Dresden and After

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Just as I was about to sit down to write this I heard an edition of Radio 4’s A Good Read in which the comedian and writer Richard Herring chose Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), the book I had planned to write about, and he went and said all the pertinent things about it that I had hoped to say.

One of the things he said was: ‘Kurt Vonnegut is the most human of all writers.’ I was going to say that my friend David Yates says this to me every time we talk about Vonnegut. So I was surprised when I heard Herring say the same thing, in the same words. It makes me wonder whether they both stole the thought from someone else. But wherever the thought comes from, it’s true. So, what makes him so human? What do the three of us mean by this?

I think I mean that he sees all the horror and unkindness in being human, and yet he thinks we can do better than this, be better than this. When we fail and fail and fail again, he isn’t judgemental. Disappointed, maybe, but never holier than thou.

There’s also a stylistic humanity about his books. They’re often close to conversation, to anecdotage. In fact his writing is often the reverse of the old creative-writing class adage: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ He tells and tells and tells, just the facts, until suddenly it adds up to one big unexpected ‘show’ that you never saw coming.

So, I’m sure you’re saying, enough with the philosophizing, what about the book? The why and what of it? Well, here goes . . .

Slaughterhouse 5 is about Dresden in the Second World War and its destruction. It’s about the people who had to see this, those who lived through it and those who didn’t.

Vonnegut was a private in the US army. He was captured by the Germans shortly before Christmas 1944 and was moved, on foot and in cattle trucks, to a work camp in Dresden. He and his colleagues were housed in Schlanchthof-f

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About the contributor

A. F. Harrold listens to the radio and reads books and has long baths. In his spare time he writes books for children, articles for Slightly Foxed and poems for people who like that sort of thing.

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