Review: Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut

An introduction by the author's son saves Kurt Vonnegut's posthumous collection Armageddon in Retrospect for Jan Morris

Armageddon in Retrospect
by Kurt Vonnegut
252pp, Jonathan Cape, £16.99

"So it goes" was a universal catchphrase of the 1960s counter-culture in America, constantly quoted by hippies, causeless rebels and flower persons. I dare say it was the last literary phrase to enter the demotic language. It came from an iconic novel of the time, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and in sad irony it remains a tacit leitmotif of this posthumous book, a mixed collection of Vonnegut's late writings.

Sad, because such anthologies from the grave are, by the nature of things, seldom merry, and often unworthy of the writer. Ironic because, although Armageddon in Retrospect comes nearly 40 years after Slaughterhouse-Five, the famous phrase seems to have expressed to the end Vonnegut's view of the world - so it goes, so it goes, so it goes ...

He died of brain damage in 2007, after a fall on the front steps of his New York home, and his life was punctuated by calamity. His mother killed herself on Mother's Day, 1944. His only son endured a period of insanity. Within two days in 1958 his sister died of cancer and her husband died in a car accident, leaving three little boys for Vonnegut to adopt. His personal archives were destroyed by fire in 2001. He was often savaged by reviewers, and he tried to commit suicide in 1984.

But the seminal tragedy of his life was the Dresden fire-bombing of 1945. Vonnegut experienced this as a prisoner of war in the city, and was later put to work by his German captors exhuming corpses from the wreckage. Twenty-five years later it became the theme of Slaughterhouse-Five, which was to make him rich and celebrated and, in its visionary mixture of reportage, allegory, protest, science fiction, tragedy and magic realism, was to mould his attitudes for ever after.

The best thing in Armageddon in Retrospect, for my money, is its introduction by Mark Vonnegut, happily recovered from his psychotic breakdown and now a successful paediatrician, and an author too. He tells us that writing was the only thing Kurt Vonnegut really believed in, his literary models including Lincoln, Melville and Twain - Lincoln for wise decency, I surmise, Melville for imaginative style, Twain for humour.

Humour was essential to his craft. I don't often find him funny, but his wry quips do speak to us directly from the temper of his American times - those disturbing years which, after the second world war, had taken his country through the miseries of Vietnam to the disillusionments of Iraq. I can well see that, for a man whose only faith was in literature, laughter was an antidote to reality. "So it goes" was his shrugging mantra of escape.

But Mark Vonnegut assures us that, despite appearances and popular legend, his father was never depressed. "He didn't want to be happy ... He was like an extrovert who wants to be an introvert, a very social guy who wanted to be a loner, a lucky person who would have preferred to be unlucky." His unhappiest moments, it seems, were his periodic episodes of writer's block - itself an almost symbolical ailment of his times and his nation. The last words of his last speech, reprinted here, were: "And I thank you all for your attention, and now I'm out of here."

One cannot escape the feeling, all the same, that Vonnegut's final emotion was despair. It wasn't, I suspect, so much that he hated the world, more that the world had let him down, and this farewell volume has left me with sympathy, affection, admiration and gratitude, but without much hope. All the things he despaired of - technology in general, computers in particular - seem to have let us down, too.

The book's 12 pieces are interspersed with enigmatic drawings and epigraphs by Vonnegut himself, and include his first letter home after the second world war, a surprisingly deadpan narrative of miseries. The rest are mostly short stories, concerned in one way or another with wars, now and then tinged with the particular Vonnegutian vein of fantasy.

They are skilled and wonderfully readable. As Mark Vonnegut observes, "even if the content of any given piece isn't interesting to you, look at the structure and rhythm and choice of words". But don't look for hope. Vonnegut is closest to light-hearted when he indulges his own fascination with time and space. It was, above all, the mystic muddling of time that made Slaughterhouse-Five so much more than just another war book, and took it into the realms of literature. Time-shift occurs less often in Armageddon in Retrospect, and so Vonnegut's gift of nuanced ambiguity is less apparent too.

Closing this book with a touch of disappointment, I went back to Slaughterhouse-Five and found a passage that is my own epitome of the Vonnegut genius. The day after the destruction of Dresden, largely by US bombers, the American prisoners are taken to the edge of town and bedded down in the stables of an inn, kept by a blind inn-keeper. All is peaceful out there, but just behind them the smoking remains of Germany's most beautiful city lie silent, empty and dead. When the sightless innkeeper leaves the prisoners of war to their sleep, he listens for a moment to the rustle of their straw bedding and then says: "Goodnight, Americans. Sleep well."

Was he being kind or sarcastic? Did he stand for hope or despair? Was his blindness symbolical? Is he then or now? Only Kurt knows, and he's out of here.

· Jan Morris's A Venetian Bestiary is published by Faber


Jan Morris

The GuardianTramp

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