When [Mother] was in the hospital for the last time, she thought she was in a spaceship. She thought I was Father, and that we were headed for Mars, where we were going to have a second honeymoon.
She was as alive as anybody and utterly mistaken about everything. She wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“That picture,” she said, and she would smile and give my hand a squeeze. I was supposed to know which of all the pictures in the world she meant. I thought for a while that it was Father’s unfinished masterpiece from his misspent youth in Vienna. But in a moment of clarity, she made it clear that it was a scrapbook photograph of her in a rowboat on a small river somewhere, maybe in Europe. Then again, it could have been Sugar Creek. The boat is tied to shore…. She isn’t going anywhere… Somebody has persuaded her to pose in the boat, with water around her and dappled with shade. She is laughing. She has just been married, or is about to be married. She will never be happier. She will never be more beautiful.
Who could have guessed that that young woman would take a rocket-ship to Mars someday?
observations: I read this book because I heard it had recipes in it, a subject I was looking at for the Guardian books blog. It does – Vonnegut says they are ‘intended as musical interludes for the salivary glands’ and that ‘no-one should use this novel for a cookbook.’ That comes in his introduction, which also helpfully explains the main symbols in the book: ‘there is an unappreciated, empty arts center in the shape of a sphere. This is my head as my 60th birthday beckons to me…. Haiti is New York City…. The neutered pharmacist… is my declining sexuality.’
This was not looking promising.
So a lesson: never judge a book by its introduction – this is a wonderful novel, enchanting, hilariously funny, deeply thought-provoking, and full of instant aphorisms on modern life.
That is my principal objection to life, I think: It is too easy, when alive, to make perfectly horrible mistakes.… and indeed the narrator, Rudy, does make a terrible mistake as a teenager with a gun (symbolic, KV says in the intro, of ‘all the bad things I have done.’) The novel follows the story of his parents and then him and his brother through the 20th century – a lot of it is very sad, but Vonnegut’s storytelling style is so perfect that you are carried along as if it were a comedy. The characters are vivid and have real lives and emotions, even if the facts of the plot are plainly ridiculous, and involve the explosion of a neutron bomb in a Midwestern town. Vonnegut has real things to say, intriguing perceptions:
We all see our lives as stories, it seems to me… If a person survives an ordinary span of 60 years or more, there is every chance that his or her life as a shapely story has ended, and all that remains to be experienced is epilogue. Life is not over but the story is… It may be a bad thing that so many people try to make good stories out of their lives… I suppose that’s really what so many American women are complaining about these days. They find their lives short on story and overburdened with epilogue.This is what leads up to the scene above: Rudy’s mother has not led a very satisfactory life, and she certainly has not been a good mother to him, but Rudy doesn’t judge her, and carries on trying to make sense out of life.
The book reminded me of both John Irving, and John Williams’ Stoner, and Rudy’s father would have been running round Vienna at the right time to visit Madensky Square. Father was very keen on wearing a Hungarian Life Guard uniform, with disastrous results on the night of the Prom. It would have been something like the left-hand one on this stamp, from a stampboard:
The top picture is from the Jewish Women’s Archive via Flickr.