My hero: Kurt Vonnegut by Alison Moore

'His dark stories are so full of love and acceptance, as well as wit'

When I first read Kurt Vonnegut, I was 20 and having a whole lot of fun at university. When Vonnegut was 20, it was the middle of the second world war and he was a soldier. At 21, he came home on leave on Mother's Day to find that his mother had committed suicide the day before. At 22, he became a prisoner of war in Dresden and witnessed its bombing. Published as a short-story writer and then as a novelist after the war, he often wrote about simple lives meeting with some kind of chaos or ruin.

What makes Vonnegut such a magnificent writer is that these essentially dark stories are so full of love and acceptance, as well as wit. Talking about humour in A Man Without a Country, he writes: "I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy. There is terrible tragedy there somehow. These men are too sweet to survive in this world and are in terrible danger all the time. They could so easily be killed."

In Slaughterhouse-Five, having survived Dresden, Billy Pilgrim is murdered by a petty thief because of a passing lie told by a man who, in turn, is being killed by his own shoes. Edgar Derby, a high school teacher, is shot for looting a teapot. Perhaps it is only through such absurd details that we can really get a handle on the horror of the experience. "One guy I knew," Vonnegut writes at the start of the novel, "really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his."

A committed humanist, Vonnegut described, in a number of his works, a state of dehumanisation inflicted by bureaucracy or technology, with citizens of futuristic or present-day societies stripped of individuality or free will. Vonnegut was passionate about human connection and treating one another decently. As he said of Isaac Asimov, he's up in heaven now.

• Alison Moore's The Lighthouse (Salt) is shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.


Alison Moore

The GuardianTramp

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