Book of a lifetime: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

From The Independent archive: Adam Williams on the 1969 novel’s post-Kafka absurdity

Friday 04 March 2022 21:30 GMT
Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim in the 1972 film adaptation
Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim in the 1972 film adaptation (Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock)

This was the proposition discussed at a dinner I attended in Beijing: western civilisation imploded in 1914, shattered by the First World War. We live in its ruins. The moral certainty that gave us Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Melville and Dickens was blown to pieces in the trenches. Afterwards, music, literature and painting floundered in a wasteland of cynicism, moral ambiguity, frivolity and despair. We have achieved nothing since except barren technique. Literature is now being pulled apart by post-modernism and commercialism...

The prominent Chinese critic Zi An disagreed. He said the end came in 1912, when Franz Kafka wrote “The Metamorphosis”. That was when the great European flourishing, which began in the 15th century, suddenly died. Kafka had buried it. He had written the last word on the human condition. Any fiction afterwards was, by definition, pre-Kafka. I asked him: has nobody achieved anything new? Lampedusa? Sartre? Beckett? Greene? Auster? He dismissed them all as Victorian novelists past their time or as confused reflectors of Kafka.

“And Kurt Vonnegut?” I asked. Silence. “Maybe Vonnegut was an exception,” he admitted, after a while. I was glad he agreed, for I loved this avuncular American, who as a prisoner of war in Dresden experienced horrors even Kafka had not imagined, whose gently anarchic novels shocked, amused and disturbed his fellow countrymen, and whose vision embraced Kafka’s and went beyond it. Vonnegut knew evil. He understood absurdity. His novels were nihilistic – in Cat’s Cradle, Slapstick and Sirens of Titan, he lampooned mankind’s aspirations and achievements in parables of science fiction that had almost biblical resonance.

In Breakfast of Champions, he filleted the hypocrisy and paranoia underlying the materialistic smugness of middle America. In Mother Night, he showed the mundanity of evil. He had little positive to say about humanity. So far, so Kafka. But the difference is, Vonnegut laughed about it. He made us laugh, and in so doing he showed us how to accept, even embrace the absurdity. “So it goes” and “And so on” were his weary, worldly-wise catchphrases – and one suddenly realised, this man loved this crazy, evil world and believed that beyond the lunacy existed hope. There is good. We can build on Kafka.

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s closest account of his experiences during the firebombing of Dresden. As a description of war it ranks with anything ever written. But, being Vonnegut, it is also the story of a travelling salesman in middle America and a human zoo on the planet of Tralfamadore. The philosophy reverberates long after you close its pages. It’s entirely unsentimental, even cruel, but always funny and forgiving, because – hey – so it goes. Vonnegut offers understanding for our times.

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