15 NOVEMBER, 2012
By: Maria Popova
An existential quota held in three long fingers.
It’s a fertile season for unprecedented glimpses of Kurt Vonnegut’s character, thanks to the newly published anthology of his letters, which has given us such treats as the author’s uncompromising daily routine and his playful, romantic poetry. But in the introduction to the recently released We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works (public library) — a slim volume containing Basic Training, Vonnegut’s first-ever novella only published after his death, and If God Were Alive Today, his last unfinished novel — the author’s youngest biological daughter, Nanette Vonnegut, shares a piece of the author’s life-credo that feels at once more personal and more relatable than the vast body of what has been written by and about Vonnegut in his lifetime.
Most times I’d find my father in a very receptive mood to my prying questions, like ‘How many times have you been in love?’ His answer was instantaneous, and he held up three long fingers. I was relieved to hear my mother was one of them. His explanation of the merits and failures of each true love struck me as completely fair. Whether or not my mother really did not love him enough did not matter; he felt that love was lacking, and I believed him.
Indeed, in this wonderful recent interview on The Rumpus, she corroborates the anecdote and cites her father’s words directly:
I think you’re allowed to be in love three times in your life.
What is it about famous intellectual-authors having such prescriptive rules about love? And where does that leave the essential process of doubting love? Perhaps the poets of yore knew best in observing that “Love is not kindly nor yet grim / But does to you as you to him.”