In a 1997 interview, the Voice asked Kurt Vonnegut why he had never written about his time as a prisoner of war in Germany aside from that one central episode, the firebombing of Dresden. He responded, essentially, that being a prisoner of war was a story with no protagonist, no hero. “It was an utterly passive experience. . . . Hell, I did nothing. It was all done to me. So you don’t want to talk about it.”
War was Vonnegut’s subject, but not one that came easy to him. It was, it seems, a subject that got hold of him, one that wouldn’t let him go until he tossed out all his beliefs and saw the Second World War as it really was. He tried to write about the war as the Good Fight, with heroes, or at least anti-heroes, played in the movie version by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne. It didn’t work. In the end, to write about that one devastating part of it, Dresden, took him more than 20 years. Not only did the truth not fit the available stories, it was too painful—especially since his own particular World War II hell, witnessing the slaughter of thousands in Dresden, came about through an attack committed by his own side.
He had to construct a new way of writing, and teach people to read it, before he could say what he needed to say. When he finally published Slaughterhouse-Five, in 1969, at the height of the counterculture and the anti-war movement, it became a bestseller.
Armageddon in Retrospect, published a year after Vonnegut’s death at age 84, is a volume—the first and last, or so it says—of Vonnegut’s uncollected fiction and nonfiction. All the pieces deal, in one way or another, with the theme of war. That may partly be why they’ve never been collected: Many of them seem to come from the time that Vonnegut was wandering in the wilderness.
After an affectionate introduction by Vonnegut’s son Mark, the book opens with the letter Kurt wrote from France in late May 1945 to tell his family that he was still alive. It’s touchingly stilted. The events of his week at the front, his surrender, and his five months in Germany seem still too fresh to be narrated, so he merely lists them, one after another, as if he were a child recounting a long, drawn-out dream.
There’s also a later essay (none of the pieces in the book is dated) describing the firebombing and its aftermath. No matter how many times Vonnegut writes about Dresden, it never loses its power, and this piece, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” should be required reading for anyone considering starting a war. (We’re always told that each new conflict will be quicker, smarter, cleaner, but Vonnegut warns us that wars and weapons take on lives of their own.) After the firestorm was over, Vonnegut was set to work disposing of the dead, mostly women and children. He grieves for them, and for the city’s legendary beauty: “I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come.”
In some of the fiction, he attempts to do what he eventually concluded was impossible: make a dramatic story about his other experiences as a prisoner of war. “Just You and Me, Sammy” is an adventure set right after the liberation. A German-American prisoner of war who enlisted out of idealism (“I must have seemed like quite a jerk to a lot of the guys, sounding off the way I did about loyalty, fighting for a cause, and all that”) encounters, and ultimately kills in self-defense, his counterpart—a German-American boy who had returned to Germany to spy for the Nazis. This story seems like a rehearsal for Vonnegut’s 1961 novel Mother Night, about an American spy whose impersonation of Nazi loyalty becomes indistinguishable from the real thing. But here, Vonnegut hasn’t yet abandoned the notion that a war story should have a good guy, a bad guy, and a moral at the end, like the one in the cute fable “The Commandant’s Desk,” in which the American liberators are seen from a Czech cabinetmaker’s point of view.
These early stories mainly illustrate the traps Vonnegut didn’t fall into, the wrong turns he didn’t take, the superficial answers he didn’t accept. They make you go back and look at how well-put-together his best books are beneath their loose, apparently absurdist exteriors. They also hint at how his literary persona developed over time, though we’ll need a biographer to tell us more. (Charles Shields, who wrote about Harper Lee in Mockingbird, is working on a Vonnegut book.) Vonnegut cultivated a folksy, Midwestern, man-from-Indiana air, but the early photos—before the Mark Twain hair and mustache—show him as a clean-cut, cheerful, almost preppy kid, and then as a Writer trying hard to look serious. He seems to have had a talent for self-creation.
He apparently went through bouts of depression, although his son Mark has his doubts. Kurt was hospitalized in 1984 after an overdose of pills, but Mark believes this was not a serious suicide attempt. “Of all the medications he took, there wasn’t a toxic level of anything,” he writes in the preface. “Within a day he was bouncing around the dayroom playing Ping-Pong and making friends. It seemed like he was doing a not very convincing imitation of someone with mental illness.”
But if Vonnegut wasn’t depressed, then how did he get to be so funny? It’s been said that humor is the polite form of despair, and certainly both are essential ingredients in his work. One reason Cat’s Cradle (1963) is so wildly comic, for instance, is because everyone dies in the end. The stakes needed to be that high.
Laughter and heartbreak is an unstable combination, however, liable to fall apart into corniness or sentimentality. There are mushy stories in Armageddon in Retrospect, like the small, lovely fantasy “The Unicorn Trap,” in which a pair of oppressed peasants, father and son, accidentally do away with their oppressor. There are also corny, too-easy stories, like “Happy Birthday, 1951,” about a boy, raised in the rubble of war, who is taken to see trees for the first time but would rather play on the carcass of a tank. Sappiness, impracticality: It’s the curse of the left. You end up, like Vonnegut did, shaking your fist at fossil fuels and multinationals in the pages of In These Times—still wise, but no longer unpredictable.
Armageddon in Retrospect isn’t full of posthumous discoveries. But on the other hand, Vonnegut’s reputation may not need all that much help. Granted, when he finally told the truth about his experience, it came out a little weird. But Vonnegut has proved more enduring than the counterculture that embraced him. “He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was,” Mark writes. “If you ever think something he wrote was sloppy, you might be right, but just to be sure, read it again.”
Besides, he bet on science fiction rather than postmodernism or suburban satire, and right now genre writing seems to be a winning horse. In his last novel, Timequake (1997), in a clever bit of bluff, Vonnegut even had Kilgore Trout—his hapless, reclusive, science-fiction-dreaming alter ego—single-handedly save the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
So who knows? At any rate, a future that reveres Vonnegut as an ancestor probably wouldn’t be such a bad place to be.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2008