Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Slate - How "Slaughterhouse Five" Was Born

Steve Almond at Slate reviews the new posthumous collection from Kurt Vonnegut.

April 7, 2008 | On May 29, 1945, Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sat down at a typewriter in the Red Cross Club of the POW Repatriation Camp in Le Havre, France, and wrote his family a letter. "I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than 'missing in action,'" he began. "That leaves me a lot of explaining to do."

The 22-year-old proceeds to detail his capture by the Germans, his imprisonment in Dresden and his subsequent liberation in a mordant brand of prose that would eventually become his literary trademark. A typical passage:

On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. [T]heir combined labors killed 250,000 [sic] people in 24 hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

Although the young private overstated the number killed during the bombings -- current estimates run between 25,000 and 40,00 -- his correspondence, reproduced in its original form, is the most fascinating document in Vonnegut's new posthumous collection, "Armageddon in Retrospect." The letter -- both its candor and its smart-alecky tone -- helps us understand how a Midwestern ne'er-do-well became the foremost literary pacifist of the 20th century.

But the entire book is striking for the light it sheds on Vonnegut's early years as a fiction writer, the era in which he was a struggling short story writer still casting about for a way to tell his Dresden story.

The majority of the pieces compiled here -- 10 of 13 -- are unpublished shorts, written in the decade after his return from war. There are a few experiments in science fiction, but most are set in Dresden and laden with tragic ironies that convey (rather too ardently) the horrors of war. We can assume, for instance, that the orphaned boy in "Happy Birthday, 1951" will ultimately reject the efforts of his grandfatherly guardian to shield him from the violence of war, just as the G.I. in "Spoils" will be haunted by the knowledge that the rabbit he foraged for dinner belonged to a crippled German boy.

The question that haunts this new book is how Vonnegut himself managed to break free from such earnest realism to produce his eventual masterpiece about Dresden, "Slaughterhouse Five."

Read the whole review.

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