Nov. 11 is a day to reflect on pain and loss. Europe celebrates Armistice Day, the anniversary of the peace that ended World War I and a memorial to the millions of Europeans who perished in that conflagration. The United States, which only entered World War I toward the end, modifies Nov. 11 to a more general appreciation of Veterans Day. Fittingly, this is also the birthday of two of the greatest writers to ever chronicle the consequences of violence: Kurt Vonnegut and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky was a 19th-century Russian author of brick-sized novels you probably got assigned for summer reading in high school and put off as long as you could. Vonnegut was a prolific mid-20th century writer of philosophical-yet-accessible sci-fi yarns that may have marked your official transition away from kids’ books. But the two writers are more alike than they seem.
Both Vonnegut and Dostoevsky were interested in humanity — specifically, what keeps us human at the threshold of extreme violence. Dostoevsky’s most famous novel, Crime and Punishment, explores what happens to its protagonist after he decides to rob and kill an old woman. Raskolnikov is pursued by a police inspector and boxed in by the feverish summer heat, but it’s his own guilt that hounds him most of all. See, Raskolnikov believed he was allowed to kill the woman because he was a superior man. He constantly compares himself to Napoleon, and justifies his murder in service of a higher purpose. This same thinking has since been utilized to start World Wars, by men who thought they were above everyone else. If only they (or anyone who thinks violence is “cool”) had paused to see the ruin it brought Raskolnikov.
Vonnegut’s work also took a long, hard look at violence. He had seen death and destruction firsthand as a soldier in Germany towards the end of World War II. That war is often portrayed simplistically, as a struggle of good versus pure evil, but Vonnegut knew better. He saw firsthand the firebombing of Dresden (essentially an act of terrorism by the Allies) and later wrote it forever into the American consciousness with Slaughterhouse-Five. That book ended up producing the original literary version of the shrug emoji, the only rational response to the wanton devastation that was the 20th century: “so it goes.”
Both of them had their moments of levity, of course. Vonnegut’s black humor and withering sarcasm is present on every page of novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. Dostoevsky’s characters, when not contemplating oblivion, are often drunkenly self-deprecating. They may have chronicled the horrible effects of violence, but their ultimate enemy was nihilism. Just because humans are often terrible doesn’t mean they’re worthless. Dostoevsky and his characters found solace in a visceral Christianity (though he famously eviscerated the Church, while Vonnegut relied on a more atheistic humanism).
So happy birthday to two of the smartest, funniest writers to tackle intense questions of violence and how to live in a modern world that often doesn’t value individual lives. Dostoevsky may be more accessible than you remember, and Vonnegut, more insightful into the human condition than you may have thought.