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.
on January 31, 2010
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
The moral of the story is stated in the introduction, I suppose for people that might ask themselves what happened. The most shocking part is the ending, which happened somewhat unexpectedly that I didn't know what I was supposed to think. Vonnegut manages to weave a tale full of comical characters, not that they seemed unrealistic. I noticed the beginning of the story was more humorous, and by the end of the story, it become quite serious.
In Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, we follow Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American who moved to Germany, and became a famous playwright and a Nazi propagandist. In the beginning, we see Howard inside an Israeli prison, waiting for his trial. He is told to write his story, because people think that they will discover something from it. Thus, Howard commences to write his memoirs.
We follow Howard through his married life with Helga, how he transmitted secret codes during the war as a secret agent for America that not even he knew of, and when he started living in New York.
How does Howard, without his wife, live? If he isn't considered a spy for America, what is he considered?
I enjoyed greatly how Howard, the playwright, claimed that as a writer, he should've known when was a good time to end his story, his life.
on October 21, 2003
This is my third endeavor through the works of Kurt Vonnegut and it seems that 'Mother Night' plays out as a more conventional novel in terms of structure and theme. It's sheer brilliance is evident straight from the introduction; where Vonnegut asks that we be good at what we pretend to be, because that's who we will become. He also sets up the dark humor presented in the book by inplicating a second moral, simply stated: "When you're dead you're dead." 'Mother Night' follows the narrative of Howard Campbell, war criminal, throughout his years following the time when he was an agent of the United States in Germany during WWII. Vonnegut, as commonplace in most of his novels, satirizes war and it's absurdity, love, race, and the meaning that we attribute to our lives in a meaningless world where there is essentially no escape. However, the book, unlike typical Vonnegut, focuses on one primary theme; that of the significance of truth. For the characters in 'Mother Night' becoming spies has left them with no country and no hope. What essentially keeps them (among them Campbell) is curiousity. However, as will be revealed during the course of the novel, even this will be crushed as lies become lies and then become truths, and Campbell will remain frozen in his tracks, a victim of the country that he helped and separated from his nation of two, the only nation that had any significance.
A well-written narrative, funny and thought provoking. We laugh, but only a bit tentatively, as we watch the 'truth' unfold and wonder if it was worth knowing at all.
on August 6, 2003
I once heard this wonderful little quote:
"Valor is to do unwitnessed what we would like to do in front of the whole world."
I think this quote applies very aptly to the main character of this book--he traded his wife, his career, and his sanity for a hidden role in a noble cause. At this point many (possibly including the author) would disagree with me. After all, was he not a Nazi? If Germany had won the war, would he not have continued to rant on in his propanganda-filled shows?
Unlikely. Considering how even Russia found out about his status as an American spy, I dare say that his secret would not have remained one for long in the mirror scenario.
The ultimate result of his choice would have been ignominious death no matter what the outcome of the war.
Finally, what about "you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us?" The veracity of that statement is moot to debate because we are not given exact information on the nature of messages he sent. Even if the statement *was* true, the fault would lie with his recruitor and FDR, not himself. The path of being a Nazi propagandist was paved by those two--Campbell could have easily been a neutral playwright through the war, and emerged unscathed in either outcome of the war.
Thus, my contention is that Campbell was a true hero.
on December 26, 2002
Is Howard W. Campbell's conscience clear? Should it be? Can Campbell function as an allied agent while spewing hateful propaganda over German radio? Is the good he does spying greater than the harm he does supporting Nazi power and by extension the Holocost and WWII itself?
This is Vonnegut's most conventional novel (though none of them is sci-fi really) and Campbell's eventual exile and self-doubt is beautifully and convincingly rendered. Among other things, we are asked if Campbell's attitude--having no politics but a "nation of two" with wife Helga--is sufficient in a time of war. To what extent is he responsible for his actions regardless of his intentions? And what is he to do about it, both during the war and after? Could he have done anything differently or better? Would doing nothing have been better?
Aside from the moral conundrums there is a strongly realized and written novel here that holds its own with any other writer's work, with rich characters and scenes that might surprise the reader of other Vonnegut novels with its conventionality. In particular, Campbell's long exile in New York mourning Helga (and to a lesser extent himself) is often poignant. His nearly domestic relationship with George Kraft during this time is charming. Of course Kurt Vonnegut also puts Campbell in conversation with fellow Haifa prisoner Adolf Eichman, as only K.V. would do. One of Vonnegut's best.
on July 6, 2002
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.
on May 22, 2002
Kurt Vonnegut's novels are famous for their commentary on society, and their examination of morality, and ethics. Mother Night is no different; placing the reader into the mind of an ex-playwright turned propagandist, and a former nazi.
The story is told from the point of view of Howard W. Campbell Jr., now living in seclusion in 1960 Manhattan. Campbell lived in Germany during WWII and is approached by an undercover American spy, who instructs Campbell to infiltrate the Nazis, and act as a propagandist. He is told that his broadcasts will provide the US with intelligence, depending on his enunciation, and the nuances in the speech. Campbell does as he is told, and when WWII ends, his contact disappears and he is wanted for war crimes. He flees from authorities and hides in America.
Throughout the novel, Campbell seems to be the only character who feels remorse for his actions, although he did nothing wrong. Campbell's deep-seated feelings of remorse and guilt despite his innocence increase as the novel progresses, and when his innocence is finally proved, he makes a surprising choice.
on April 17, 2002
Vonnegut is a genius, and whether you are a fan of his or not, you will love this book. The introduction is perfect, as Vonnegut tells us the moral of the story before we even get started. "You are what you pretend to be, so you better be careful about what you pretend to be." The novel follows Howard W. Campbell, an American living in Germany, recruited by the governement to spy on the Nazis by propaganding for their war. Campbell is now about to be put on trial for his war crimes.
Like I said, Vonnegut is a genius, and Howard Campbell is one of the most complex and amazing characters ever created, even though this book is short of 300 pages. At some points in the book, you think he's a smart man that you respect and feel sorry for, while at other times you want to just punch him in the face. This is not a war novel. It is a book written as though Howard Campbell was talking directly to you, which is what makes it such a fascinating read. If you like any Vonnegut, or are a fan of satires like Catch-22, or you enjoy books relating to the subject of war or the human spirit, this book is perfect for you. It is honestly one of the best books I have ever read. I can only hope the same for you.
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?)
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!!!