Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1969
Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller. He experiences his life in irregular flashes, from his suburban life as an optometrist, to his time spent in Dresden during the Second World War, to his abduction by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. Throughout the book he muses on what life – and, perhaps more importantly, death – means to him, and to the human race as a whole.
Where did I get hold of the book?
This was a birthday present.
I normally include links to WorldCat (for finding the book in a library near you) and Hive (for supporting independent UK bookshops), but, somewhat oddly, I couldn’t find this book listed on either of these two sites. So this time I’m simply going to have to give you a link to Amazon.
What did I learn from it?
I found out a lot about the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War, and the experiences of the American soldiers billeted to Europe to assist the Allies. Although I studied 20th-century history at school, we ran out of time before we could really get into this period, so my knowledge of it has been limited to what I’ve picked up through national anniversary commemorations and the occasional TV documentary.
The book traces the story of Billy’s journey in war, from manoeuvres in the USA to service as a chaplain’s assistant, subsequent capture as a prisoner of war, survival of the Dresden bombing, and eventual trip back to freedom. It is an unforgettable insight into such painful experiences.
One particular scene (or series of scenes) also reminded me of an earlier Book Diaries book: A Farewell to Arms. In Hemingway’s novel, the main character spends some time in the Italian countryside, attempting to evade capture; in Vonnegut’s novel, Billy Pilgrim does the same in the German countryside. It’s interesting to hear about war on these ‘fronts’; men did not suffer only in the notorious battles, but also by freezing and starving away from the main action.
How did it make me see the world differently?
Vonnegut’s meditations on life and death, particularly death, seem to be inspired by his experiences of war. The alien Tralfamadorians see life in four dimensions, the fourth dimension being time. They can see the whole of life at once: past, present and future as one all-encompassing vision, where everything has already happened and always will. Billy’s experiences with time travel illustrate what this might feel like to a human.
Naturally, this touches on the subject of free will: if the future already exists, how much power do we have to change it? And should we bother trying? This is a key question, particularly, in the discussion of war: it seems that Vonnegut is making the point that we, as humans and not Tralfamadorians, always have the choice of whether we go to war; it is not something that has to happen – we choose to make it happen. This is a fairly damning statement on the human race: that we persist in choosing to do this terrible thing when, actually, we could choose not to.
Vonnegut also quotes – twice – what is known as the Serenity Prayer: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference’. The suggestion is that we should try to prevent the worst from happening, but if it happens anyway, we shouldn’t waste our energies trying to fight it but focus instead on the things we can do something about.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
For a long time now I’ve regarded the Serenity Prayer as a means of figuring out my own path through life – i.e. which ‘battles’ to pick – so it was fascinating to see it quoted here. This year has been particularly fraught for me as I’ve navigated and negotiated my way through various practical trials and tribulations (building work), exciting yet tiring times (US road trip), more creative ideas than I can shake a stick at, and lots and lots of work.
It’s been exhausting. I’ve pitched from one challenge to another with barely a chance to draw breath, and I’ve lost the ability to focus: to distinguish between battles that need to be fought and those it’s far better to walk away from. My fight-or-flight instincts have been so churned up I can no longer see straight.
So I need to reboot; to recalibrate. The end of the year seems a particularly appropriate time for this, so I’ve decided that I will give myself a prolonged period ‘off’ when December arrives. I will cut down any freelance work to the bare minimum, and once my last Book Diaries post is published I will give myself permission not to do anything creative or work-related for a whole month – unless I really want to.
I hope that, this way, I will rediscover what battles are really important to me, and set in motion the plans I need to tackle them in the New Year.
A musical interlude
I searched for ages for a song that suited this book. I didn’t want to pick a straight anti-war song, as I felt that wouldn’t reflect the time-travel aspect of the plot. But on a list of protest songs I found Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds, and I knew I’d found my track.
The song quotes heavily from the Bible, and the lyrics suggest that there is a time for all things, both good and bad. For me, this matches Billy Pilgrim’s experiences perfectly.