American author Kurt Vonnegut, whose works blended science fiction and black comedy built on his experience as Nazi prisoner-of-war, has died at the age of 84, his publisher said.
Vonnegut, best known for Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse-Five, widely rated as one of the best American novels of the 20th century, died late on April 11 in New York, a Random House spokesperson said.
Vonnegut suffered brain injuries in a fall several weeks ago, his long-time friend Morgan Entrekin told the New York Times.
Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1922, Vonnegut was captured inside German lines in 1945 following the Battle of the Bulge. Confined to an underground meat-packing cellar in Dresden when Allied bombers descended upon the city, he was one of just seven United States prisoners who survived the devastating firestorm that engulfed the city.
That experience formed the core of Slaughterhouse-Five, published in the midst of the furore over the Vietnam War in 1969 to widespread acclaim.
“All this happened, more or less,” is the memorable line opening the metaphysical, humanist tale of a soldier “unstuck in time” in an underground Dresden abattoir.
After the war, Vonnegut moved to Chicago where he worked as a local police reporter and entered the University of Chicago in pursuit of a master’s degree in anthropology.
His thesis, titled The Fluctuations between Good and Evil in Simple Tales, was famously rejected by all the members of a faculty panel, and he only earned the degree in 1971 when the university accepted Cat’s Cradle as the thesis.
In 1947, he moved to New York and began writing for magazines and took up odd jobs. He published his first of 14 novels in 1952. Player Piano was a futuristic study of a society dominated by machines but with deep divides between upper and lower classes, painted with the irony and humour that identified his later novels.
His next book, The Sirens of Titan, came out in 1959, another science-fiction novel heavy with satire and featuring the “Church of God the Utterly Indifferent”.
But he made his name in 1963 with Cat’s Cradle. Heavily autobiographical, it is narrated by an author writing a book called The Day the World Ended about an atomic bomb being dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
He continued to publish short stories and essays, and then topped book sales charts in 1969 with Slaughterhouse-Five.
In an interview with the Times that year, he summed up his approach. “You can’t write novels without a touch of paranoia … I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship, concerned about what the powerful people are up to.”
His success did not prevent a descent into personal despair and a suicide attempt in 1985, which evoked his mother’s own suicide 41 years earlier. But even that became fodder for his sardonic, self-effacing work.
He published his last full-length book, Timequake, in 1997, and wrote in his later years searing and humorous asides in the Chicago leftist magazine In These Times.
Months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, he bemoaned the coming war: “I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers.”
Vonnegut was married twice. His first wife was Jane Marie Cox, whom he married after returning from the war. He had three children with Cox. They also adopted the three children of Vonnegut’s sister after she died of cancer.
He separated from Cox in the 1970s and they divorced in 1979. He later married photographer Jill Krementz, with whom he adopted another child. — AFP