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The Conman and Correspondence with Kurt Vonnegut

I admire old people who live by their wits, like the ancient American, a real estate man, whom I met in Galway years. He wore a badge on his lapel with the slogan:

OLD AGE AND CUNNING WILL ALWAYS DEFEAT YOUTH AND TALENT.

He told me he was eighty. He looked sixty. We had some laughs.

As well as that real estate man and my pig-breeding Granda, I admire the old conman I encountered in Montreal railway station in 2003.

He was elderly, frail, perspiring. He approached me at 8.00am as I queued for the transcontinental train. He had a worn telephone directory in his hands.

‘Excuse me, sir. Can you help? I’ve lost my reading glasses, can’t make out this telephone book. Prints too small. Ya know what that street outside is called? I think there’s a branch of my bank there.’

‘Afraid not. I’m just visiting’

‘Ah.’

He surveyed the other prospective passengers, rejected them and turned back to me.

“I’m from outa town too. Been playing poker here all weekend and lost my shirt. Can’t even pay the left luggage fee. I’m trying to ring my bank but they don’t answer. I probably got the wrong number. Sir, can you find it here, the First Bank of Montreal? D’you mind ringing it for me?’

I found the number, abandoned my luggage to the next person in the queue and followed him to the booth. As I dialed the number he prattled urgently.

‘What am I gonna do? I’m in deep shit if I can’t get to my bank.’

There was no reply from the number. Then I remembered.

‘It’s Monday,’ I told him sympathetically, ‘Queen Victoria day, a bank holiday.’

He was shattered. My heart went out to him. But he had an inspiration.

‘Sir, could you lend me a coupla dollars so I can get my luggage back. I always leave some cash in it, my fare home. I’ll pay you back in five minutes. Or maybe, hey, look, this watch I won a while back. It’s a Rolex. Worth five hundred dollars. I’m desperate. I’ll give it you for a hundred.’

He pulled the watch off, pushed it into my hand. I shook my head. He then struggled with a gleaming ring on his finger.

‘This is my wedding ring. 14 carat. My wife will be mad but I gotta get home.’

I realised it was a con, the jewellery was rubbish, but I was admiring his technique. An old man, still a consummate actor: the sweaty forehead, fogged glasses, shaky hands, lines delivered with perfect timing, especially the question that established me as a stranger to Montreal. I love actors. I took the cheap Woolworth’s watch and ring as souvenirs, gave him thirty dollars. When he skedaddled, effusively grateful, I checked that my luggage was intact, thanked its minder and reported the incident to a couple of Mounties in the station. I told them I was glad to reward the old actor’s performance but was worried that some kind old lady who couldn’t afford thirty dollars might also be conned. The Mounties laughed and said they’d look out for the man, but it was needle in haystack time.

Several times, on the three-day train journey to Edmonton, I took out the cheap watch and ring and wondered what kind of fool parts with his money as easily as I did. On balance I decided my largesse was the equivalent of a cheap theatre ticket on Broadway and the real life performance was quite as absorbing.

‘a mere political bauble’

I shared the 3-day train journey with American pensioners availing of the cheap rate of exchange between Canada and the USA. I still thought of him, that old survivor. I also tried to figure out my real motive. Was I afraid to call his bluff, break the illusion he had constructed? Did I want his role to be real? Am I incurably gullible? Do I still prefer illusion to reality? Why do I think losers are the real winners?

Another old man I encountered was Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), author of Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions, Cat’s Cradle, PlayerPiano and many other masterpieces which were resolutely anti-war. He never earned a Nobel peace prize which is the reason I have always regarded that Prize as a mere political bauble. However, on November 11, 1999, the writer’s birthday, an asteroid was discovered and named in his honour. It was called 25399 Vonnegut. Kurt’s consolation prize is located in the main asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars, circling the sun every 4 years 2 months approximately.

Vonnegut was a foot soldier against Germany in the second World War and was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was bombed. Subsequently he wrote anti-war books. A Hollywood producer once told him he might as well write anti-avalanche books.

Vonnegut was proud of his German ancestry.

Kurt Correspondence

In June, 2003 I found his address in New York and wrote a note to him:

22.6.03

Dear Mr. Vonnegut,

                                    I finally got this address from Bill Keough – I hope it’s the right one.

                                    This is just to say thank you for all of the encouragement – apart from the entertainment – you have provided for me over the years. I still re-read your books when I’m down. Then I can laugh and cry again.

                                    I wish they’d given the Nobel Peace Prize to the ‘old fart who smokes Pall Mall’ (as you describe yourself) or the man who invented the Church of God the Totally Disinterested or even to your marvellous invention, Kilgore Trout. Instead they give it to poets who sentimentalize, and scientists without the humility of your late brother (Pointing to his own head: “You should see what its like in here”)

                                    You are a treasure who keeps us on the brink of sanity – especially boring old fart-fathers like me who try to subvert my six kids with your ideas.

                                    .

                                    Go raibh míle maith agat.

                                    Very Sincerely yours

                                    Bob Quinn

            To my astonishment a couple of months later I received a postcard. On its front was the slogan: LIFE IS NO WAY TO TREAT AN ANIMAL. Written in block capitals on the back was:

                                                                AUG. 29TH 2003

DEAR BOB – I ALREADY OWED A LOT TO AN IRISHMAN BEFORE MY LIFE WAS SAVED BY YOUR LETTER, NAMELY G.B. SHAW.

A NOBEL PRIZE TURNS THE WINNER’S BRAINS TO TAPIOCA, BUT LIKE JAMES JOYCE I SURE COULD USE THE MONEY.

         CHEERS

(There was a self-portrait signed K.V. – 80 AS OF 11/11/02)

 

Dear Kurt,                                                                              24/9/03

                        Thank you for taking the trouble to reply to my simple fan letter and especially for inscribing an original self-portrait. I now have the perfect bookmark for, of course,‘Cats Cradle’ which I have just begun again. I have also started smoking my pipe again (so it goes).

                        In my youth I read a line from ‘The Virginian’: “When you say that, smile”.

            I hope not too late I realise that this is your principal device, why you are what they call a genius and I am an ordinary crank: you – like Shaw – detail the most horrifying paradoxes about us, but with a rueful grin. By contrast, I am still into the anatomy of melancholy – my adolescent complexes will never be resolved, I hope. They’ve kept me going this far.

            Anyway, the sheer craft of your work will always keep it fresh; its audacity still makes me pause and exhale slowly. How did he do THAT, I ask.

            I have 13 years to catch up on you, in which to achieve your state of karass ( a nice version of grace) and to grin. I shall send you a birthday card for all of your next, many, eleventh of the eleventh anniversaries; it will be easy to remember, as my own window opened on the fourteenth of the eleventh.

            At the very least, sir, I share that dangerous characteristic with you: a Scorpio.

            God Bless you Mr. Rosewater.          

 

            Dear Kurt                                                                                           27th April 05

As your next birthday card I am taking the liberty of portraying you as the deus ex machina in my new novel, one of a series of unpublishable fictions. I feel like your invention Kilgore Trout whose work ended up in pornographic books.

            I have placed you in a country called Ishkailand, a tiny, glacier-bound Republic which has a superabundance of mountain water. A bit like Ireland. This has made it rich in a dying, thirsting planet whose desalination plants have rusted because the oil has run out. The tiny country, location of OWEC (Organisation of Water Producing Countries) conferences, is nominally run by a failed poet/President who has a wife, the rejected daughter of a vile mountaineer goatherd who is going to precipitate an avalanche which will destroy the country – but I run ahead of myself.

            You are posing as a shabby old tramp but are in reality a wandering writer -you’ve discovered that writing, like crime, has only a tiny pension of satisfaction and have abandoned it for the quiet relief of painting pictures of edelweiss. But you are also a scholar and student of the Ishkailite aboriginal language – and I am not sure yet whether you will save this world and its people or say, the hell with them all.

Is that okay with you?

At this moment in the chaotic narrative, you are getting blotto with your exact contemporary the goat-herd father-in law who, like you, fought at Anzio, and you are both having a ball.

Your fictional persona’s diagnosis of the planet’s problems is simply ‘a stack-up of tolerances’.

That is the story so far – 60 pages! You have only yourself to blame. I hope to have it ready for your next birthday which will be three days before my 70th. I think they call it a festchrift.

God save all here!

 

                                                                                        5/5/05

HAPPY TO HAVE YOUR ADDRESS WHICH YOU FAILED TO INCLUDE IN YOUR PREVIOUS AND MOST STRIKINGLY FRIENDLY COMMUNIQUE. USE MY NAME OR IMAGE HOWEVER YOU PLEASE IN YOUR NEW NOVEL. I NEVER SUED ANYBODY AND NEVER WILL.

LOVE!

          (signed with self-portrait and ‘82 as of 11/11/04’

I next sent him a copy of a book of mine that was actually published: Maverick.

                                                                                3.6.05

I AM ENJOYING YOUR BOOK, AND KNOWING SOMETHING ABOUT YOU, AND BEMUSED AS WELL BY ITS TITLE, WHICH IS OF ALL THINGS THE NAME OF A TEXAN WHO DID NOT BRAND HIS CATTLE.

                                                  CHEERS! KV

 

6/5/05

DEAREST IRAQ:

ACT LIKE ME. AFTER 100 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY LET YOUR SLAVES GO. AFTER 150 LET YOUR WOMEN VOTE. AT THE START OF DEMOCRACY ETHNIC CLEANSING IS QUITE OK.

LOVE YOU MADLY!

UNCLE SAM

 

11th May 05

Dear Kurt

                        This evening at dinner I was trying to impress my latest wife, who is 26 years younger than me and runs the world, by showing her your latest treasured postcard. She is also a fan.

            ‘Note’, I said, ‘Vonnegut has never been invited to ‘Cúirt’, that Galway mecca for international literary figures like Heaney, Proulx , Coetzee etc etc.’.

‘Cúirt is into people who are fashionable’, she said. ‘Why don’t we cut through the literary shit and get him to deliver a keynote address at the Fleadh.’

She runs the Galway Film Fleadh, the only down-to earth-film festival in the world.

‘You could show the film ‘Breakfast of Champions’ which was an honest attempt’, I ventured.

‘Whatever’, she said. ‘Get him to deliver his anti-Bush onslaught. Film makers need shaking up. We’ll bring him here, put him up in luxury, give him a good time. Persuade him to come’

‘What about his photographer wife’, I asked.

‘We’ll look after her. She’ll protect him from fools’ she said.

‘What about me?’ I asked.

‘She’ll protect him from you, too.’

So, Mr. Trout, there it is: an invitation. The Galway Film Fleadh is on from the 5th to the 10th of July (this year too). Have you ever visited Galway in the west of the country called Ireland, this figment of the American imagination?

            Mit besten gruessen

14/5/05

IT IS WIDELY CONCEDED THAT IRISH PERSONS ARE THE MOST MELODIOUS AND INTRICATE AND AMUSING SPEAKERS OF ENGLISH IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. SO A GERMAN-AMERICAN APPEARING BEFORE YOU WOULD BE A DANIEL IN THE LIONS’ DEN. ALSO, I AM TOO EFFING OLD. BUT THANKS

Kurt Vonnegut

On the 26th May Kurt sent me a signed copy of ‘POEMS WRITTEN DURING THE FIRST FIVE MONTHS OF 2005’.

One of his poems was titled Naptown, USA

It was alright there in Indianapolis

Where I was born:

Jazz and serious music, law, journalism,science,

Good food and jokes, sports, politics,

Architecture, libraries, institutions of higher learning,

People so smart I couldn’t believe it

People so dumb I couldn’t believe it

People so nice I couldn’t believe it

People so mean I couldn’t believe it

But for some reason

I had to get out of there.

The cost?

At 82 I am a homeless man.

 

3rd June 05

Dear Kurt,

            After your ‘too effing old’ card I lapsed into contemplation of my own mortality.

            Now your 2005 poems have arrived and have dragged me kicking and screaming with laughter back to life. If you can keep on keeping on so acutely so can I – minus the brilliance, of course. Thank you. I can now continue writing.

            As you won’t be visiting, here are some images to show you what you are missing – a place not long and narrow like Chile – but I must say that its equally interesting living on an island shaped like a little puppy, begging on its hindlegs. Trouble is, to find the positive images and experiences illustrated, you have to go through a lot of touristic rubbish as well as increasingly draconian immigration barriers (unless you’re white) – rather like the reason I refuse to go back to the USA: ploughing through groups of fat, expressionless security people who approach me on the assumption I’m a geriatric suicide bomber.

            A late friend of mine, Reggie Howard (who had his brains dislodged in the back of a warplane in WW2, held them in with his hand and achieved Ripley’s Believe it or Not fame by surviving thus far ) told me that at the age of 68 he had laid an 18-year-old (female). This was my ambition until I passed that watershed last year and now all I can hope for is an encounter appropriate to my present age, 69, which mightn’t be a bad substitute. These giggly and desperate thoughts are suggested by your latest work – which gift has flattered and delighted me.

            What encourages me is that you are still highlighting our absurdity. I am accustomed to people of advancing age adopting an attitude of resigned hopelessness equivalent to the pragmatic despair of the young. Maybe the latter is a function of a small population like ours, whereas no matter what one’s opinion, there seems to be still room – and an audience – for anarchic thought over in Uncle Samland. Okay, Monkeyface ignores it, but it hasn’t gone away. And won’t, I hope, for a very long time.

            Wer schreibt, bleibt.

 

14.7.05

YOUR PRAISE OF ME DID NOT FALL ON DEAF EARS.

LOVE –

(Self-portrait)

GIFT COMING!

 

He sent me one of his paintings which featured the lone, framed word ‘sleep’ where the ‘S’ was elongated into a curving serpent. He signed it with his usual cartoon self-portrait and the words: ‘For the writer Bob Quinn, my best friend among the living.’ Never losing his sense of humour and irony, he was old enough to have seen most of his real friends die.

28.Aug. 05

Dear Kurt,

                        I enclose a book of pictures, the exhibition of which I just opened with words that include passing reference to you. This is becoming a habit.

                        Since our last communication I’ve been busy reading your oeuvre: Bagombo Snuff Box out of the library in Galway, read all the stories and felt like an archaeologist excavating the origins of your enormous talent. My favourites are Thanatos and 2BR02B but I enjoyed them all and saw how your agents persuaded you to tailor the ends to middle American ‘fifties taste, but leaving sharp prescient stings in various tails all around you.

            In Dublin this week I found Hocus Pocus and am getting a great kick out of it.

            I told you before that in the festschrift which I am writing I forced you to become very drunk with a stinking goatherd. I am beginning to suspect this is an uncharacteristic plot turn because I’m having difficulty sobering you up to launch another gentle onslaught on the assembled suits. They remind you of the 1950’s Berlin Congress of Culture at which Arthur Koestler spoke and which transpired to have been financed covertly by the CIA. (Note: The CIA also bought up a million copies of Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’ and distributed them, free, throughout the world. That’s how best-sellers are made) I think I can sober you up fast this way.

            Your incitement to Sleep is much admired

The next communication, an illustration of his irony and anger, was a copy of a letter he had sent to the Chicago paper In These Times”:

TO ‘IN THESE TIMES’

Dear Editor, If I may impose on your extraordinary hospitality yet again:

I was on John Stewart’s Daily Show September 13th, and arrived with a compendium of liberal crap I never wanted to hear again, and my responses thereto.

But I only had six minutes, and so never got a chance to read them aloud. For whatever they may be worth to you:

“Give us this day our daily bread”    

Sure. I’ll pay for it. Enjoy!

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”  

Oh Yeah? Anybody trespasses on me, and I’ll cut him a new you-know-what.

‘Blessed are the peace-makers.”  

Jane Fonda? Give me a break!

“Love thy enemies.”    

Arabs?

Blessed are the meek.”  

You bet! I love ‘em, too. I tell ‘em to kiss my ass, and they’ll kiss it.

“No man can serve two masters. You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”  

Mammon , of course, is the god of greed and riches. And the hell I can’t serve both God and Mammon. Look at Pat Robertson! He’s as happy as a hog up to its ears in excrement!

                                               

(signed) Kurt Vonnegut.

                                                                                    10/9 05

also

12.10.05

WE ARE A DISEASE SO, LIKE SYPHILIS WITH A CONSCIENCE, WE SHOULD STOP REPRODUCING.

KV

On the 1st of December Kurt sent me a Merry Christmas card consisting of a self-portrait drawn in silver paint on plastic. I sent him a dvd of my Romanian Quartet film documentary.

                                                                                    11th Sep. 06!!

DEAR BOB:

I LOOKED FORWARD TO BEING DELIGHTED BY YOUR VIDEO. BUT WHEN IT TRIED TO PLAY IT THESE WORDS APPEARED ON THE SCREEN: “DUE TO REGIONAL LIMITATIONS THIS CANNOT BE SHOWN.

MY HEART IS BROKEN.

                                                (Self-portrait, complete with tear)

           

Dear Kurt,

‘I’ve got tears in my ears from lying on my back and crying over you.’

          I am more heartbroken than you especially as the DVD worked for two old pals in Missouri and NY city.

          I’ve spoken harshly to the Dublin copying studios and they explained thusly:

          The DVD will play on any computer anywhere but not on every TV set. A difference between old fashioned Europe and the good old USA is we can play American films on our TV sets but you can’t play ours on your sets unless the latter are dual capacity PAL /NTSC Tv sets.

Ours are, yours aren’t. I presume its to stop our decadent frenchfried ideas flourishing over there.

          All I can suggest is asking one of your gracious kids to lend you their computer to look at the film. And I hope you enjoy it.

          Unfortunately I still drink (alcohol and coffee) and smoke like a trooper. However years ago a pretty young German doctor explained her similar bad habits to me as follows: the nicotine narrows your arteries, the coffee thins your blood so it’s a perfect metabolic marriage.

          I’m still trying to find a suitable denouement for your heroic role in my Ishkailand saga.

          My very best wishes to you and your local post office. I thoroughly enjoy the concentrated focus of your postcards. Would that I were so short-winded and long-focussed.

          When this summer I proudly displayed your Sleep etching to an ex-head honcho of United Artists (my wife brings stray dogs like that home sometimes, the type that is impressed by nothing) – he stared and murmured: ‘wow!’

          Your name is good everywhere.

           

9/6/06

I had the temerity to send Mr. Vonnegut a copy of my failed novel ‘The Accompanist’. He quoted at least one sentence of it and commented:

3.9.06

“I HAD AN IMAGE OF THE UNIVERSE AS ONE GIGANTIC CHORD, FROZEN IN TIME, BUT ACCESSIBLE THROUGH THE HEAT OF HUMAN EMOTION WHICH MELTED DOWN BITS IN THE FORM OF MELODIES, MERE GLIMPSES OF THE IMMENSITY BEHIND THEM.”

            WOW!   You got a major poem in a single senence

                                                            Kurt Vonnegut.

Dear Kurt,                                                                              4th October 06

           

            To-night I showed your latest postcard to my 19-year-old and my 11-year old and asked them this question: Why would one of the greatest writers of the 20th century take the trouble to write out in block capitals a sentence from my feeble writing and add “WOW!’?

            The younger said: ‘He likes you.’

            The older said: ‘Solidarity.’

            I told them about your son Mark (?) who had various tough times and who told you that life was about helping each other to get through it – whatever it was.

            Then they wandered off to their multifarious activities.

            I mentioned your quote to the young Irishman in Syracuse who wanted to publish a ‘print on demand’ ‘version of ‘The Accompanist’ and he asked me could he put it on the cover and I said ‘Absolutely not, this is personal.’

            So, thank you. It’s about solidarity in our solitudinousness, if there is such a word.

           

Death

            {{{Reason for over-wroughtness:

            My favourite son-in-law Islem, a 33-year-old French-Tunisian died suddenly on a visit to Lyons, France 10 days ago. I think he literally killed himself working to provide for the future of his wife,my daughter, and kids. We spent a week in Lyons, going through courts for the right to bury him in Ireland, near his wife and kids. His Lyons-based brothers wanted to bury him initially in Tunisia (from which he had escaped, aged 17, to join the French army. Although he was born in France, his father had brought him and the family back to Tunisia to avoid French decadence! Then the brothers wanted him buried in Lyons. My daughter, cool, calm, repressing her emotion (unlike me) won the case and the appeal in her fluent French. The funeral is in Bray, Co. Wicklow to-day.

            I asked a religious Moroccan friend for advice. Today, 10 days late, he sends me the following:

            “In Islam the whole earth belongs to Allah. He can be buried where he dies! ‘The sooner the better’, says the Prophet.”

            That’s a lot of help for a grieving widow.

            It appeared initially to to be a clash of civilisations and religions but ultimately transpired as a miserable pursuit of property. The brothers had their eyes on an apartment he owned in Lyons. There’s no accounting for human behaviour.

The good news is that two other of Bairbre’s friends, also Muslims, stayed by her side the entire week. I asked them was there any physical danger. They said, we don’t know, but we are on a ‘jihad’ to protect you and your family. And they did.

The west must learn this other meaning of the word.

There is good and bad everywhere}}}

           

            God Bless you twofold, Mr. Trout.

8/10/2006

            SOLIDARITY , OF COURSE, BUT ALSO AWE AT HOW MUCH YOU HAVE GIVEN A GUY MY AGE TO PONDER IN SO SMALL A SPACE.

                        WOW! – (as speech bubble coming from his self-portrait)

                                                                                                           

                                                                                               

11/10/06

YOU PUT A MAJOR POEM IN A SINGLE SENTENCE.

OK?

                        KV

 

It was easy to remember his birthday, three days before mine.

13.11.06

Happy Birthday to you

Happy Birthday to you

Seventeen more await you

Until we are through.

 

A few months after my last greeting to him, Kurt Vonnegut fell down a stairway and died from multiple head injuries. I never met him in person. I wrote to his widow.

 

 

Jill Krementz                                                                                      12.April 2007

Turtle Bay

New York

Dear Jill,

Forgive the familiarity. I am really sorry to hear about your loss.

I feel bad too, like a child who has carelessly offended his father who then dies without a word of forgiveness.

I treasure our occasional correspondence and the picture he sent me. I miss his birthdays and shooting the breeze but am consoled by his magnificent legacy of writing.

Yours Sincerely

Bob Quinn

I received no reply. So it goes.

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