Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ at 50: One of the most imaginative novels about war ever written

Two decades after surviving the Dresden massacre, Vonnegut drew upon the experience to create his pioneering sci-fi tragi-comedy. So it goes, says Martin Chilton

Monday 01 April 2019 10:20
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Nowadays, there is a 38ft mural of Kurt Vonnegut in his hometown of Indianapolis. The city was less honouring of its famous son when the author returned for a book-signing event a few weeks after the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five on 31 March 1969.

Vonnegut, whose book was already a national bestseller by the time of his visit in April, wrote drolly about the lack of fanfare he received when he came back to promote his novel about surviving the allied bombing of Dresden in 1945. “I went to the bookstore in Indianapolis. I sold 13 books in two hours, every one of them to a relative. Word of honour,” he wrote to his friend Dan Wakefield shortly afterwards.

Vonnegut, who died on 11 April 2007 at the age of 84, would surely have smiled at the way the 50th anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five is being marked, not least by Indianapolis’s Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. They are giving away 86,000 copies of a once banned and burnt novel, sending one to every high-school sophomore in his home state of Indiana. The museum’s CEO, Julia Whitehead, describes it as its “most exciting commemoration” of the anniversary. Penguin has issued a 50th-anniversary commemorative edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. Libraries throughout America are planning public readings of the entire book on its 50th birthday.

In April, on the 12th anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, authors Salman Rushdie and Douglas Brinkley will be the keynote speakers at a “Night of Vonnegut” party at the Historic Athenaeum on East Michigan Street, Indianapolis. The advertisement for the gala event urges the audience to “dress in your best 1969 throwback attire”. The following month, the Indiana University Bloomington will stage “Granfalloon: A Kurt Vonnegut Convergence”, featuring talks from author Dave Eggers and singer Neko Case.

Vonnegut’s novel, which was made into a film in 1972 that was directed by George Roy Hill, is also poised to return to the screen in 2019, with plans in motion for a new television adaptation. The TV series is due to be produced by Patrick Macmanus, who made Syfy’s Happy! and Netflix’s Marco Polo, and directed by Kari Skogland, who was Emmy-nominated for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.

One of the reasons there is such a fuss over the book, half a century after its publication, is because it remains one of the most imaginative novels about war ever written. Vonnegut had already published five novels before it was released – including the award-winning satires Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle – but it was the ground-breaking, semi-autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five that brought him international recognition. It had taken him two decades to finally write about the massacre on 13 February 1945, one he and some fellow prisoners of war survived only because they had been herded into an underground slaughterhouse meat locker, “Schlachthof-Funf”.

Vonnegut decided not to even try to describe the bombing – allied aircraft dropped 4,500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs and devastated an area of around 13 square miles of what Vonnegut called “possibly the world’s most beautiful city” – instead he juxtaposed humour and science fiction to create a surreal, tragi-comic novel.

The main character is Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing only to be abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and exhibited in their zoo. His story is told in flashbacks. Billy is “unstuck” from chronological time; his life events, in different decades, interconnect in a perennial present that moves from Dresden to New York to a planet populated by time-travelling hand-like creatures with a single green eye. “The science-fiction passages in Slaughterhouse-Five are just like the clowns in Shakespeare,” he told Playboy magazine in 1973. The narrator’s constant laconic refrain, “so it goes”, became a catchphrase for a young generation disillusioned and fatalistic about the Vietnam War.

There are multiple drafts of Slaughterhouse-Five in the Vonnegut manuscript collection at the Lilly Library in Indiana University, and they demonstrate how painstakingly the author, who was 46 when the novel was published, worked to achieve the desired effect, right from the memorable opening line: “All this happened, more or less.” For example, his account of the harrowing experience of finding and retrieving corpses trapped underground was captured in a disturbing metaphor. He described the search for bodies as “a terribly elaborate Easter-egg hunt”.

The book is subtitled “The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-dance with Death”. The number of dead destroyed on that apocalyptic night has been hotly disputed. Vonnegut used to repeat a statistic claiming 135,000 people were killed in the firestorm that also destroyed Dresden’s architectural treasures. Germany’s far-right groups sometimes claim that up to 500,000 people died in an attack on the non-military city. In March 2010, following five years of research, the Dresden Commission of Historians published a report concluding that around 25,000 people had died. The true figure is impossible to prove.

The Slaughterhouse-Five complex was converted into a convention and event centre a few years ago. The renovated basement includes a memorial wall to Vonnegut and his novel. Although the air raid was undeniably a life-changing experience for the author, he also said in 1973 that “the importance of Dresden in my life has been considerably exaggerated because my book about it became a best-seller”.

In December 2018, Vonnegut’s Second World War scrapbook sold for $187,500 (£142,900) in Christie’s Fine Printed Books and Manuscripts auction. The 84-page green cloth memento, with a 106th Infantry Division golden lion insignia mounted to the upper cover, was kept by Vonnegut’s sister Alice and father, Kurt Sr. The collection included photographs and 22 letters he sent home in 1944 and 1945. There was even a January 1945 telegram stating that: “The secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret that your son Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut Jr has been reported missing in action.”

Vonnegut, who had enlisted in January 1943, just three months after his mother’s suicide, knew that only bizarre luck had kept him alive during the bombing. On the 50-mile march out of Dresden he was starving, forced to forage for dandelions while waiting to be liberated. His letters must have made for particularly tough reading. “There’s nothing funny in watching friends starve to death or in carrying body after body out of inadequate air-raid shelters to mass kerosene funeral pyres – and that is what I’ve done these past six months,” he wrote home in 1945.

Kurt Vonnegut in 2007, the year of his death, aged 84

After the war he worked as a police reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago while studying Anthropology at the University of Chicago. From 1947, he toiled for a time in a job he loathed (working in public relations for General Electric in New York), gradually beginning to try his hand at short stories. His first novel, Player Piano, appeared in 1952 and earned him a following as a science fiction writer to watch.

In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was on the verge of abandoning his writing career. “I had gone broke, was out of print and had a lot of kids...” he told The New York Times. But a spell teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which time he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to do some research in Dresden, convinced him he was ready to write about his wartime experiences.

By highlighting an allied attack that deliberately targeted civilians as well as Nazi soldiers, Slaughterhouse-Five aroused controversy. However, attempts to censor the novel, which started soon after publication, had more to do with complaints about its irreverent tone, swearing and depictions of sex. When the book was banned from school libraries in Michigan in 1972, the ruling circuit judge called Vonnegut’s novel “depraved, immoral, psychotic, vulgar and anti-Christian”.

In November 1973, after 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five were burnt in the incinerator of a North Dakota high school, Vonnegut wrote an angry, eloquent letter to the head of the school board, the aptly named Mr McCarthy.

“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favour of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us. It was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books – books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.”

The book was still being banned as late as 2011 – by the Republic High School in Missouri – although the outrage of small sections of conservative America has done little to dent the book’s overall popularity, especially with younger readers. Slaughterhouse-Five is reported to have sold more than 400,000 copies in the 21st century alone. It was even, Vonnegut noted drily, turned into an opera in Munich, something that amused a descendent of German immigrants who had fought the Nazis.

Although Vonnegut was a cult hero with anti-war readers, and a campus guru, he divided opinion. His fans included Martin Amis and Graham Greene, who described Vonnegut as “one of the best living American writers”. Some critics attacked his books for being “cute” and “folksy”, and the waspish Gore Vidal even declared Vonnegut to be “the worst writer in America”.

Vonnegut still evokes strong emotions. In GQ’s 2018 list of “21 books you don’t have to read”, Nadja Spiegelman picked Vonnegut’s novel. “When men on dating apps list a book, they invariably list Slaughterhouse-Five,” wrote Spiegelman, the author of I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This. “I’d rather not get a drink with a person who’s taking his cues from Vonnegut: the few women in Slaughterhouse-Five die early, are porn stars, or are ‘bitchy flibbertigibbets’.”

Love or loathe Vonnegut, it is hard not to be moved by a letter in the scrapbook, when he informs his family he had survived the annihilation of Dresden. “It is a source of great delight to be able to announce that you will shortly receive a splendid relic of World War II with which you may decorate your hearth – namely, me in an excellent state of preservation,” he wrote to his sister and father. “You may well say ‘Huzzzah!’ for this prodigal princeling has survived. It will soon be your maudlin duty to set goodies before me that I may once more be my merry, curly-topped, little-ol butterball self.”

In later years, depression plagued this chain-smoking, jazz-loving Laurel and Hardy fan. He grew ever more downbeat in his assessment of America’s future. In 2007, shortly before his death from brain injuries incurred during a fall at his New York home, he gave one of his final interviews, to US Airways Magazine. “My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fish bowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope.”

Vonnegut remained proud of Slaughterhouse-Five, even though he frequently repeated a quip in which he said that only one person on the entire planet had benefited from the Dresden massacre. When asked “who?”, he would reply: “Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.”

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