Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Against the Semicolon; Vonnegut in Dresden; Women at War

Last week The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) canvassed writers living and dead—an eclectic selection including Jonathan Franzen, Zoë Heller, George Bernard Shaw and Gertrude Stein—for their opinion of the semicolon. Perhaps the most vehement response came from the late Kurt Vonnegut: “If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

Vonnegut, who died a year ago this week, would surely have been annoyed to find no fewer than five semicolons in the jacket copy of his posthumous Armageddon in Retrospect (Putnam, $24.95)—but don’t let that stop you from buying the book, which contains at least two priceless documents, both hitherto unpublished. The first is a facsimile reproduction of a letter from Vonnegut to his family dated May 29, 1945, in which the 22-year-old infantryman describes being captured in the Battle of the Bulge, transferred to a POW camp near Berlin, then shipped to a work camp in Dresden just five weeks before the city was incinerated by Allied bombers. It’s a brutal letter, brimming with suppressed rage, quite clearly the work of a talented writer—a taste of what was to come in Slaughterhouse Five (1969). The second document, also brutal, is an undated account of the aftermath of the Dresden firebombing, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets.” Vonnegut tells how he and his fellow POW’s were set to work recovering bodies from basement air raid shelters:

“It is with some regret that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but boys, you killed an appalling lot of women and children. The shelter I’ve described and innumerable others like it were filled with them. We had to exhume their bodies and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks—so I know. The funeral pyre technique was abandoned when it became apparent how great was the toll. There was not enough labor to do it nicely, so a man with a flamethrower was sent down instead and he cremated them where they lay. Burned alive, suffocated, crushed—men, women, and children indiscriminately killed. For all the sublimity of the cause for which we fought, we surely created a Belsen of our own. The method was impersonal but the result was equally cruel and heartless. That, I’m afraid, is a sickening truth.”


DOES ANYONE STILL think that “war” and “women” can only add up to “victim”? Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross’ Hell Hath No Fury (Three Rivers Press, $14.95), a curiously upbeat collection of short profiles, rewrites the terms of that equation by presenting a “comprehensive picture of women as front-line combatants and as war leaders; as civilians swept along by titanic events in global conflicts; as diplomats, spies, and spy mistresses; and as chroniclers, propagandists, politicians, and cheerleaders in conflicts large and small.” In other words, the authors introduce us to the whole gamut of bellicose babes, from Cleopatra to Maggie Thatcher to Jessica Lynch—with more to come: “As you read this, some woman somewhere is cleaning her rifle, checking her ammunition, and preparing for action.”