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Mother Night: A Novel
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Kurt Vonnegut was a brilliant satirist, and much of this book is hilariously funny. Yet it has also something important to say about the moral questions raised by World War Two. Published in 1961 (Vonnegut's third novel), this anticipates his more famous war novel SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by eight years, but it is no less unconventional in its view of the issues. Towards the end of his introduction to the 1966 edition, Vonnegut writes: "If I'd been born in Germany, I suppose I would have been a Nazi, bopping Jews and gypsies and Poles around, leaving boots sticking out of snowbanks, warming myself with my secretly virtuous insides. So it goes." This is offensive, certainly -- but because it is flippant or because it is true? I can imagine few other authors who would have had the courage to say this; but I also know that although, with the self-canonization of hindsight, we might like to portray ourselves as heroic resisters, the reality in most cases would probably have been quite different.

The book is presented as the confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr., written in an Israeli jail while awaiting trial for war crimes. Living in Germany during the interwar years, Campbell achieved some success as a playwright, mainly vehicles for his actress wife Helga. [He also kept a journal, entitled MEMOIRS OF A MONOGAMOUS CASANOVA, in which he told of his "conquests of all the hundreds of women my wife, my Helga, had been." In this, at least, he was a romantic.] Just before war breaks out, he is recruited by an American spy master to offer his services to the Nazi hierarchy as a propagandist. So he spends the war making daily broadcasts whose content is virulently racist, but whose pattern of hesitations and speech mannerisms contains coded information for his own people. He is all too successful. At the end of the war, his father-in-law, now the chief of police in Berlin, says to him: "I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, come not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler -- but from you. You alone kept me for concluding that Germany had gone insane." He succeeds so well that although the American authorities save him from hanging and enable him to go to ground in Greenwich Village, they can make no public acknowledgement of such a vilified figure.

Campbell describes the next fifteen years as a purgatory worse than hell. But most of the novel focuses on the events that bring this to an end, as his address becomes known both to Israeli agents and to a neo-fascist group determined to exalt him as a hero. Although hilariously over the top, Vonnegut's satire of these American racial and religious extremists strikes quite a few targets even today. But Vonnegut uses the extremism to contrast with the much more reasonable morality growing within Campbell himself. Facing down a freelance assassin determined to rid the world of Evil, he says: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on his side."

No, Vonnegut is not a Nazi, and though writing with humor, he does not condone. But he condemns extremism on ALL sides, and sees human beings as a lot closer together than their ideologies might proclaim them.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
One of the many wonderful angles of this book is the way Vonnegut is able to raise questions worth answering. One that's been talked about quite a bit is whether or not people can serve evil and still be considered good, even to themselves. As the narrator, Howard W. Campbell Jr. raises this question quite often by being ruthlessly honest with himself concerning his vitriolic radio addresses and other actions, and how they might have impacted the genocide that was occurring around him. In this way, Campbell seems to me a pretty reliable narrator, earning our trust by not trying to shift blame for his actions as an American agent. But I think Vonnegut also means for us to question some of Campbell's other actions that set up his future misery. In particular, Campbell seemed to be guilty of too much "uncritical love," the term he gave the love that his wife, Helga, showed him.
Campbell doesn't detail much of his thought process or how he wrangled with his decision to become a spy. Major Wirtanen, his recruiter, thinks he should because Campbell loves good, hates evil and believes in romance. That's true, but Campbell also says the best reason of all was that he would "have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out." And that's it. Next thing you know, he's a spy. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of introspection there, just uncritical love for himself and his own acting ability, finally getting to act out his own play instead of just writing it.
Also, there's the uncritical love he returns to Helga. Although Vonnegut closes his introduction by saying, "make love when you can. It's good for you," he seemed to show through his portrayal of the romance between Campbell and Helga (and later Campbell and Resi) that uncritical love, while it can be intensely gratifying, can lead to trouble later on. Campbell notes how "mindlessly" the two clung to each other, and the scant evidence he provides of the relationship outside of the bedroom seems to back that up. He says that the two only heard "the melodies in our voices. The things we listened for carried no more intelligence than the purrs and growls of big cats." Helga actually believed everything Campbell said on the radio -- and this actually made Campbell happy. He had no problem with his wife seeing him as a Jew-baiting Nazi, even though he was completely different on the inside. If he had told Helga that he was a spy, perhaps she would've been able to keep him grounded when away from his work as an agent, reassuring him that he was only performing a duty, an act, that he really was a different person. Likewise, although he doesn't present any evidence (perhaps because he didn't want to), Helga appeared to be just as patriotic toward the Nazi cause as Campbell pretended to be. Apparently, this didn't bother Campbell either. In reality, neither of the two cared what the other did or said -- they were star-struck lovers, and Campbell's uncritical love of Helga came back to haunt him (for the rest of his life) when she was killed in Crimea. His desperation manifested itself in his easy acceptance of Resi as Helga later on in the book. Campell was so eager to give his love away that he couldn't (or maybe didn't want to) distinguish betweent the sisters. This, too, came back to haunt him through Resi's betrayal and death, making Campbell more despondent -- despondent enough to set up the conclusion of the novel.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
It is rare that I consider a book unimpeachable--that also has the dubious horror of being anointed as a sacred cow or a platitude in the making. But there is a reason that Vonnegut's work is acknowledged as ageless and incomparable. He really is just that. MOTHER NIGHT is his third book, written in 1961, and the first book written in the first person, which allows the reader to descend deeper and deeper into the protagonist's mind. Vonnegut's past history of surviving the 1945 bombing of Dresden while underground in an abattoir has provided a lot of meat for several of his novels, and this one is a riveting example. This isn't one of Vonnegut's shaggy dog or science fiction stories. It has more of a reality-based feel to it. Every sentence is necessary and carefully wrought. His satire is on full display, but love and humanity are intertwined. His ability to embrace the skeptic with the sentimentalist seems effortless.

The primary theme is penned in Vonnegut's introduction, written five years after the hardback was released.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

After the editor's note written by the (fictional) editor of this confessional story, we are introduced to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the protagonist and narrator of his story as an American spy and former playwright and poet living in Germany during WW II. He is imprisoned in Israel for war crimes of treason and crimes against humanity; he was so good at his job that no one presently believes his patriotism and service to America. Campbell gave impassioned radio broadcasts, delivering prolific anti-Semitic messages to all of Nazi Germany. His "code" to the Americans was conveyed in mannerisms, emphases, coughs, and verbal stumbles. He became a minor celebrity to the Nazis.

He loved and adored his German wife, Helga; together they were a "nation of two." As a playwright, he understood "lies told for the sake of artistic effect" and that lies, in art, can be "the most beguiling forms of truth." He never told Helga that he was a spy. He was separated from her, and she was presumed dead, and he later emerged in Greenwich Village to attempt to live in anonymity, although he kept his name. Helga--or someone like Helga--re-emerged, also. And a variety of white supremacists found him and wanted to herald him and protect him from harm. Only Vonnegut can combine slapstick with white supremacy and hold your heart in his teeth.

This book had me in thrall from the first to last page. I paced periodically while reading--re-reading sentences, phrases, paragraphs. I was captivated by Vonnegut's ability to turn every truth upside down and every lie inside out. The revelations of truth were in every contradiction and the fullness of humanity in every insanity and evil act. This book will make you question what is right and what is true about the things we think we believe and believe in.

Vonnegut was a prescient writer in his day, and his work is still ahead of its time.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Kurt Vonnegut was treated by psychiatrists but, since I'm a veteran, too, I believe his troubles might have been entirely PTSD. Vonnegut was obsessed with Europe in WWII and wrote much about it. One of his finest novels -- the only one that wasn't sci fi or fantasy -- is MOTHER NIGHT, made into a 1990s movie starring Nick Nolte. It's worth seeing, although Nolte was miscast.

But, as usual, the book is much better. MOTHER NIGHT is the story of Howard Campbell, an American who is in Germany, married to a German woman, when WWII breaks out. Under Army Intelligence orders Howard acts as a "Lord HawHaw" in Germany during WWII and sends code signals to the Allies during his broadcasts. His apolitical (and much loved) wife is the daughter of a fanatic Nazi, and Howard is pulled this way and that until he doesn't understand his own loyalties, becoming bewildered and confused. After losing his wife in the war Howard wants to die and turns himself in to the Israelis as a war criminal, but ironically, is released when the US Army vouches for him. He returns to the US for the first time since about 1920. You should not expect a happy ending.

Now and then Vonnegut throws in comic relief to lighten an essentially bleak story, especially his lampoons of white supremacists in America and the hilarious name of a Nazi, "Kraptauer".

DON'T MISS THIS BOOK IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT. Superb psychology, and in a way it's Vonnegut's own story, because of his ultra-German upbringing in a German neighborhood in Indianapolis, where every block had a string quartet and someone who could recite Schiller's poems and direct Lessing's plays in German. Although he hated Hiler he was raised to be proud of being a cultural German, as every child should be of his/her own heritage. How conflicted Kurt Vonnegut must have been! Why didn't the Army send German Americans to the Pacific, as they sent Japanese Americans to Europe?
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2004
Format: Paperback
This early work is quite uncharacteristic for Kurt Vonnegut, far more conventional than almost any other Vonnegut novel. It's unfortunate and surprising that he didn't write like this more often, because this relatively obscure novel just might be the best Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote.

Unlike most of his work, it has no elements of SF or the fantastic: no aliens, no synopses of novels by Kilgore Trout,no silly drawings thrown in for the hell of it, and no narration from a ghost as in Galapagos, although the narrator is about as near a ghost as a living man can be.

What it lacks in these areas is more than compensated by characters, often an afterthought in Vonnegut, but in this story rich and fully realized.

Howard Campbell is a marginally successful American playwright who became to the world world a notorious and legendary Nazi propagandist while secretly being an agent of the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) whose broadcasts were filled with vital intelligence eagerly decrypted by American agents. After the war, Campbell was secretly repatriated to the US, but, for reasons that are never made clear, the truth was never revealed, so when Campbell's life of obscure retirement is interrupted by the exposure of his identity, he is treated as a traitor by most while being hailed as a hero by a small group of crackpot Nazi sympathizers.

Ultimately, he is abducted by Israeli agents and put on trial as a war criminal. The novel is presented as his memoirs written from an Israeli prison cell; memoirs which focus on his life as a spy and the loss of the great love of his life, an actress named Helga who was killed on the German equivalent of a USO tour.

The question at the book's heart is whether a mask, presented to the world long enough, becomes a reality rather than a mask. Campbell is told by a friend that, even if he were a spy, his broadcasts couldn't possibly have been more valuable as intelligence than they were as propaganda that kept German spirits up. Vonnegut himself seems to answer the question, saying in a brief foreword that the moral is, "You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be." But is that what the novel really says? Campbell perhaps has ultimately done more evil than good, but he is not an evil man. At one point he meets a character who is willing, even eager, to pretend to be something she is not; Campbell is unwilling to accept the imposture.

Some amusing comic relief is provided by the neo-Nazis Campbell finds himself unwillingly thrown in with, who are treated as more ridiculous than sinister.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 19, 2011
Format: Paperback
Vonnegut plays with shades of gray throughout this novel. Roughly it's about an American spy who during WWII was an excellent propaganda machine for Germany. There's excellent tension within the character of Campbell, and throughout the novel I found myself torn between if he was guilty or innocent. All of the characters exist in gray, and for the main supporting characters their good and/or evil title is rather ambiguous. There are a few haunting phrases that pop up multiple times, usually in German, that tie the story together beautifully. Vonnegut's language is, as usual, gripping and very difficult to put down, even after you've finished. On top of that the ideas he shoves in your head are hard to let go of. If someone's pretending to be evil for a good cause, how much better is that than just being evil? Especially if they have the same exact negative effects?

The only other Vonnegut novel I would put immediately above this one is Cat's Cradle.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to rethink the definitions of good and evil, in disjunction and conjunction.

Nibble: "It was typical of his schizophrenia as a spy that he should use an institution he so admired for purposes of espionage."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2005
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Vonnegut tells the reader at the beginning of this book that it is one of his only books for which he knows the moral of the story - you are what you pretend to be.

In Mother Night, Vonnegut tells the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American who lives in Germany prior to WWII and is recruited by the United States to act as a spy in Nazi Germany. Campbell becomes one of the most valuable Allied spies of the war, but acts as a Nazi radio propagandist during the war, serving the Nazis as well, or maybe even better, than he does the Allies.

The novel covers the fallout in Campbell's life from his decisions. It is a dark story, but it is told in a manner typical of Vonnegut, using humor and a free-form style to lighten the mood. You get to witness many characters' judgements of Campbell, but none are decisive. You are left to decide for yourself what you think of Campbell.

Fantastic. Highly recommended.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
This may be one of the most difficult to read of Vonnegut's novels. The themes of absurdity and fatalism are presented in a dark manner. Although the narration itself flows easily like a natural conversation and Vonnegut presents his themes in no uncertain terms (pages 224-225, 251), the characters are difficult to warm up to because each is traced with evil. The protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, Jr, was a "beacon" for Nazi propaganda and associated with the most notorious of the Nazi anti-heroes. The story goes back and forth between skittish encounters and tragic events that depict the illusion of an individual's purpose on earth. Entertaining, enlightening, but heavy.

A key in interpreting this convoluted and dark novel is Vonnegut's dedication "to Mata Hari." Some brief research into the life of Mata Hari reveals some obvious parallels with the confessions of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. Mata Hari's haunting legacy is whether she was guilty of espionage or not. Mother Night starts with the same question regarding Campbell. Similar to Hari, Campbell had been generally viewed as an artist, a free-spirited bohemian prior to his war experience. Also, similar to Mata, Campbell's relationships and liaisons with powerful men took him across international borders frequently, which eventually would lead to his downfall.

In both cases, it is pointless to speculate whether or not Campbell or Hari were spies. Both were not only helpless in the face of the war machine ("gear teeth" in the "cuckoo clock of hell"), but also naïvely ignorant of the gravity of their respective situations after their arrests by the military. Hence the behaviors of both seem unfathomable, considering that each had actively determined the course of their life and constructed their own legendary persona, but also seemed pre-determined to be pawns in the immense storm of war.

Mother Night is a two-fold investigation of self-deception and fatalism. Fatalism seems to be a product of the funny mind games we play with ourselves when we rationalize that what we are doing not only right, but our only choice. Possibly, fatalism is a product of learned helplessness, where we no longer feel our actions can make a difference. Therefore, we tell ourselves lies to make our actions seem justified and we are lulled into inaction. In the end, the damage is done and the lesson is that our lies may be more influential than our truths.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
Vonnegut is one of those writers whom everybody either loves or hates--there's very little middle ground. He's like vanilla Coke.
"Mother Night" is situated right on that narrow little line. It's a book that just about anyone can enjoy, even the most ardent foes of Indiana's favorite son. It was his third novel and, as such, represents the sort of pre-caricature phase that ended with the breakaway success of "Cat's Cradle" two years later. Here you see Vonnegut at his most human and, in some ways, his most vulnerable as he switches off the bombastic humor and lets his reader see the man behind the curtain.
Of course, the characteristic Vonnegut still shines through, but it's muted by a disarming candor about love lost and the stagnation it breeds. If you don't know anything about Vonnegut, this is a great place to start. If you love him, this book will make you melt. If you hate him, well, it might at least give you pause.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2004
Format: Paperback
Vonnegut did an excellent job in this story. There wasn't any science fiction in this book like many of his others, but the character Howard Campbell was great. The story has great twists to it and it makes for quick reading. I had a hard trying to put this one down, and I think it is a must read for any Vonnegut fan.
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