Bookmarks: Kurt Vonnegut Jr and how the banned played on
A fortnightly look at books, writers and reviews
At the end of March we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of one of the 20th century’s most humane works of art, Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel of such moral clarity that it should come as no great surprise that, over the years, schools in the US, the country of the author’s birth, have on at least 18 occasions banned or attempted to have it removed from their library shelves.
Very little changes in the rhetoric and actions taken against Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (to give its full title). When, in 1972, the book was banned from public schools in Oakland County, Michigan, a judge labelled it “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian”. A year later, a school board in North Dakota ceremoniously dumped 32 copies in a coal burner (not bad for a novel about the World War 2 fire-bombing by Allied air forces of Dresden, a town that had no strategic value to the Nazis). A few years later, a New York school board labelled it and other books removed from school libraries as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy”.
As recently as 2011, when it was removed from the library at Republic High School in southern Missouri, an associate professor at the local state university, Wesley Scroggins, warned: “It is time parents and taxpayers in this school district are informed about this material. This is a book that contains so much profane language, it would make a sailor blush with shame. The ‘f-word’ is plastered on almost every other page. The content ranges from naked men and women in cages together so that others can watch them having sex to God telling people that they better not mess with his loser bum of a son, named Jesus Christ.” Vonnegut was rather sanguine in his reaction to such things. There is an illuminating YouTube video clip in which he declares his novel’s “naughty words” begin on the second page, thereby sparing its detractors from having to read the whole book. For those who wish to be scientific about such things, Amazon.com has a search engine which reveals that the word “fuck” appears in the book nine times, “shit” eight times, “bastard” four times, “cocksucker” once, and really, there’s not much else besides. (My own investigation reveals that the “naughty words” on page two are “tool” and “pee”.)
Not much is ever said of the anti-war themes of this novel, which traces the experiences of one Billy Pilgrim, a captured soldier who witnesses the catastrophic destruction of Dresden (as Vonnegut did) and is then “stuck in time” when he is kidnapped by aliens who treat him as a zoological curiosity in what we now recognise as a metaphor for a severe form of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Vonnegut reveals in the opening chapter, naughty words and all, how he finally came to write the book, 23 years after Dresden. He had witnessed first-hand both the brutality of the Nazis and the ferocity of the Allied bombing campaigns, and bluntly informs the readers: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.” And therein, perhaps, lies the the real reason why the authorities have such difficulty with the book.
Visiting China in the late 1990s, the US satirist PJ O’Rourke recorded the imperious public presence of a familiar icon: “The faintly smiling, bland, yet somehow threatening visage appears in brilliant red hues on placards and posters, and is painted huge on the sides of buildings. Some call him a genius. Others blame him for the deaths of millions. There are those who say his military reputation was inflated, yet he conquered the mainland in short order. Yes, it’s Colonel Sanders …”
Some years later I visited China and can report that the KFC founder’s trademarked image is indeed everywhere. Mao Zedong’s likeness was there as well, notably on banknotes and mounted grandly over the entrance to the Forbidden City on Tiananmen Square, but it was apparently nowhere near as ubiquitous as it had been in previous decades. He had, we all thought, been consigned to history.
Perhaps. But, according to Julia Lovell, professor in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London, the chairman’s teachings, long written off by the West, remain ascendant and his cult continues to flourish. Her new book, Maoism: A Global History (Bodley Head), argues that Mao’s ideas remain central to China and the legitimacy of its Communist government.
As disagreements and conflicts increase between Beijing and the West, whether Trumpish or not, it has became clear Maoism endures and its appeal extends far beyond China. It is, Lovell argues, a powerful force, particularly in the developing, post-colonial world. One can draw a particularly chilling line here from Robert Mugabe, let’s say, to our own Gupta glove puppet Andile Mngxitama and his Black Land Black First movement.
But, speaking of fruitcakes, Lovell’s accessible and acclaimed history is all-encompassing and even takes in the actress Shirley MacLaine’s bonkers take on the chairman’s teachings. After visiting China in 1973, she wrote rhapsodically of a country where “women had little need of even desire for such superficial things as frilly clothes or makeup … here they were being educated toward a loving communal spirit through a kind of totalitarian benevolence.”
Atrocity and absurdity, Lovell argues, were always comfortable bedfellows in Maoist thought. Or what passes for thought.
Much of the reaction to social historian Virginia Nicholson’s new book, How Was It for You? Women, Sex, Love and Power in the 1960s (Viking), has been one of relief: women may have come a long way, and they’ve quite a way to go yet, but this will leave you grateful for the progress thus far. It was, as they say, a time of mixed blessings; the 1960s may have been swinging for some, especially in the cities, but for those in the provinces, life was as dreary as ever. Some of the testimonies of the women here, now in their 70s, may be anathema to the wide awoke reader of today, like former Playboy Bunny Patsy Reading’s recollection of her days as a waitress in the Park Lane Playboy Club, which opened in 1966, and the fluffy-tailed corset, long ears and high heels that was her uniform: “The costume? It was such fun. Who would not like wearing a Bunny costume? … I know the feminists would be appalled – but we didn’t feel that way. We didn’t see it that we were prostituting ourselves, or that it was sleazy. It was a job, it was good pay – and all I can tell you is that it was FUN.”
Ah, the money. One of the drivers of change in women’s lives (or at least the lives of the women in Nicholson’s book) was a booming economy. Women were out there in the workforce in greater numbers than ever before. Granted, they weren’t paid as much as their male counterparts (no change there, I hear you say), but at least they were earning more than their fathers were, and making their way into the world in a way in which their mothers never had.
It wasn’t without social upheavals; this was a decade that began with the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the realisation that sex could be both fun and cross class boundaries, and ended with angry demonstrations against the sexual objectification of women. As for the actual sex, well, that was pretty dreary, too, a time of “miserable promiscuity”, as one woman put it. It soon emerged that the convention in this age of free love meant that men did pretty much as they pleased, often at the expense of women. One interviewee told Nicholson: “I was raped several times by men who arrived in my bed and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” There was great pressure not to turn men down. As the writer Jenny Diski noted: “There was a large principle at stake. If sex was no longer going to be a taboo then it was hard to think of a good reason not to have it with anyone who came along. It was uncool to say no.”
All in all, though, Nicholson presents a credible portrait of a decade, a feat she managed with her previous book, Perfect Wives in Ideal Homes: The Story of Women in the 1950s (Penguin), which was a touching portrayal of less-than-perfect wives in less-than-ideal domestic situations. Her other social histories are worth checking out, too: Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War (Penguin), Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives During the Second World War (Penguin), and Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 (Penguin), an account of daily life among the artistic fringe to whom the everyday was anything but.
There are those who question whether the lyrics of rock songs can ever be considered poetry. Such attitudes have no doubt hardened with the publication of Wrote for Luck: Selected Lyrics (Faber & Faber) by Shaun Ryder, the Happy Mondays and Black Grape vocalist. As the Spectator noted, it is unlikely that Ryder’s work would have appealed to TS Eliot, Faber’s original poetry editor, especially when the very first lyric in this at times striking collection of insights into Manchester’s drug-fuelled 1980s club scene contains the assertion: “Jesus is a cunt.”
Ryder does have an arresting way with words. He has, for example, written two acclaimed memoirs, 2012’s Twisting My Melon: The Autobiography (Corgi) and 2014’s What Planet Am I On? (Constable). He readily admits he’s no poet. This is despite the rough charm of lines like: “Grass-eyed, slashed-eyed, brain-dead fucker/ Rips off himself, steals from his brother/ Loathed by everyone, but loved by his mother” or: “Son, I’m 30, I only went with your mother ’cause she’s dirty.” But it’s clear these are the words to songs; they’re best appreciated by listening to the records. Faber invited Ryder to annotate his verse, and this has thrown up some interesting personal anecdotes. Like the reason he believes temazepam, a benzodiazepine, is a wonderful drug: it once led to him waking up naked in the basement of a restaurant with two naked waitresses, a firearm and no idea how he got there. Wrote for Luck, the Spectator concluded, might well be one of the strangest publishing decisions in Faber’s 90-year history. “And it feels even stranger when you read a pre-publication interview that Ryder recently gave online. ‘The most exciting thing for me about the book,’ he proudly declared, ‘is that it’s Penguin Books.’”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“My only chance to be believed is to find a way of writing bolder and stronger than woman-hating itself – smarter, deeper, colder. I would have to write a prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilising than battery, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more filled with threat and aggression than pornography.” – The Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin by Andrea Dworkin, edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder (MIT Press).