Customer Reviews: Mother Night
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To the best of my knowledge, there really is no other writer quite like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Mother Night appears to be a rather straightforward, albeit quirky, novel at first glance, but as one delves down into the heart of Vonnegut's prose one finds grounds for contemplation of some of life's most serious issues. This novel is the first-hand account of Howard Campbell, Jr., a most remarkable character. Campbell is an American-born citizen who moved to Germany as a child and became the English-speaking radio mouthpiece for Nazi Germany during World War II. In the fifteen years since the end of the war, he has been living an almost invisible life in a New York City attic apartment. He misses his German wife Helga who died in the war, sometimes thinks about his pre-war life as a successful writer of plays and poems, and perhaps just waits for history to find him once again. As we begin the novel, he has been found and is writing this account from a jail cell in Israel, awaiting trial for his crimes against humanity. While he is reviled by almost everyone on earth as an American Nazi traitor, the truth is that he was actually an agent working for the American government during the war; this is a truth he cannot prove, though. Thus, in this 1961 novel, the hero is ostensibly a Nazi war criminal.
The primary moral of Mother Night, Vonnegut tells us in his introduction, is that "we are what we pretend to be" and should thus be pretty darned careful about what we are pretending to be (a secondary moral being the less enlightening statement "when you're dead, you're dead"). In the eyes of the entire world, Campbell is exactly what he pretended to be during the war, a traitorous Nazi purveyor of propaganda who mocked and demoralized allied troops as well as regular citizens. Internally, Campbell hardly knows what he is anymore; he claims no country, no political values, wanting only to live in a "nation of two" with his beloved wife Helga once again. A series of significant events forces Campbell out of the cocoon of his past fifteen years, and his thoughts and actions along the way provide big juicy morsels of food for thought: taking personal responsibility for one's actions, the harsh truths of war and peace, the sometimes vast differences between truth and fact, individual redemption before self and society, finding direction and a purpose in a world gone mad, etc. Vonnegut's scythe-like dark humor cuts deeper than mere satire, aiming directly at some of the darker sections of the human heart, areas which most individuals too often ignore or refuse to acknowledge. The gallows humor can be quite funny on the surface, but it is in actuality a scalpel which Vonnegut wields to open up the heart and soul of the reader for self-examination. Mother's Night, the title of which is taken from Goethe's Faust, is a relatively short but very powerful novel.
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on January 24, 2001
"My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination" are the opening words to Kurt Vonnegut's tale of an American playwright living in Germany who, once World War II begins, becomes a Nazi radio propagandist. He becomes infamous for his disgustingly brutal radio shows which distributed wicked Nazi propaganda. He was thoroughly hated by the Americans, and loved by the Nazis. But there is one thing that you should know about Howard W. Campbell. He is an American spy. His radio shows are the medium for transmitting secret codes out of Germany to aid the American cause in the war. He was one of the most effective spies of World War II, and one of the only ones to survive the war. But after the war, he is simply discarded in a small New York attic apartment, with enough money to live the rest of his days there, but with no more direction to his life. He lives his life simply there, away from civilization and anyone who might recognize him as a war criminal, until a white supremacist discovers where he is located, and he once again must face his past. Mother Night is not a traditional war book, for rather than concentrating on the brutal aspects of combat, it focuses heavily on the equally gruesome subject of hate. Vonnegut also dissects the schizophrenic mind of a spy after the war has ended who has not only lost the trust of everyone he loves, but most importantly, his identity altogether, as he realizes he is a "nationless" person. The narrator is constantly questioning his identity, which has been muddled by his spy experiences. Vonnegut also discusses the minds of the Nazis, how ordinary and often intelligent men and women could be prompted to become the vicious killing machines that they were during World War II
Mother Night is a sharp, funny book thats humor is both satiric and farcical. It is a very entertaining read with twists and turns at every corner, including a surprise ending that is sure to catch the reader off-guard. Although Kurt Vonnegut is more well-known for his novels such as Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle, Mother Night is truly an overlooked classic that offers an entertaining read for not just fans of war books, but any reader looking for a hilariously addictive and heart-breakingly poignant book.
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on January 23, 2001
"Mother Night" by Kurt Vonnegut is a probing tale (a parable perhaps) about the difference between appearances and reality.
"Mother Night" is actually one of three books I have recently read (or reread) that deal with the dichotomy between appearance and truth. "Mother Night" is clearly the least subtle book as far as advancing an argument...yet it is far and away the most powerful. Vonnegut navigates this ethical minefield in an entertaining, yet sobering manner.
"Mother Night" tells the story of an American playwright who is enlisted to be a spy within World War II Germany. The playwright becomes part of the upper crust of Nazi society. Working as a talk-radio personality, he encodes top secret information in his pro-Nazi broadcasts. In so doing, he helps to bring about the eventual victory of the Allies.
The war-time story-line of "Mother Night" is told in retrospect by the playwright who is living a secluded life in 1960's New York City. The reason he must live in hiding is that his Allied contact person during the war disappeared. He has no one left to testify to the fact that he worked for the Allies.
The story takes off in grand Vonnegutian style as the "protagonist" of the story is discovered simultaneously by Nazi-hunters, Soviet agents, white supremacists, and a woman claiming to be his ex wife.
Through it all, Vonnegut asks hard questions about what action, motivation, intent, and reality have to do with reality.
I found this book to be eye-opening. It is engagingly told; containing passages of great beauty, sorrow, and even humor. I recommend this book.
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on June 23, 2001
Mother Night is perhaps the darkest of Kurt Vonnegut's novels in terms of it's storyline and sense of humor. Most of the humor within the book comes from Vonnegut's use of situational irony. The main character, Howard Campbell Jr., spent WWII as a double agent. He was a fairly famous German radio personality (dispensing all sort of pro-Nazi propoganda), and did his best to raise German morale during the war. At the same time, he was sending out coded messages for the allied troops over the radio. When the end of the war came, the US wouldn't aknowledge his part as an agent. Thus, Campbell became a war criminal. The novel, in large part, deals with Campbell's treatment after the war. This is where the irony comes into play. I won't go into what happens to Campbell (so as not to give away crucial elements of the plot. However, when reading, it is as Vonnegut states earlier in the book: be careful what you pretend to be [sic], for what you pretend to be is what you are. This story sticks out amonst Vonnegut's works as one of the most original, and suprising of his books. It is also a good introduction to the philosophies that are embodied in most of Vonnegut's other books. I believe that this particular novel is a good starting point for anyone interested in Vonnegut. (aside: do you ever feel like one of those little kids from Reading Rainbow when you're doing a book review?)
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on August 5, 2011
I recently read "Mother Night" for the second or third time. In the first readings I saw the novel for what it pretended to be--a story about a World War II spy, perhaps too dedicated and what happened to him after the war.

In the last reading I recognized a story more representative of the today's world where the consequences of being dedicated--to both good and bad policy can have disastrous effects. Just a casual look at the economic problems of the last few years and the behavior of people on both sides of every issue leads one to question blind dedication that is often accompanied by a failure to see the big picture.

Leaders today seem to be all too anxious to align themselves with certain causes, policies, and constituents. In some cases, it is doubtful they even believe strongly in them but there is personal gain to be gotten and so they believe. Vonnegut's warning: Be careful what you pretend to be.

"Mother Night" can be read as an interesting piece of historical fiction or it can be seen as social commentary about taking positions that might grant immediate rewards or even make sense in the short run but that will later lead to problems. We are all being asked to lend our support to causes, to take a bigger role in politics, to become more active in the world around us. Vonnegut didn't tell us not to do these things but he did warn us to be careful.

I recommend "Mother Night" because of the novel approach it takes to bringing these situations to life. It is an interesting story and a compelling problem that we should all be aware of, whether we are the ones doing the pretending or just following a pretender.
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on April 24, 2000
I don't see much point in describing the plot, because no plot summary can give you any adequate idea of what this amazingly powerful book is really all about. But then it's also hard to describe what it's all about, except to say that it encompasses themes of good and evil, responsibility and innocence, remorse and redemption, and the all-important question of whether our intentions can truly justify our actions. It's difficult for me to describe the effect this book had on me--perhaps I can convey some idea of its impact by saying that I frequently found myself raising my head from its pages with the words "oh, _man_" upon my lips and subsequently staring into space for several minutes while allowing the sentence I had just read to work its way through my system. At times I felt as though I'd been kicked in the gut...but it was well worth it. Few books I've read have been as profound or as thought-provoking. Don't expect it to make you happy--but expect it to make you think very seriously about the human condition and about the actions that even the best of us benighted beings are capable of.
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on April 29, 2004
Vonnegut starts out this book with a warning : "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." This story follows the life of an American playwright, Howard W. Campbell Jr., who happens to live in Germany during the Nazi regime. He is confronted by the Americans to work as a spy, sending secret messages through a radio broadcast. He agrees to this but at the same time his broadcasts are filled with propaganda, all in favor of Hitler and his actions. True to Vonnegut's style, the plot gets more and more twisted as the story goes on, ending with Campbell in an Israeli prison. This was a wonderfully well written novel with action and intrigue that made it hard to put down! Each time I finish one of Vonnegut's novels, I find myself longing to head back to the library to find another one.
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on May 15, 2001
Another reviewer of this book titled his review "Vonnegut: You can't read just one!" Might I add that should you choose only one - This is it! In legendary Vonnengut style this book is humerous but dark. But compared to most of his other writings, the storyline of this book is very tight. And the fate of life, to which, the main character Howard W. Campbell Jr. is entitled, is almost too cruel to bear. This theme appear to be one of Vonnengut's favorites - the cruelty and irony of life. And as always he makes the point in humourous style. But in this novel much more is at play. It leaves one wondering about evilness as such. Are there such things in life for which no regrets are valid? Vonnengut tends to answer yes. But what is there of life, when you're left back with that? There is the sarchastic humor in which Vonnengut is a true master, covering up the fact that even good things gives you no pleasure when you've got the "evil-mark" upon you for life.
This is probably one of the darkest novels I've ever come across, but also one of the very best. It forcefully presses some very important questions in a dark but nevertheless very humerous way. I really can't recommend it too much. I don't think anyone can read it without being deeply moved. But it ain't a book to make the sun start to shine. It's more like Monty Python signing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" to cheer up Jesus during his crucifiction. It'll never turn too bad for a good laugh. But that's excactly how bad it turns out for Howard W. Campbell Jr in this book. Read it for yourselves!!!
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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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VINE VOICEon January 28, 2007
... With this simple thesis that Vonnegut lays out in the introduction to his stellar "Mother Night," we are entered into the morally complex world of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. You see, Campbell acted as a spy for the U.S. during WWII, but he was so deep under cover that even the American government has no evidence that he was actually working for them, that the broadcasts he was making on Nazi radio contained coded messages for American intelligence. There is only one man who can save Campbell from his trial, and he has no idea who he really is or how to contact him. Now, looking back on his life, Campbell begins to understand how morally suspect he is, no matter what his intentions were. In posing as a Nazi Campbell was party to some terrible atrocities that he, as well as the reader, must come to terms with and decide if he is a hero or just as bad as the villains he was ostensibly helping us fight. Is his plight tragic or deserved? Vonnegut, in top form, weaves together a compelling tale with his typical blend of dark humor and drama in what is, in my most humble opinion, his best novel ever -- and with a canon that includes "Slaughterhouse Five," "Breakfast of Champions," and "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," that is really saying something. An absolute must read.
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