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“The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”

Philosopher John Gray

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The Comic Sage of Remsenburg

If you are less than a certain age you may not be familiar with the comic genius of P.G.Wodehouse. His novels and stories were the consolation of my teenage years, when schoolwork and examinations seemed to fill the whole horizon. For light relief there were always the books of P.G.Wodehouse.

He was the creator, among many other things, of the Jeeves and Wooster stories, in which an idiotic young man about town is saved from numerous disasters by his suave valet Jeeves. They were splendidly incarnated by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in the Masterpiece Theatre series which ran for four seasons in the early 1990s. The running joke in these books – and it’s a joke as old as Shakespeare – is that the servant is smarter than the master, and not just smarter but also more of a gentleman. The plots are chaotic and complicated, but most of them concern the eternal struggle by Bertie Wooster to avoid marrying a succession of ghastly women – notably the appalling Madeline Bassett.

Here’s a quote from Jeeves and the Ties That Bind that summarizes Bertie Wooster’s perpetual dilemma.

“Madeline Bassett, daughter of Sir Watkyn Bassett of Totleigh Towers, Gloucestershire, had long been under the impression that I was hopelessly in love with her and had given me to understand that if she ever had the occasion to return her betrothed, Gussie Fink-Nottle, to store, she would marry me. Which wouldn’t have fit with my plans at all, she, though physically in the pin-up class, being as mushy a character as ever broke biscuit, convinced that the stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a fairy blows its wee nose a baby is born. The last thing, as you can well imagine, one would want about the home.”

Nobody else wrote (or writes) quite like that.

P.G.Wodehouse, or “Plum” as he was affectionately known by his friends, created a fictional world in which a giant pig called the Empress of Blandings, a passion for newts, or the correct arrangement of a white tie were infinitely more important than death or taxes, or even school examinations. It wasn’t a fantasy world on the lines of Harry Potter, but a wildly exaggerated version of a real world that had existed once upon a time, when Wodehouse was young – a world of idle young gentlemen and flighty women, suave servants and eccentric aunts. As a teenager, I badly wanted to enter that world. In particular, I wanted to be an idle young gentleman with a valet.

I was lucky to grow up with Wodehouse’s books. Some critics say that he was the finest English comic writer since Shakespeare. He had splendid timing, just the right amount of erudition, and a marvelous way with words. He was also enormously prolific, producing 126 books with titles like The Brinkmanship of Galahad Threepwood and A Pelican at Blandings Castle, plus over fifty plays and musical comedies, and hundreds of short stories. He was still busily writing in the year of his death at the age of 94.

Although his stories and settings are so quintessentially English, P.G. made his reputation and his fortune in the United States. He came here in 1946 and lived in New York and Hollywood until 1955, when he and his wife Ethel settled just down the road from us in Remsenburg, Long Island, on a twelve acre estate by the sea. There he lived happily for the last twenty years of his life, surrounded by dogs and cats and still spinning his wonderful stories. He was belatedly knighted and became Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse in 1975.

He never lost his sense of humor. even when he was interned in Germany in the Second World War. Wodehouse’s subject was the human comedy – the endlessly entertaining contrast between what we pretend to be and what we are. He helped me to get life in perspective, to “see the joke,” which isn’t easy when you’re a teenager. The sad and pedestrian books now sold as “Young Adult” novels – full of family and school problems and facile solutions – are a poor substitute for the inspired satire of a writer like P.G. Wodehouse.

I think the evidence for P.G.s quality is that he still has fan clubs all over the world – the biggest in India, Russia and Japan, and of course in England. Millions and millions of people must have laughed out loud at his wonderful comic inventions. Come back Plum, we really need you.

Copyright: David Bouchier

What’s Funny?

In a couple of weeks I will be giving a talk on the impossible subject of “The Seriousness of Humor.” I chose this subject months ago, when it seemed quite reasonable. At the time I was perfectly sober.

I have taught courses in writing humor, with more or less success, but I don’t do it anymore. Either I am losing my own sense of humor because of age and cynicism, or the context of humor has somehow changed
.
My guess is the latter. The news is all bad: stupid and dangerous politics, terrorism, unending wars, global warming, and a whole list of lesser threats have created a poisonous atmosphere. “Atmosphere” is the right word, because we can’t avoid breathing it. The cumulative effect is daunting.

The media in general (if such a thing exists) has responded with cynicism and absurdity. Everything is so serious that we don’t dare to take anything seriously. Now there’s an interesting thought. The implication is that wit and satire have become a kind of defense mechanism against despair – but at the same time devices for avoiding reality and thereby avoiding the responsibility for changing it. We are the sophisticated spectators at a circus. What the clowns do may be amusing, but it’s not serious.

Where to writers stand in this? Should we abandon humor for radical engagement, or will humor be our only salvation in the end?

I’m still processing this question. Irony and satire have been the writer’s best weapons against a crazy world ever since Aristophanes perfected them around 400BC. On the other hand nobody takes humor seriously. I expect to have this all sorted out by the time I give my talk. I’ll let you know.

Literature for Dummies

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time top time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a
graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe. These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping. The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

The Solitary Writer

Reading and writing are solitary pleasures. Other people must be pushed into the background so that we can enjoy our communion with words.

But sometimes I wonder if this solitude is a defect, something fundamentally inhuman and anti-human. Reading, after all, is not a significant part of most people’s lives. For the nine out of ten Americans who scarcely read at all it is something positively alien. If you think I exaggerate, ask any high school or college teacher.

What brought this thought to the surface was a period of unusual sociability during the last three months. I have met and talked to a lot of people. Tried to talk would be more exact. Writing comes easily enough to me, but talking is increasingly hard work. I seem to be losing my verbal (i.e. conversational) skills. Could this be the result of the writer’s inevitable solitude, eight hours or more a day of complete silence in an empty room in an empty house? It’s a disturbing thought.

When I started paying attention I realized that people all around me are talking all the time. My neighbor stood in her yard the other day and talked in a penetrating voice on her cell phone for a total of sixty-seven minutes, scarcely drawing a breath (I timed her with a stopwatch). I could never talk for sixty-seven minutes without a script because I don’t have that many things to say. Yet other people do it routinely. The front desk workers in our local library talk steadily from morning till night, as do most people in groups. I’m overwhelmed and silenced by their flow of words.

This brings us back to the difference between writing and talking. The decline and literacy has been more than overbalanced by a huge increase in verbosity. Cell phones may have something to do with unleashing this tsunami of talk, but something bigger may be happening.

Printing is not yet six hundred years old. Mass literacy is less than two hundred years old. For most of human history stories were told and heard, not read, and the tradition still survives in many parts of the world where literacy rates are low. The storyteller is an important and respected figure in the community. I’m reminded of the character Katsimbalis in Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi whose fount of stories clearly made a deep impression on the author. Good storytelling is powerful.

By contrast books and magazines as a form of popular entertainment are historically very new, and intellectually quite difficult. Learning to read is hard, reading is a concentrated, interpretative, solitary activity. The reader has to think. Translating those marks on paper into words, then into sentences and meanings, is hard mental labor. That’s why so many young people hate it.

In the twentieth century alternatives to reading appeared: radio, movies, television, videogames, and so on. Suddenly the hard work of reading could be bypassed, and we could drop back into the delightfully relaxed world of the old oral culture. “Tell me a story,” we said to our parents, and they did (or at least mine did). It was and is a primordial pleasure. Talk is easy, listening is easy. That’s why recorded books are so popular.

So an argument can be made that, because of the new post-print technologies, we are moving back (or forward) into a new age of oral communications. There will still be plenty of isolated, silent writers serving their isolated, silent readers. But most people will be just talking, talking, and talking.

A Good Read

The pleasures of winter are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But I must confess that there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

I prefer fiction at bedtime – a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe. These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping. The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.

So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction – biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

Proverbial Wisdom

We have all been victims of proverbial wisdom, particularly when we were young. A large part of the job of parenting is to bombard one’s offspring with warnings and advice in the form of easily remembered clichés posing as absolute truths. They come from everywhere although, in this country, a lot of them are the work of Ben Franklin and Dale Carnegie, and have an economic flavor: early to bed, early to rise; a penny saved is a penny earned; nothing succeeds like success; When fate hands you a lemon, make lemonade; Do the hard jobs first. The easy jobs will take care of themselves. Well, yes, you feel like saying. Wait a minute, let’s think about this. But it’s too late. Once a proverb has been uttered it has done its deadly work. Thinking is no longer possible, or allowed.

Proverbs are thought by some to contain the essence of wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience. Experience comes from making mistakes. So proverbs are the record of numerous past mistakes, distilled to a single phrase, and turned into an example for posterity. Faint heart never won fair lady, good fences make good neighbors. But wisdom condensed usually means commonsense lost. Faint heart quite often wins fair ladies, they like a modest approach, and neighbors fight over fences like street gangs defending their turf.

Few proverbs can stand up to rigorous examination. It never rains but it pours; one swallow doesn’t make a summer; all’s well that ends well; still waters run deep; all is fair in love and war. Modern technology and fashionable cynicism have made most proverbs obsolete. Now we have a space program it’s no longer even guaranteed that what goes up must come down. Just occasionally you come upon a piece of proverbial wisdom that, with a bit of adaptation, makes sense. “Let sleeping cats lie.” But we don’t need a proverb to tell us that.

An aphorism is the opposite of proverb. An aphorism is a clever, original remark that makes you think: “Truths are the illusions that we have misunderstood” (Friedrich Neitzsche) or, on the brighter side from Mae West, “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” Proverbs, on the other hand, fall on you like a brick, with a stunning rather than an enlightening effect: Seeing is believing; Virtue is its own reward; you can’t have your cake and eat it; ignorance is bliss.

Globalization has exposed us to the proverbial wisdoms of everyone else on the planet.* We can see how peculiar other people’s proverbs are, which should make us think twice about our own. The Chinese, for example, advise: “Add legs to a snake only after you have finished drawing it.” Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I doubt it. In Ireland everyone knows: “Never bolt your door with a boiled carrot” and in Zululand it is equally obvious that “You should never speak to a rhinoceros unless there is a tree nearby.”

Proverbial wisdoms were always colorful and usually entertaining. We’ll miss them when they fade away, those tiny nuggets of certainty that helped us to navigate through a bewildering world. Maybe we’ll have to invent a whole new set of proverbial wisdoms for the twenty-first century, things like: Never leave your Blackberry in the kitchen when grandmother is baking pies. But that’s a thought for another day.

Obviously I could go on about this till the cows come home, but enough is as good as a feast. All good things must come to an end. Silence is golden.

*The proverbs of the world have been collected in an entertaining book by David Crystal As They Say in Zanzibar.

The Book Crusader

There’s a character in the Peanuts cartoon strip called Pigpen – a boy who attracts dirt like a magnet. I am a Pigpen for books. They fly into my life and they stick to me for years and decades.

I’m not complaining. I love my great unwieldy mass of books, although moving them from place to place over the years has left me with a bad back and an allergy to cardboard boxes. But by my count I have made fourteen major house moves in my lifetime so far. This impending move will be the fifteenth. Each time I have sorted out my books and sold or dumped many of them. But now, mysteriously, I have more books than ever before. They fill every bookshelf in the house, and overflow into boxes in the basement.

This time, I said to myself, I will really sort out these books. There are volumes I haven’t looked at since last time we moved seventeen years ago. Obviously they must go this time. There are hundreds of dull academic books from my former professorial life, relics of the past. Then there are all the paperbacks purchased to read on a plane, and never to be opened again.
It sounds much easier than it is. Every book is a slice of the past – personal or professional. Going through one’s books is like conducting an archaeological dig of one’s own life. There are treasures to be found down there in the dirt, and also a lot of plain rubbish.

My immediate goal is to reduce the number of books that will be moved to the new house by about half. The great classics must stay with us, of course, because you never know when you may be struck by the urge to read a great classic. On the other hand a lot of my research work in the past was concerned with radical social movements, so I have hundreds of books about socialism, anarchism feminism, civil rights and the counter culture. They are all dated now – indeed we are all dated now, along with our naïve 1960s optimism. So I threw them into the trunk of the car and took them to the local public library where they will be sold to benefit the friends of the library.

It was as I did this that I began to get a sense of mission – a feeling that my discarded books might still have a role to play in the human comedy. Many of them promote rather radical ideas, like equality and democracy. Spreading such books through the community might, with luck, become a subversive activity.

One subject is the most subversive of all. Back in 1984 I wrote a book about radical feminism, and the books I used for that project were and are dynamite. They have titles like The Coming Matriarchy, The Battle of the Sexes, Women Rule, The Feminine Mystique and The New Feminist Revolution. These poisoned gifts have been cunningly inserted into the monthly book sale at the library, where the majority of the buyers are women.

I rather like the idea of newly-minted socialists, anarchists and radical feminists raging through the streets of Long Island. If the next popular revolution does start here I will naturally disclaim any legal responsibility. But I will hug to myself the secret that I passed those books and those ideas on to a new generation of readers, who will decide for themselves whether and when to change the world. That’s what books are for.

Literature for Dummies

Winter is on its way, and the pleasures of that grim season are much exaggerated. When we talk about the log fires and the beautiful, bleak landscapes, we’re just whistling in the dark, waiting for the lighter evenings to come. The only real pleasure of winter is the end of it.

But there is something to be said for the modest luxury of reading in bed on a cold, dark night, under a heap of blankets and cats, knowing that you can read on until your eyelids droop or the book no longer holds your attention. It’s not a good idea to watch television in bed. All that screaming and canned applause will keep your partner awake, and there’s the danger that you may actually dream about the programs. But a good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger, and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time to time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on of principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe.

These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping.

The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.
So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

On the Road

Some writers thrive on travel. They are stimulated to record their thoughts in trains, in hotel rooms, on the tops of mountains, or in the presence of famous tourist sights. I wish I had this talent, because I love to travel. But, having just returned from three months in Europe, I have confirmed yet again that I am a one-place writer, and the place is right here in my study at home.

Everything distracts me when I am travelling. The room, the desk, and the computer are all different, even the sounds heard through the window are different. My books are not there, and half my mind is engaged with different language and a different culture. Travel is so stimulating, and so packed with new experiences, that the calm and thoughtful frame of mind that encourages writing is elusive, or impossible.

So I take many notes along the way, and return home with a bundle of undigested impressions that will never be quite as sharp and bright as they were at the time. It’s a good thing that I never set out to be a travel writer.

Remembering Vonnegut

I’ve been re-reading Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he invented a whole new religion called Bokononism, the basic principle of which was that “all religions are false, including this one.” This offended some people. Vonnegut was a writer who aroused extreme emotions, from hero-worship to revulsion. Most writers are not as lucky, because we are nowhere near as good. When he died ten years ago I felt it as a personal loss, having been a more or less faithful reader for over forty years. Searching my bookshelves I found five of Vonnegut’s eighteen or so books – not exactly a collector’s library but a decent tribute to a writer I admired a lot.

The obituaries were generous. Many of them suggested that Vonnegut was the Mark Twain of the modern age, which was a huge compliment. He was a social critic from the same mold as Mark Twain, and a pessimist about human nature, just as Twain was. But I would go a step higher: Vonnegut was the Jonathan Swift of the modern age. He had an edge, a gift for ferocious fantasy that Mark Twain lacked but that Swift surely had. Gulliver’s Travels, for example, is pure Vonnegut in its sensibility, just as Timequake is pure Swift.

The first of his books I read was Player Piano, a comically awful portrait of a robotic future. It was published in 1952, and has had hundreds of imitators. It’s hard, verging on impossible, to describe Vonnegut’s work to anyone who hasn’t read it. The label science fiction, which puts a lot of people off, is totally wrong. He was first of all a satirist, and then a fantasist. He invented new ways of describing the world, whole new religions, impossible characters, and indispensable words. Where would we be, for example, without the word Granfalloon, a word that describes a group of people who think they have something in common, but don’t?

His best book, in my opinion, is Slaughterhouse Five, about the wartime bombing of Dresden. His most poignant short story is “Harrison Bergeron,” about the doomed search for equality, which I have never been able to get out of my head since I read it decades ago.

Vonnegut was not the kind of writer who captivated you by the style or beauty of his language. His writing was plain and direct, but his grammar and punctuation were often bizarre. He pulled the reader in by the force of his ideas and his wild imagination.

I don’t know what his place was and will be in American literature. I can’t guess what he meant to anyone else. I can only say what he meant to me, through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. He was quite literally a voice crying in the wilderness – a humanistic, sane, funny and angry voice saying what the rest of us didn’t have the wit or the courage to say.

I never met Vonnegut, although I saw him once at a book fair in the Hamptons. But what I learned from him as a writer was this: take chances. It’s a valuable lesson.

And now he’s long gone, fading into the past. Humanists don’t believe in life after death. Kurt Vonnegut has serious reservations about life before it – he attempted suicide at least once. But his sense of humor never completely deserted him. In his last book, an eclectic and very funny collection of odds and ends called Man Without A Country, he recalls speaking at a memorial service for the great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was himself a prominent humanist.

“Isaac is up in heaven now,” said Vonnegut, and it brought the house down. The humanists were rolling in the aisles.

If Kurt is up in heaven now, I hope he appreciates that the joke is now on him.