A Retrospective on Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night”
By Mark Lindquist
“This is the only story of mine whose moral I know,” Kurt Vonnegut writes in the introduction of “Mother Night,” his third novel. “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
He wrote the introduction in 1966 for the paperback edition of this 1961 novel, which has always made me think that Vonnegut, like many writers, wasn’t really sure what he had written until years after the hardback was in the stores.
Vonnegut’s amiable introduction goes on about Germans and Nazis and his experience during World War II. The future author, as all his readers know, was hiding in a cool meat locker under a slaughterhouse while above him 135,000 civilians burned to death in Dresden after an allied fire-bombing of the German city, which had no military value.
“It was the largest massacre in European history, by the way. And so what?”
Surviving the fire-bombing of Dresden was a formative experience for Vonnegut as a novelist, though he sometimes disputed this, and it served as the jumping off point for his 1969 breakout anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” By the late 60s Vonnegut had bridged the divide between high art and low art, becoming a bestselling author at the same time he was called “the best living writer in America” by Graham Greene. I have always admired his ability to turn simple and unpretentious prose into the stuff of classic pop literature.
But back in 1961 Vonnegut was relatively unknown, still feeling out his role as an artist, and about to find his voice.
Howard Campbell, Jr., the narrator of “Mother Night,” is an American writer living in Germany when the Nazis come to power. He is recruited by United States military intelligence to be a spy when World War II begins. As a respected playwright married to a popular German actress, Campbell easily ingratiates himself to the Nazis and offers his services as an anti-semite.
Soon Campbell’s Jew-baiting rants are being broadcast on the radio, bringing inspiration and joy to the Nazis, and coded messages to allied agents.
After the war, Campbell’s intelligence contact helps him return to New York. There he is a hero to the Iron Guards, a group of crazy and pathetic American Nazis. This role-playing seems to have no end, as the U.S. Government will neither confirm or deny that Campbell was a spy. He longs to call out, “Olly-olly-ox-in-free,” so that the make-believe will be over. Eventually he is frozen by an existential nausea and gives himself up to the Israelis.
And I should mention that “Mother Night” is also a love story. Through the course of all this madness Campbell loses the wife he loves dearly, finds her, sort of, and then loses her again. Part of Vonnegut’s appeal is his ability to be both cynical and sentimental at the same time, a skeptic who believes love conquers all. He adds another moral to the previously mentioned one.
“Make love when you can. It’s good for you.”
Campbell numbly tells his tale from an Israeli prison cell where he is awaiting trial for his crimes as a Nazi propagandist, idly wondering if his intelligence contact will come forward and identify him as a spy just following orders.
Vonnegut’s primary moral – be careful about what we pretend to be – is made explicit by Campbell’s Nazi father-in-law who points out that it doesn’t matter whether Campbell was a spy or not. “’All the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I have felt or done as a Nazi, come not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you.’”
The author reminds us that no matter how righteous our cause, no matter how insane and evil our enemy, we must be careful how we act if we want to keep our souls as artists and humans. True in World War II, true in the sixties, true now.
Published in Post Road, Issue 10, 2005