Kurt Vonnegut’s writing was never important to me; he began as a humorist, and with the exception of P.G. Wodehouse and Thurber, it’s not a genre that’s much appealed. But of course he later developed a cranky, imaginative style that led him to several fine novels, most especially Slaughterhouse Five (1969) and the book I’m writing about here, Bluebeard’s Castle (1987). He’s sometimes considered another Mark Twain, which is okay by me. An atheist and humanist (one-time president of the American Humanist Association), the conversion of his first wife to Christianity sent him to Ritalin and psychotherapy; he later married Jill Krementz, a fine photographer. “So it goes,” is his most famous quote; and that about sums it up.
Bluebeard’s Castle, by Kurt Vonnegut. Doubleday, 300 pages, $24.95
Why would a Japanese insurance company pay I millions of dollars for a painting of sunflowers, which don’t look much like sunflowers, by a demented Dutchman?
Why would anyone pay anything for a silkscreen blow-up of a soupcan?
Or — the same question in a different form — how can Wayne Gretzky earn yet more millions by the dextrous manipulation of a hockey puck?
The nature of these transactions — the transformation of beauty ‘into cash — is the theme of Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel, Bluebeard, which, he tells us, “was inspired by the grotesque prices paid for works of art during the last century.”
Cast as a mock-autobiography, it tells story of Rabo Karabekian — a character who will be familiar to Vonnegut’s regular readers, not only because he appeared in The Breakifast of Champions, but because he is another version of Vonnegut’s 20th Century Everyman, embodying in his own life the horrors of our most horrible time.
It is the summer of 1987. Rabo, in his seventies, is looking back despairingly on his life — though his despair is tempered by Vonnegut’s usual brave whimsy. And he has good reason. His parents, Armenians, were survivors of the Turkish massacres before the First World War, his father having hidden himself in a privy, his mother beneath a mound of corspese.
Coming to America, Rabo grows up in the shadow of these horrors, but soon finds his own. The Depression, the Army: in the Battle of the Bulge he loses an eye and is taken prisoner.
When the war finally ends, he is marched with other prisoners and abandoned in a valley: “Below us, in that innocent farmland, were thousands upon thousands of people like us… They were people who had been marched out of concentration camps and factories where they had been slaves, and out of regular prisons for criminals and out of lunatic asylums… And there were hundreds in German uniforms, with their weapons still in working order, but docile now, waiting for wnomever they were expected to surrender to.”
With this image of “peace” branded on his brain, he returns home. And marriage. And divorce.
His children disown him, changing their names to hide their Armenian heritage.
His friends, suffering from their own horrors, kill themselves, one by one. His second wife dies. Now, a semi-recluse, he lives quietly in the Hamptons, on Long Island paying occasional visits to a mysterious barn on the margins his property.
BUt this is only part of it, for he has actually fought against his despair every step of the way, attempting to give his life meaning through art. He is, or was, a painter. And as he looks back on his life he is haunted by a question: What is the meaning of art, its value? Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he is haunted by the answer the 20th Century has given this query — the dollar bill.
Rabo’s artistic training was actually conducted under an illustrator, a great master of kitsch and admirer of Mussolini, whose own training made him a master counterterfeiter.
And though Rabo, disillusioned, for a time abandons art, he later finds himself drinking’ buddies with the Abstract Expressionists — Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning. He picks up their bar bills, pays their rent, makes them small- advances, and ultimately begins to paint in their style.
But he lives long enough to witness a terrible irony. Their paintings, “which are about absolutely nothing except themselves” – which attempt, that is, to create meaning outside the World of conventlonal value become fashionable, immensely valuable. Art, trying to subvert life, is swallowed by it
And so the paintings which they had given him in payment for their debts now hang like so many million-dollar bills on his walls. It is an irony underlined even more cruelly by the fate of his own work, which has literally disintegrated, having been painted wth something called Sateen DuraLuxe (a perfect Vonnegut touch), which has since been declared a toxic substance.
So there is Rabo’s despair. But the novel is also about his redemption. This comes in the form of one Crice Berman, recently widowed, who writes children’s. books under the name Polly Madison.
To Polly complete her latest opus, Polly moves into Rabo’s house, and life. Brash, bossy, aggressive, and vulgar (she hates Rabo’s art collection and ultimately replaces a good deal of it with flowered wallpaper), she is nonetheless alive. And she cares for him— despite himself– and becomes obsessed with that mysterious barn, Rabo’s version of Bluebeard’s chamber, where the monster’s too-curious bride discovered the corpses of her predecessors.
At first, Rabo refuses to let Polly enter it, but when be finally rediscovers the value of his own life by coming to care for her life, he lets her in on his own dreadful secret. It’s a painting, course, though I won’t describe it — but it makes a moving and powerful climax to this very fine book.
And that’s all, really. The difficulty in reviewing this novel is that it’s so simple, direct and straightforward that it scarcely needs elucidation: it is Vonnegut’s best work since Slaughterhouse Five.
As a writer, Vonnegut’s strength has always been his voice, calm, wise, edged with a gentle bitterness, and it’s here displayed to great effect. The narrative is woven from bits and pieces, snippets, jokes and anecdotes, and the best of these —llke the fairy story the book’s title comes from – take on the quality of folk tales or legends.
Rabo, pursuing the meaning of life, goes at it in just that simple, childish, relentless way. Who invented the world? God. But who invented God. And so on… These tales, too, provide the generalizing thematic pattern as story ranges far and wide over Rabo’s life and love and art. What is life worth, they keep asking, what does life mean. So far as Rabo is concerned, the world is no further ahead today, when it comes to answering these questions, than it was when he was marched out of his prison camp in 1945. America — the land of the junk bond, the zero-coupon bond, a nation which finds true value In “the index option” — is “a generally bankrupt country” whose “state of mind allows too many of us to lie and cheat and steal.., to sell us junk and addictive poison and corrupting entertainments” But Rabo, at the end of his long life, finally thinks he’s got things straight. All we have is life, so we’d better not kill each other. All we have are our friends so we’d better attend to them. Amd all we have is art, which we’d best treasure for itself. For one life, that’s a lot to learn, and we can be thankful to Vonnegut for having presented Rabo’s lessons in such a lovely book.
(Originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, January 30, 1988.)