Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five

Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Publication date: 1969

What’s it about?Slaughterhouse-Five

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.

The Quiet American

The Quiet American

Title: The Quiet American
Author: Graham Greene
Publication date: 1955
Genre: Historical fiction

What’s it about?The Quiet American

Thomas Fowler, an English reporter in Vietnam during the First Indochina War, meets Alden Pyle, an idealistic American. Pyle’s views and beliefs gradually infiltrate Fowler’s world, causing distress and destruction in not only his professional but also his personal life.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This one was from the university library again. And thereby hangs a tale…

I discovered an inscription on the title page: the name of someone I knew. After showing her a screenshot of the page in question, it transpired that although it was indeed her writing, she couldn’t understand how the book came to be in the possession of the library, as she still owned her own copy…

At the time of writing this mystery is yet to be solved!

What did I learn from it?

As this was yet another novel set firmly in a historical period, specifically a war setting, I gained more insights into the time in question. I am relatively familiar with fictional representations of the Vietnam War, i.e. the later conflict against the Americans, but was unaware until last week of the details of this earlier war.

The narrator of the novel, Thomas Fowler, is an English journalist based in Saigon. As the English were officially neutral during this conflict, this in theory makes his narrative objective. (His personal issues are another matter entirely…) We see from an outsider’s perspective just how the young American, Pyle, interprets and reacts to the troubles at hand – potentially setting the scene for the later war.

I always enjoyed studying history at school, even though this was in the days when learning texts and regurgitating them for exams was the approved method: in other words, kings and queens, battles and rebellions, facts and dates etc. These days I understand that original sources and the viewpoint of ‘the person on the street’ are more likely to find their way onto the curriculum. I imagine that a novel such as this would not feel out of place if it were designated ‘required reading’. Well, except that it’s fictional…

How did it make me see the world differently?

A prevalent theme in the book is that of choosing whether to take sides in a conflict – especially one that is not directly any of one’s business. Fowler has, up until now, followed a personal policy of isolationism; being politically neutral, he attempts not to involve himself in any debates around who is in the right and who is in the wrong; he is, as he frequently points out, merely a reporter. However, as Pyle’s actions become more and more intrusive, Fowler finds himself unable to remain unbiased any longer – and eventually takes steps that will have as much impact as Pyle’s own machinations.

This resonated loudly with me, as I am a natural introvert and, by default, choose not to take part in many social engagements and interactions; I often prefer to observe from the sidelines. But I am also aware that connecting with others is part of what it means to be human; or at least, what it means to belong to a civilised society. This is a theme I have touched on in several blog posts recently, so it’s perhaps no surprise that it is rearing its head again here.

So I am, yet again, finding myself pondering whether it is healthy to isolate myself as much as I do. Does it conserve my energies, or does it get me into antisocial habits? I think that this is a question to which there are no easy answers, and one I will be mulling over for some time to come. It may be that I need to limit the number of times that I socialise, or restrict the types of engagement I take part in, or simply schedule in adequate downtime and go to as many social occasions as I want. I’m not sure yet. What I do know is that, like it or not, I can’t just shut myself away in my cave and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist. I need to interact with it – my problem is how to do this without exhausting myself.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Two things:

  1. I’ve realised that I really enjoy reading stories in historical settings, as much for the history as for the stories. I’m therefore going to make an active effort to read more historical writing. As this is going to be in my ‘spare reading time’ between Book Diaries books, there may not be much time to devote to it – but I need to try. I have at least two historical novels lined up on my bookshelves, waiting for me to delve into their pages, and I can’t begin to count the factual books I’ve come across over the years that have made their way onto my mental ‘to-read’ list. So, before the year is up, I’m committing to reading at least one historical book.
  2. The issue of engaging with the world and doing things for other people, as much as looking after myself, has struck a real chord. And I have an idea for something that I could do that nurtures both needs. I’m hesitant to articulate it in too much detail just yet, as I haven’t quite worked out whether it’s going to inspire me or exhaust me, but I will say that I have something on the back burner. Due to work pressures, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen in time for my 3-month update, but do keep an eye on my website and Facebook page, as I’ll be talking about it there when I finally do get going…

A musical interlude

I got a bit stumped on this one for a while. Nothing immediately sprang to mind, and I didn’t really want to post one of the many songs about the Vietnam War, as they tend to be about the second one involving the Americans – and although this book is indeed about an American, the vibe wasn’t quite right.

So I decided to formally hand this one over to my trusty subconscious. I stopped thinking about it, went down to the kitchen to cook dinner, and lo and behold! within a matter of minutes I had it: My Best Friend’s Girl by the Cars. Nothing to do with war, but as the book is as much about the personal conflict between the two men, I feel it fits the bill. Plus I love it, so that’s a bonus!

A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms

Title: A Farewell to Arms
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Publication date: 1929
Genre: War drama; romance

What’s it about?A Farewell to Arms

The American Frederic Henry volunteers with the Italian ambulance service during World War I, and falls passionately in love with nurse Catherine Barkley. The story follows his growing discontent with the war, and the couple’s attempt to escape and live a normal life together.

Where did I get hold of the book?

I borrowed this one from a librarian friend, which has reminded me that I still have a couple of other books of his that I ought to return sometime soon…

What did I learn from it?

I learned a lot about the war, specifically a side to it that I previously had no knowledge of. I remember studying this period for O-level History, and covering all the familiar subjects such as how the war started, Gallipoli, no-man’s land and so much more. But the setting of this novel was a complete mystery to me: the Italian-Austrian front rather than the French-German one; the lives of the ambulance and hospital staff rather than the soldiers in the trenches; and the experiences of an American volunteer before the United States had even joined the war – all this was totally fresh ground. And it was absolutely fascinating.

I often say that I’m not keen on descriptive narrative, that I prefer action and dialogue (maybe that’s my long history of amateur dramatics coming out); but reading this novel I found that my perceptions shifted slightly. Possibly because I was learning about a new environment, I saw the descriptions of the countryside, the food, the weather, the people, as inherently part of the unfolding narrative rather than as merely a backdrop. Whilst I realise that this should presumably always be the case, I’m afraid that I do sometimes get impatient with ‘dark and stormy nights’. But here I didn’t. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As so often happens when I’m reading, it’s not that I suddenly see things in a light I’d never considered before, but that I get a reminder of a vital message. This time it was the shortness of life and the realisation that you never know when everything you hold dear will be ripped away from you. Whether it’s war, interpersonal conflict, sickness or other circumstances beyond your control, on no given day can you tell whether this will be your last chance to appreciate or enjoy something (or someone).

The story illustrates how any situation or event in our life, by default, tears us away from something else; and the importance we attach to each situation will change as we develop and grow. Frederic Henry volunteers for the ambulance service even when his country is not yet in the war; he becomes very attached to his colleagues. He then falls madly in love with a nurse at the hospital, but even this is not enough to cause him to quit active service; it is only when Italian fortunes take a turn for the worse and people on his own side turn on him that he decides ‘enough is enough’. But now that he has a chance to find meaning and purpose elsewhere, does this mean a happy ending is granted to him?

I won’t spoil the end of the book by revealing the answer; but I will say that just because I may not live in a front-line war situation does not mean that I can take what I have for granted.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Although this year I was determined to make my ‘changes’ definite and measurable, rather than merely attempts to alter my attitude, it’s perhaps not a bad thing to have the odd mental shift thrown in amongst all the practical actions. And so I will learn from what I have written above, and do my best to ensure I ‘seize the day’ and live life as fully as I can, just in case the unexpected happens and I end my days full of regrets and ‘what ifs’.

I’ve made a lot of promises over the past year to just get on with my various creative projects, and time and time again I fail to deliver. So this year I will take on board another message that I’ve received from this book, which is to care significantly less about the opinions of anyone who (a) does not care about me or (b) I do not care about. I have spent a lot of time fretting whether the work I do will be unappreciated or, even worse, criticised by complete strangers, and whether that means I am a bad, worthless person. And, frankly, I am exhausted.

In the novel, when Frederic hears that he is going to be arrested, he and Catherine do not sit meekly by and let the police dictate the course of their lives. They escape to another country, because they have decided that no-one but they themselves and those close to them have the right to decide how their lives should be lived. And so I am going to take a leaf out of their book.

I will be interested to see if this makes a difference…

A musical interlude

Harking back to the 1980s this week, with this rather appropriate classic from Dire Straits…