On Armageddon in Retrospect

I love anthologies. There’s a certain economy to the idea. I get many stories for the price of a few. I pay only for one cover, one pass through the conveyor belt, one trip on a flatbed truck. I started buying anthologies years ago, but I’ve recently gained a deeper appreciation for anthologies of shorter work – essays, criticism, short stories.

Collected short stories are cool. Collected essays, as well. But they’re snapshots in time. Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress is lovely, but the stories were collected by an editor and Atwood herself to achieve a certain effect. Most collections of shorter work are similar, if not (like Joan Didion’s Miami or Salvador) written at roughly the same time, about the same topic.

I’ve recently been sifting, bit by bit, through huge anthologies of uncollected work by a handful of authors. Great masses of essays and remarks and letters and stories organized only in chronological order. Long strings of thought emerge that wouldn’t be obvious read weeks and months and years apart, in real time – uncurated, conflicted, emerging, and submerging. Saul Bellow obsesses over Ulysses, writing about it numerous times over twenty years, constantly finding ways to stack the work of others and the world around him against Joyce’s masterpiece.

I’ve not read enough Kurt Vonnegut, but his posthumously released collection of essays and stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, is exactly what I’ve learned to expect of him. The remarks are bizarre, disjointed, and funny; the essays, deeply critical and compassionate; the stories, a brilliant blend of all. He writes of prisoners of war that dream of food, a young boy and his father’s small resistance, a family in recently liberated Czechoslovakia, and a soldier’s first experience under fire.

Vonnegut is no different than other writers in that his stories and essays, spanning several decades, reveal a similar obsession. Perhaps the only difference is that Vonnegut’s is more persistent. His entire life is pinned around his experience as a P.O.W. in Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut’s son, who compiled the work, clearly understands this. The collection begins with a letter from his father in Germany to his family in America, following his release at the conclusion of the Second World War, five years before his first publication:

“On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden –– possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”

Vonnegut experienced very little fighting at war. He was captured in his first battle and spent the last year of the conflict in a Nazi prison camp in Dresden. He saw first-hand the brutality of the SS toward their prisoners. But, perhaps more formative, he crouched in one of the few adequate bomb shelters during the frightful firebombing of the city and, in the weeks after, was tasked with excavating dead bodies – ”women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation” – and carrying them to bonfires for mass cremation. Later, he was released into the utter chaos of liberated Eastern Europe and witnessed the reprisals of Soviet troops, the anarchy of collapsing fascism, and the villages caught in the inferno.

Dresden comes up numerous times in his stories. He can’t let the horror of what he experienced in the city leave him and seems compelled to purge it onto paper at intervals. More to the point, however, he can’t reconcile that the horror he scrubbed from concrete bunkers was wrought by the good guys.

Vonnegut’s stories are run through with a deeply set morality – he has no conflict about who was on the right side of the war. But he witnessed the conflict in the historical black hole of the Eastern Front – not the democracies facing off against pure evil, but one evil being beaten back by another – and watched the fiery conclusion of the Allies’ lowest moment. He picked up limbs ripped from one another by Allied bombs, bodies scorched by phosphorus that didn’t know it was dispatched from democratic airfields. His sympathy lies rarely with anyone holding a gun, but rather with the prisoners and the occupied.

It’s interesting to read the thoughts of a brilliant writer in their purest form, in a cross-section. The concentrated power of a novel is a beautiful thing in itself, but one gets a better sense of the mind behind it by reading in smaller chunks, spaced over a longer time. Vonnegut’s gallows humor, strange humanism, and deep sympathy for the powerless are laid obviously bare in Armageddon in Retrospect. It’s beautiful writing that reveals a remarkable writer with a fascinating perspective.