Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut (1962)

‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else, what are world wars for?’ (p.86)

Mother Night purports to be the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr., born 1912 (p.17) who goes to Germany in 1923, along with his family when his dad gets a job with the Berlin branch of General Electric (p.18) and so grows up fluent in German.

The three-page introduction by Vonnegut uses the hokey old strategy of claiming that the author is merely presenting the authentic papers of a genuine historical figure, which he has edited and corrected in various detail. This is both designed to give hokey plausibility to the narrative’s provenance while drawing attention to its artificiality. Just one of the numerous meta-fictional devices Vonnegut uses here and throughout his career.

Howard W. Campbell Jnr

The main text starts bluntly enough and very much in the tradition of much 19th century fiction

My name is Howard W. Campbell Jnr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (p.3)

As he came of age in Nazi Germany (he turns 21 in 1933, the year Hitler comes to power) Campbell set out to make a living as a writer, producing so-so plays and poems throughout the 1930s and marrying a German wife, the actress Helga Noth, daughter of Berlin’s Chief of Police. The glamorous young couple find themselves invited to society parties and so meeting, among others, many of the leaders of the Nazi Party, notably Joseph Goebbels.

The text purports to be a memoir written in 1961 in prison in Israel where Campbell has recently been brought after living quietly in Greenwich Village, New York since the end of the war, because Howard W. Campbell Jr.’s main achievement in life was to become a traitor to his country and a war criminal by broadcasting hard core, anti-Semitic, anti-American Nazi propaganda from Berlin right till the end of the war. Although we are not told till the end of the book how he ended up there, he is now in the custody of the Israeli authorities who are about to put him on trial for war crimes.

The memoir uses Vonnegut’s familiar approach of not giving a chronological approach to Campbell’s life, but ranging far and wide over his former life, to pick out key moments and scenes. Thus, in what is effectively a series of fragments, we learn that:

In Israel

  • Campbell is writing the memoir for Mr Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals.
  • He describes the characters of the four very different Israeli guards who do the different shifts of guarding him – Andor Gutman who spent two years in Auschwitz, Arpad Kovacs who survived the war by pretending to be a good Aryan and joining the SS.

In Nazi Germany

  • It was Campbell who introduced Goebbels – and through him, Hitler – to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
  • Half way through the war Helga was entertaining the German troops in the Crimea when the Crimea is overrun by the Russians. She was never heard from again, presumed dead.
  • Towards the end of the war Campbell borrowed the beloved motorbike of his best friend Heinz Schildknecht and went to visit his father-in-law, Werner Noth, in his big house on the outskirts of Berlin. Werner was having all the contents loaded on a cart and sent with his wife and other daughter, 10-year-old Resi, to Cologne. Werner asks Campbell to shoot the family dog, which Campbell did. 10-year-old Resi says she loves him (Campbell). Fine. He gets on his motorbike and tries to escape the advancing Russians.
  • In 1945 Campbell was captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army who drives him to the nearby and newly-liberated concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where he is photographed in front of the camp gallows (now full of former camp guards), a photo which makes the front cover of Life magazine and makes Campbell notorious.

In New York

  • Campbell is released by the American authorities and goes to live in New York. His mother and father had gone back to America just before war broke out, but they both die within 24 hours of each other of heart disease before the end of the war, and Howard has inherited their fortune.
  • Campbell’s downstairs neighbour in Greenwich Village is a young doctor named Abraham Epstein; he doesn’t care about the war, but his mother was in Auschwitz and recognises Campbell, who plays dumb.
  • In his loneliness, Campbell gets to know another neighbour, George Kraft, by playing chess with him. Little does he know that Kraft is in fact a Russian spy, real name Colonel Iona Potapov.
  • The beginning of the end comes when Campbell finds his mailbox stuffed with neo-Nazi literature, namely The White Christian Minuteman edited by the reverend Lionel L.D. Jones, D.D.S.
  • There’s also a letter from the American soldier who arrested him 16 years earlier, Bernard B. O’Hare, who threatens to pay him a visit and administer the punishment he so richly deserves.
  • How did they track him down? Kraft, the Russian spy. Over the months Campbell got to trust him and spill parts of his story. It was Kraft who contacted the neo-Nazis and O’Hare. Why? In order to force him to flee, so that he can be kidnapped by Russian security forces (see below).
  • Dr Jones comes to visit along with a couple of other American Nazis and… to Campbell’s amazement, his long-lost wife Helga. He gets rid of the others and he and Helga have riotous sex, just like back in the good times in Berlin. It’s only when he takes Helga shopping for a king-sized double bed like the one they used to have, that she drops the bombshell that she is not Helga – she is the kid sister, Resi, all grown up 🙂

Throughout the memoir Campbell claims he is innocent. He claims he was recruited for American intelligence by a Major Frank Wirtanen, who taught him how to leave pauses, gaps, coughs etc during his radio broadcasts, which conveyed valuable information to the American intelligence.

Trouble is the American government now (1961) refuses to confirm or deny Campbell’s story, and there are no records anywhere of this Major Wirtanen.

The deeper trouble is that Campbell himself is torn by his schizophrenia. Although he may have been an American agent he did, nonetheless, say those things over the radio. In his memoir he damns himself even more by pointing out various anti-Semitic ideas and pictures which he also contributed to the Nazi cause. He has no doubt that he was guilty of doing those things. Although he is also certain he was working for the Americans.

A book of two halves

Mother Night represents a drastic change from the mind-bending science fiction of The Sirens of Titan, coming freighted, as it does, with a lot of historical research, and a feel for the German language and German society (presumably drawing on the fact that Vonnegut himself was of German stock).

When the story is close to the Nazis and wartime Europe it is interesting. When it is more about the eccentric neo-Nazis in modern New York it feels like bubblegum comedy, like an early draft for Mel Brooks’s gross-out comedy, The Producers (‘Springtime for Hitler and Germany’).

The tone changes significantly and, in my opinion, for the worse, after Campbell is confronted and beaten up by an American soldier as he returns to his apartment building from that bed shopping trip with Resi, now that his identity is out. He is beaten to the ground and kicked in the head and loses consciousness.

When he wakes up it is in the house of Dr Jones, in the company of Kraft the Russian spy, along with some other grotesques, Father Keeley, a Catholic priest and Fascist, and the improbable figure of the ‘black Führer of Harlem’.

Somehow the book has turned into something like an episode of the Man from U.N.C.L.E., utterly implausible and unserious. When he was describing Campbell’s brief meeting with Dr Goebbels he was, I think, on his best behaviour. It is slyly satirical (the idea that Hitler would actually admire the Gettysburg Address) but at bottom serious.

Now it feels like an episode of Scooby-Doo with brightly coloured cartoon characters running round abandoned buildings.

Jones and Kraft tell him they’ve got a plan which is to abandon America completely and all fly to Mexico City.

In a farcical scene they invite Campbell to address a cohort of six-foot blonde American boys who have formed ‘the Iron Guard of the White Sons of the American Constitution’.

Campbell is giving a little speech from the stage in the basement of the building when the lights go down and he is disconcerted to hear one of his own wartime broadcasts being played (which gives us, the readers, an opportunity to savour his anti-Semitic Nazi rhetoric in full).

While the lights are down someone slips a message into Campbell’s pocket. Later he sneaks a look and it is a message from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen to come meet him in a shop opposite.

Campbell makes his excuses for going for a stroll and suspiciously approaches the shutdown shop opposite but Wirtanen is waiting for him, alone and unarmed.

Here Wirtanen informs him the Kraft is a Russian spy and so is Resi. They will all fly to Mexico City where Campbell will immediately be kidnapped and flown to Moscow. Why? So the Soviets can try a high-profile war criminal and show how such criminals are allowed to live freely in the West.

Wirtanen warns Campbell that the safe house they’re all in is about to be raided. Back on the street, Campbell realises he has nowhere else to go and so walks back to the house. Here he confronts Resi and Kraft with their plan which they immediately admit – at which point American FBI agents burst in.

Now, John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was published just a year after Mother Night and even a moment’s mental comparison shows you that Vonnegut is not really interested in being serious. He is not interested in plot or suspense or dramatic climaxes.

If you call to mind the fiendish elaborateness of Carré’s plot and the depth of psychological duelling which it describes, and behind it all the sense of something really important at stake i.e. the survival of a high level Western spy in the East German security machine – it throws Vonnegut’s bubble gum cartoon into vivid relief.

There is nothing remotely like that here.

The entire idea that Campbell was somehow transmitting secrets in his Nazi broadcasts is nonsense. Via a set of coughs and pauses? Rubbish. Vonnegut makes a half-arsed attempt to clarify it by having Wirtanen say that no fewer than seven women agents died getting him the information, but we never understand how that information reached Campbell or how it was codified into this nonsensical idea of coughs and pauses. He himself never explains how it was done, how he met these ‘agents’, how he turned their messages into code, the difficulty of staging the alleged coughs and pauses. It’s rubbish, a flimsy pretext.

When Campbell tells Resi that he knows she is a Russian spy she makes a rubbish speech about how she really, genuinely loves him and had asked Kraft to change the plan to protect him. But now she sees his love is dead she has no reason to go on living. So she takes a cyanide pill and collapses dead in his arms.

This isn’t serious. It is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The novel dissolves into fragments. While the others are arrested and taken away, Campbell, on Wirtanen’s permission is released.

He doesn’t know where to go and only a cop asking him to move along prompts him to drift back to his old apartment building. This has been trashed by various American patriots.

Campbell has a disconnected conversation with another cop, who tells him his own father was killed at Iwo Jima and how he reckons it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain, which affect our moods, can make us feel up or down, and maybe explain the different behaviour of different cultures. It’s call chemicals (a subject to be developed at length in Vonnegut’s later novel, Breakfast of Champions).

Upstairs in the ruins of his apartment (comprehensively trashed by American patriots once news about who he was has spread) Campbell is confronted by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare of the American Third Army. He is drink but has dressed very correctly in uniform as he thinks he is fulfilling the military duty of killing Campbell which he should have performed 15 years earlier.

Vonnegut gives a good little cameo to O’Hare, having him admit how disappointing post-war life has been with his wife producing baby after baby and all his business plans coming to nothing. Vonnegut makes us see how O’Hare hopes to redeem all his failures in life and business by beating up Campbell, maybe killing him. But O’Hare is out of shape and drunk. As he lunges towards Campbell, our man beats down hard with a pair of fire tongs and breaks his arm. After some ineffective dodging and weaving Campbell forces O’Hare out into the hall where the latter copiously throws up, then staggers back down the stairs.

Campbell stands there, his life reduced to ashes. No wife, no lover, no friends, no cause, no help, and the entire country against him.

He has a brainwave and goes and hands himself into his young neighbour Abraham Epstein. Except it’s by now quite late at night and Epstein doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t care. Campbell insists he wants to hand himself over to the Israeli authorities. Epstein replies, well go along to the embassy tomorrow. But Campbell wants something decisive to happen now.

I suppose this is farcical but it didn’t strike me as very funny. Eventually Epstein’s mother phones three Jewish men friends who turn up and keep ‘guard’ on Campbell till the morning. She understands his need to confess, to come clean and for someone else simply to take over his life.

Suicide

And so the final pages cut to Campbell in the Israeli prison. There is a comic recap of the various witnesses for and against him, plus his lawyer who, like all lawyers, is costing him a fortune. He wakes up and has got three letters, two of them farcical (one from a company called Creative Playthings wanting his financial support).

But the third is from the elusive Major Frank Wirtanen who says he does exist, he did work for the American army, Campbell really worked for him and is an American patriot, and he will say so in court under oath.

Campbell looks up from the letter.

So I am about to be a free man again, to wander where I please.
I find the prospect nauseating.

And so in the remaining seven pages of the book, he decides he will hang himself for crimes against himself. The book’s last words are:

Goodbye cruel world.
Auf wiedersehen?

By this stage I had completely stopped taking Campbell or his fate seriously.

Thoughts

1. Vonnegut’s wisdom

As the 1960s went on Vonnegut gave in more and more to the temptation to lard his books with insights and wisdom and sayings. In this, his third novel, this tendency is mostly reined in, though various morals and meanings and precepts and proverbs about life and the world still slip through:

Oh, God – the lives people try to lead.
Oh, God – what a world they try to lead them in!

In the preface he tells us that ‘the moral of the story’ is:

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

Although it might also be:

When you’re dead you’re dead.

And another one springs to mind:

Make love when you can. It’s good for you.

This tendency to buttonhole us with his folksy wisdom – and not to be able to stop – was to run riot through his books as the 1960s progressed.

2. The Nazis and leading a double life

As to any serious thoughts about the Nazis, or Eichmann, or the nature of evil, or patriotism, and the separate theme of living a double life, epitomised by the figure of ‘the spy’ – Mother Night prompts none. It is a kind of comic fantasia without thoughts or consequences.

There are serious books on these subjects and if you seriously want to understand them, you should read those.

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

3. Eichmann

The main thing it left me thinking was this: at one stage Campbell says he is being kept in the same prison as Adolf Eichmann, and several times they have brief conversations, in which Eichmann comes over as calm and serene.

Now Eichmann had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service Mossad, and was brought back to Jerusalem to undergo a very high-profile trial, before being found guilty and hanged in 1 June 1962.

The trial was widely followed in the media and was later the subject of several books, including Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe Eichmann. (Wikipedia)

Serious commentators around the world, politicians and philosophers, were writing long earnest articles about the Eichmann trial. I’d love to know how many of them even noticed this half-comic novel by a little-known American novelist, and what – given the seriousness of the issues being discussed – any of them thought of his rather shallow, comical treatment of them.

My opinion is: Mother Night starts promisingly but then disintegrates into cartoon capers larded with two-penny, ha’penny folk wisdom. In his later novels Vonnegut would find subjects and a form (more fragmented and studiedly meta-fictional, more open-ended and gossipy) which were much better suited to the kind of writer he is obviously, even in this early book, straining to be.

Credit

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr was published in 1962 by Fawcett Publications/Gold Medal Books. All references are to the Vintage paperback edition.


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