If you’ve read a Kurt Vonnegut book, you’ve probably read Slaughterhouse-Five. But even if you’ve read all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels — a colorful body of work that divides, along many axes, even the writer’s most devoted fans — you’ve probably never heard him read Slaughterhouse-Five. When first I heard Vonnegut’s voice in speeches and interviews, I understood how rarely writers possess a manner of speaking so closely matched with the sensibility of their prose. The enduring amusement and bemusement under a layer of existential weariness; the somehow simultaneously dry and wacky humor; the distant wryness of a man who has seen everything up to and including the bombing of Dresden, a man whom nothing should rightfully surprise, but who still draws a charge from considering man’s capacity to take smacks from fate and chance, giving himself a few lumps while he’s at it. The clip above presents the first of a series of tracks from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Reads Slaughterhouse-Five, an album released by Caedmon Records in 1973 containing not just Vonnegut’s delivery of excerpts from his famous sixth novel, but his stories of the book’s conception.
“I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time,” he begins. Returning home from the Second World War, he thought he could easily turn out “a book on the destruction of Dresden.” “I thought, too, that it would be a masterpiece, or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject was so big.” But the book, after a series of writing struggles he goes on to describe (reciting a limerick and singing a song in the telling), wouldn’t appear until 1969. When it did, it would crystallize in literature Vonnegut’s view of the human condition, something illuminated by two of his anecdotes from this record. When the film producer Harrison Starr asked if the novel would take the form of “anti-war book,” Vonnegut said yes. “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr replied, and Vonnegut agreed: “What he meant was that there would always be wars, and they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too. Even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.” And speaking of: “Shortly before my father died, he said to me, ‘You know, you never wrote a story with a villain in it.’” Humanity, in Vonnegut’s conception, doesn’t need villains; we make enough trouble for ourselves without them.
Also, if you care to sign up for Audible.com’s 30-Day Free Trial you can download a professionally read version of Slaughterhouse-Five by Ethan Hawke at no cost. Find more details on Audible’s Free Trial program here.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.