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-fünf, a ‘one-story cement-block cube . . . built as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered’. Slaughterhouse 5.
In his first letter home from a Red Cross camp at Le Havre the following May, he said: ‘On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the RAF. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden – possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.’
A little later, in the same letter:
‘When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to Hellexisdorf . . . There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.’
Eventually they made it to Allied lines. Eventually Vonnegut made it home to Indianapolis.
You see in that letter a characteristic verbal tic of the sort that riddles his novels. In Slaughterhouse 5 every death in the book is followed by the phrase: So it goes. At first it may seem irritating, trite perhaps, that little catchphrase. But all these many deaths passing by, deaths that in any other book, especially in a more straightforward account of the war, would become just more numbers, here stop you cold each time. Vonnegut marks each death, human or animal, with this little humanist prayer. It’s a poetic technique for slowing the reader down, for enforcing a pause.
The first chapter of Slaughterhouse 5 tells the story of the book. It reminds me of the opening of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge: ‘I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end with neither a death nor a marriage.’
Vonnegut’s story, however, does begin and end with a death. It opens: ‘All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.’ It ends (pretty much): ‘Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot. So it goes.’
Derby reappears throughout, reminding us of what we know from the outset: his ignominious end. If the deaths in the firestorm are too much to take in, this one petty, unfortunate execution must stand.
I would hate to tell you what this lousy little book cost me in money and anxiety and time. When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen . . .
But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then – not enough to make a book, anyway. And not many words come now, either, when I have become an old fart with his memories and his Pall Malls, with his sons full grown.
I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about, and I am reminded of the famous limerick:
There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
‘You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won’t pee, you old fool.
Still in that first chapter, Vonnegut visits a war buddy of his, O’Hare, to see if that will dislodge some memories, get the ball rolling. O’Hare is unenthusiastic, but they talk. A few memories come. Not much.
O’Hare’s wife, Mary, seems angry: ‘I couldn’t imagine what it was about me that could burn Mary up so. I was a family man. I’d been married only once. I wasn’t a drunk. I hadn’t done her husband any dirt in the war.’ And then it happens, the thing that makes the whole book click into place, that gives the book its usually forgotten subtitle.
Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. ‘You were just babies then!’ she said.
‘What?’ I said.
‘You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs!’
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
‘But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.’ This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
‘I – I don’t know,’ I said.
‘Well, I know,’ she said. ‘You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.’
So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
The title page of the book reads:
THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE
A Duty-Dance with Death
The original Children’s Crusade started in 1213, ‘when two monks got the idea of raising armies of children in Germany and France, and selling them in North Africa as slaves. Thirty thousand children volunteered, thinking they were going to Palestine.’ Vonnegut goes on: ‘Most of the children were shipped out of Marseilles, and about half of them drowned in shipwrecks. The other half got to North Africa where they were sold.’ Also: ‘Through a misunderstanding, some children reported for duty at Genoa . . . They were fed and sheltered and questioned kindly by good people there – then given a little money and a lot of advice and sent back home.’ Finally: ‘“Hooray for the good people of Genoa,” said Mary O’Hare.’
So much for the introduction, what of the body of the novel?
In part it’s about Dresden, about a massacre, about the war, about afterwards, but more it’s about people, good and bad and both. The protagonist, the fictional(ish) Billy Pilgrim, is famously unstuck in time. He experiences his life non-sequentially. So one moment he’s hiding in a ditch in 1944 and the next he’s visiting his mother in a nursing home in 1965, then he’s in 1958 listening to a speech at a banquet. But really, that doesn’t matter.
Later in life Billy is kidnapped by aliens, made to live in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore and mate with a movie star, Montana Wildhack. But really, that doesn’t matter either. Being Tralfamadorean in style (they see everything at once, the whole timeline), the book is short and bitty, it flits about, it’s episodic and jumbled, everything’s happening at once, but don’t let this worry you: it’s an easy read. A good read. It rattles along.
It doesn’t take long before you reach the end, but the three or four times I’ve read it I’ve put it down afterwards and thought, ‘Gosh.’ And then I’ve thought, ‘Let me read another one.’ And I’ve gone and picked up another of his odd novels, all very different to one another, all essentially the same.
Now I don’t know if I’ve made a good case for reading Vonnegut, in fact I don’t know I’ve made much of a case at all: I find there’s too much still to say, but most of it is a one-for-one scale quotation from the book itself. But let me say this: if you read nothing else by him, go and read Slaughterhouse 5, because it’s not what you’re expecting.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 49 © A. F. Harrold 2016
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.