Vonnegut Takes Miami

Nov 9, 2012

Dan Wakefield discusses a new book of Kurt Vonnegut's letters at the Miami Book Fair International
Credit Jacket design: Lynn Buckley / Random House, Inc.

Kurt Vonnegut fans have a lot to look forward to over the next couple of weekends. First, a performance of a chamber music piece with a libretto by the iconoclastic author, and then a discussion of a new book of his letters at the Miami Book Fair International.

Vonnegut would have been 90 years old this Sunday (he died in 2007). Orchestra Miami's director, Elaine Rinaldi, is a big fan of Vonnegut's literary work, and to mark the occasion, this weekend, her ensemble is presenting the Florida premiere of a rarely-performed piece by Igor Stravinsky, fusing classical music and theater -- with a libretto by Vonnegut.   

The original piece, called L'Histoire du Soldat ("The Soldier's Tale"), premiered in 1918 with a different libretto, an altogether different story really, about a violin-playing solider who makes a deal with the devil. Vonnegut, a World War II veteran and prisoner of war, didn't buy that premise. ("I thought it was just preposterous, and was somewhat troubled that this thing premiered in 1918, during the most horrible war for soldiers in history," Vonnegut told me in an interview for New York magazine, about a year before he died.) So when he was asked to narrate the piece, he declined. Some years later at a soirée at George Plimpton's home (Vonnegut had apparently broken through his early reputation as a rather strange sci-fi writer and emerged as full-fledged literati), the Stravinsky piece came up. 

Write it Yourself

Plimpton challenged him to write his own narration, so he did. The ensemble New York Philomusica premiered the piece in 1993. 

"Vonnegut completely rewrote the story," explains Rinaldi. "He chose the true story of Private Eddie D. Slovik, the only U.S. soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War, and it changes the whole tenor of the piece, because it's now loaded with the irony of war."  

Although Stravinsky wrote the music more than 70 years before Vonnegut's libretto, Rinaldi hears it as a strikingly good fit. Both are edgy, with darkness and dissonance, but also moments of whimsy and humor. "Stravinsky was extremely influenced by jazz," she says. "Jazz was a brand new medium at this time. To the ears of that time period, this is completely revolutionary music."

An American Soldier's Tale runs Saturday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. at the Performing Arts Exchange in Miami and Sunday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. in Pinecrest Gardens. For tickets and other information, go to Orchestra Miami or call (305)274-2103; tickets: $25 - $30. 

"It is true that that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life."

Dear Mr. Rosewater

A new book of Vonnegut's writing will be in the spotlight on Sunday, November 18 at the Miami Book Fair International. Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (Delacorte Press) is, as you might have guessed, a collection of his letters to friends, his children, fellow writers, and the chairman of a North Dakota school board which banned--and burned (in the school furnace)--the book that made him famous, Slaughterhouse Five. Here's an excerpt of that letter:

"... If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hard-working men ..."

Sermon on the Mount

Dan Wakefield edited the book. He and Vonnegut both grew up in Indianapolis and were close friends. Wakefield says the thing that struck him over and over in the letters was his abiding kindness.  "I think his great message was one of kindness and mercy." 

Get a Haircut

Wakefield says Vonnegut's kindness ran trough many different currents in his life. After Vonnegut's sister and brother-in-law died just days apart (she of cancer, he in a freak train accident), Vonnegut and his wife raised their three orphaned nephews alongside their own three children. 

And in a letter to his son Mark, who was about to graduate from college in 1968, he wrote:

Please, for your mother's sake, get a haircut before graduation. It'll make her very happy.

Wakefield will be discussing the new book on a panel with Vonnegut's son Mark and Don Farber, longtime Vonnegut friend, lawyer, and one of the keepers of Vonnegut's literary legacy.  Sunday, Nov. 18 at 11 a.m. at Miami Dade College. For details about tickets and more about the Miami Book Fair International, click here


Essay by Kurt Anderson about the new book in the New York Times Book Review

Dan Wakefield's beef with Kurt Anderson's essay