Kurt Vonnegut-Check: NYT Gets It Wrong

In her review of the posthumous John Updike collection Higher Gossip, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani writes:

As for fellow American writers, Updike connects the dots between their life experiences and their artistic visions. He describes Kurt Vonnegut’s view of the universe as “basically atrocious, a vast sea of cruelty and indifference” — the legacy of witnessing the firebombing of Dresden firsthand during World War II.

But wait – what about this exchange between host Laura Sullivan and Charles Shields, the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, on NPR’s All Things Considered:

SULLIVAN: Slaughterhouse 5 was his greatest work – well, I guess that’s debatable – but it’s his most famous work and he really struggled to write it – I mean, it took him 20 years and he started and stopped and started again and it seems the biggest problem he had was this idea that he wasn’t – he didn’t actually see the bombing of Dresden – that he was just in the basement – he saw the before and the after . . .

SHIELDS: You’re absolutely right. The problem that he was facing was that he had no Act Two – he had an Act One and he had an Act Three. Kurt realized that he had an important story to tell, a moment in civilization and he was there for almost like the sacking of Troy but he missed the sacking of Troy – it was as if he’d arrived, slept through it, and then left again.

Which leaves Michiko Kakutani – wrong.

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4 Responses to Kurt Vonnegut-Check: NYT Gets It Wrong

  1. Even if you didn’t see the actual fire-bombing from Allied warplanes, you can still be a witness to the event. I think that many Brits who lived through the Battle of Britain in basements — or Tube tunnels — in London would say that it’s a distinction without a difference.

    Imagine walking out of that basement at the end of the night — or heading out at gunpoint of your captors to collect bodies — and seeing that destruction in front of you. The fires would still be smoldering all around. 25,000 people dead, though Vonnegut thought more. You could probably smell burning and rotting human flesh. Vonnegut’s a witness to the event’s immediate aftermath, even if not the falling bombs.

    • Campaign Outsider says:

      Maybe, Mike. I think it’s the “firsthand” that makes the difference, but then again I could just be splitting hairs. Either way, it’s two very different perspectives on what the bombing meant to him.

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    There are a number of well-written histories of the allies’ fire-bomb attacks on Dresden.

    Someone, anyone, who was in that city and survived is entitled to the nightmares of the hell of instant incineration and suffocation as the firestorm sucked oxygen from hundreds of surrounding square miles into the inferno.

    Wind speeds well over 100 mph; temperatures near 2000.

    I, for one, will not second-guess Vonnegut.

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