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Vonnegut Saved From The Grave

from The Village Voice

Kurt Vonnegut’s Unpublished Writings

Armageddon in Retrospect collects the late fabulist’s work on war

by Julie Phillips

Vonnegut With Dog 1969In 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.

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 novelMother 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.

[ click to read rest of review at The Village Voice ]

Posted on March 28, 2008 by Editor

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