Nov 132012

New York Times Book Review, Nov. 11, 2012

To the Editor:

Kurt Andersen’s entertaining and rueful recollection of meeting Kurt Vonnegut called to mind my own experience. In 1998, working on a play about the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, I wangled an invitation to sit in with Vonnegut as he entertained a tableful of Northwestern students at a pub in Evanston, Ill. He was in town to do a reading from “Slaughterhouse-Five” at the famed Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, backed by a string orchestra performing Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, a shattering piece of music that covers some of the same horrific, heart-pounding territory — the devastation of Dresden — as the novel. Vonnegut was in a garrulous mood, smoking and drinking, spinning stories and holding forth on whatever topic was at hand. But it was too noisy to talk about Shostakovich, so he invited me to join him for the performance.

The next night, we met in the green room before he was to go onstage. He had little to say about Shostakovich — clearly he had not read up on or listened to the composer — and not much more to say about his own book. I told him I had just finished rereading it and counted something like 137 instances of “So it goes.” What did it mean – surely something more than a plug of cheap philosophy or existential world-weariness? He smiled wanly and shrugged. That was for me to figure out. One thing of value he did leave me was his phone number in Manhattan, in case I had more questions. He said it was easy to remember: 212-MUTANT1.

I never tried it, so maybe it was a genial put-on, but I like to think it was the real thing. You can try it now but, like the author, it’s no longer in service.

Les Jacobson

Evanston, Ill.

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