October 03, 2008

Breakfast With A Champion

Breakfast With A Champion (Farting Around On a Day Like No Other) - A Vonnegut Feeling.

25 September, 08

This isn’t a book review. Even if I knew how to write one (I don’t) I couldn’t because I haven’t finished the book yet.

Normally when I get up in the morning, I turn the computer on, make a cup of tea, let Small Dog out of the kitchen and feed her. Then I sit in front of the screen, reading, conversing and doing a crossword. Then, Big Dog is let out of the laundry, we have breakfast together (he’s blind, but he likes to sit and sniff loudly and suggestively in the direction of my plate as I eat) and then whatever needs to be done gets done, or gets put off until later.

I have the radio on most of the time. Classical music mostly and, now, a new show which combines music with readings from all fields of literature. On the first day, they played a music and dialogue track from the Zefferelli film of Romeo and Juliet, which nearly had me in tears. The other day I sat and listened in awe as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was read, as quietly and humbly as I imagine it was written. Again, the passage about the consecration of the battlefield had me shaking my head at the ability of mere words (hah!) to move us so very deeply. These are days like any other.

Some days are, of course, not so. Some days are unique. Sometimes it’s something big. A death, a funeral, a birth. Or lunch with an old friend. Sometimes it’s something small. This morning I had to have a blood sample taken for my new doctor. A novel experience as I don’t visit doctors very often. I last had a medical when the Olympic Games came to Sydney and I worked briefly as a driver for NBC TV. So, as fasting was a requirement for the test, I decided I’d go down to the “village” and have breakfast there after I’d been to the pathology centre.

I’ve never given a blood sample before, other than the minor finger-prick type. Having a needle inserted in the elbow and watching three test tubes fill up in a few seconds was a new experience. We bleed fast and, as the nurse agreed, we nearly always crave a coffee afterwards, especially at eight in the morning.

So, blood drawn, I hoofed it around to this little Chinese bonsai nursery and café which I walk past often, went to only once but still remembered liking. They have fountains, lots of greenery and the owner chalks up pithy sayings of Confucius which change daily. I ordered an omelet and coffee and rang my wife (who gets up at four every morning to go to work) to tell her where I was. I’m still not mad about my new mobile phone, I don’t like them much anyway, but it has its uses and makes a great standby camera.

Then – and I think this was the real reason for going there - I pulled out my brand-new, bargain-bin copy of A Man Without A Country and began to read while I waited for my omelet, which was delicious but arrived way too soon. If I hadn’t been so hungry by then I may have let it get cold rather than put my book aside.

I’ve always liked Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. He has a plain-spoken, deceptively folksy style and simple, unadorned truth seems to shine out from his words. Not great, blazing Truth, blinding with Sun-like intensity and screaming out to be printed in quotes on the dust jacket – his truths are more like the distant stars, small points of light in the darkness that we can navigate by if we recognise them. His truths aren’t revelations that leap out and confront you and make you question your worldview. His truths tap you on the shoulder and say “Hey, remember me? Back when you were young and thought your ideals were cast in steel, you used to feel like this.”

(An aside: What I like most about co-incidence is that it never fails to give that frisson of synchronicity, that hint that some instrument of fate might be trying to show us something greater at work than a mere concurrence of events. Not far into the book I found myself reading a short essay about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and, sure enough, there as an illustration of its greatness, and an exemplar of purely fine writing, was the same passage on the consecration of the battlefield.)

Though this is a book that may be read easily, it is not a book to be taken lightly. It is a book about the meaning of life, the end of the world and the point of no return. For the record, the first is “just farting around”, the second is closer than we think and the third is long past. It isn’t a biography, or even a series of essays, scholarly or otherwise. It isn’t easy to describe. Here is no more or less than a direct and privileged look into the mind of arguably one of the greatest humanists of our time. He may not have been one of a kind (though many would say he was) but he was quite possibly the last of his kind.

This book reminds me of good Japanese food. It looks light and insubstantial but, if properly prepared by a master, it is as filling as steak and dumplings. I put it down after a while, though I could have read all day. Probably not, though – it is a thin book, sparsely typeset and punctuated by resonant, full-page chapter headings. I imagine it could be read in two hours if the reader was lucky enough not to be interrupted. But this is not that kind of book. Like a good bottle of whisky, part of the joy is sipping it slowly and savoring the effect rather than throwing away the cork and bolting the lot. There will be no more once this is finished. It was his last book and possibly his best.

You don’t have to read this book. But you should.


PS. I finished the book a day or so later. Took me an hour. In it Vonnegut more-or-less predicts the current economic crash and the whole bail-out notion, which seems to be rewarding the guilty and punishing the helpless and blameless, with his usual acerbic accuracy. I finished it in one gulp, as it were.

At least I don’t do that with whisky anymore (thankfully - I’d be long dead otherwise!)


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