoir, part rant and part joke”. I had forgotten how much I like Vonnegut’s darkly funny voice. I love his embrace of the absurd, how he is enraged by corruption and the deeds of the powerful, and his light touch. Here are some snippets from the book that stood out for me:

On novel-writing:

I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.

On creative writing:

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show that you’ve been to college.

On how the Germans took over America:

And these guilt-free people, speaking English at work but German at home, built not only successful businesses, most strikingly in Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Cincinnati, but their own banks and concert halls and social clubs and gymnasia and restaurants, and mansions and summer cottages, leaving the Anglos to wonder, with good reason, I have to say, “Who the hell’s country is this anyway?”

After having spent a delightful time at the post office, sending off a parcel:

Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

On America’s gift to the world – the blues:

Foreigners love us for our jazz. And they don’t hate us for our purported liberty and justice for all. They hate us now for our arrogance.

On the leadership of America and the soldiers fighting on other soil:

By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many lifeless bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas. (my emphasis)

On his favourite American heroes, librarians:

While on the subject of burning books, I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength, their powerful political connections or great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and destroyed records rather than to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

On his Uncle Alex’s capacity for happiness:

And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”


Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

18 thoughts on “Vonnegut: Words from a Sage

  1. I ‘ve never read anthing by Vonnegut – didn’t even know about him (I am a peasant, I know) but I really enjoyed those excerpts. I’d like his writing.

  2. Wendy, his writing would definitely appeal to your sense of humour. Try it!

  3. I really must read some Vonnegut – I never have. I do love the quotes, although personally I am quite fond of the semi-colon!

  4. Litlove, I quite like a semicolon too. The funny thing is he does use a semicolon, once, in the book. After doing so, he says “rules are meant to be broken”. He is delightfully un-dogmatic.

  5. Love the quotes- except I love semi-colons; they are great.

    Apart from that I agree with most of what he says. He was such a clear sighted throughly human human being if you know what I mean.

  6. Great post! Makes me want to read the book.

  7. I had heard the quote about the semicolon before and it is such a relief to see it again; the semicolon is my punctuation nemesis. Vonnegut had what I believe is missing in much modern fiction these days, an unsentimental affection for life.

  8. I like the sound of him. I could break out of my escapist novel reading rut for this!

    I particularly like his exhortation to notice when you are happy and remark on it, to fix it in the memory for posterity.

  9. Yep–a remarkable book! It was the first Vonnegut I picked up, at the suggestion of a friend. I found myself underlining passages, many of them the same as your selections.

    So glad you shared. I really liked this particular collection–it was a very intimate feeling with Vonnegut,. And I read it while he was alive–now that he is gone, I am glad I had that moment.

  10. >> First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.

    Ah; that would explain their appeal to me then. 😉


  11. PS – I’ve steered clear of Vonnegut because he was highly rated by an early boyfriend of mine who looked like Henry V and taught me about abusive relationships.

    If you recommend him, Charlotte, I’ll cut him some slack and see what happens.


  12. me like semicolons; they very handsome..

  13. Oh, I love Vonnegut. I do, however, wish I was the fly on the wall when a few of these people start reading “Slaughterhouse Five” or “Sirens of Titan”. Your quotes do not even slightly hint at the tenor of those books.

  14. Ooh, I’ve often said to myself “I must use more semi-colons because they look clever” then I never do. I’d never thought of them as transvestite hermaphrodites before, now I’m going to search for them and see them in a new light.

    “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

    Heh that is funny, it reminds me of what we’re trying to do with Kiko – use positive reinforcement instead of telling him off. Today he hovered by the TV but, for once, didn’t attempt to grab it or press the buttons, and according to this toddler book I’m reading, my line was then meant to be: “Thank you for not touching the TV, Kiko. That’s very good.” It’s true – we don’t notice we’re happy until we make ourselves be aware of it, and I don’t notice Kiko’s good behaviour until I focus on absences of naughtiness! He’s been loads better behaved right now but maybe it’s a shift of perception on my part? You also feel much less stressed if you look for the positive.

  15. Oh, I miss Vonnegut so much. I use semi-colons when I write non-fictions, including my blog entries, but not in my creative writing or fiction endeavors. I try to remember my “if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” feelings as often as I can. I even wrote about the one I had crossing the Mississippi several times because I love remembering that feeling.

  16. All right. This one, quite obviously, has to go on the TBR list.

  17. “We are here on earth to fart around.” Hear, hear! I love the idea of being a little less goal-oriented.

    I wonder how that quote would be translated into other languages — “fart around” is such a wonderful phrase, but I bet other languages have some other equally wonderful way of saying it.

  18. Kurt Vonnegut is my hero. He became my hero shortly after I read Galapagos and Slaughterhouse Five (I went through a stage of diligently reading post-war classics…) – he just has one of the most unique voices and his quirky style appeals to me no end.

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