WARNING: SPOILER ALERT
Mother night was Vonnegut’s third novel, published in 1961. It relates, in a split timeframe, the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American playwright who is married to a German actress and living in Germany at the time of the Nazi rise to power. He subsequently becomes a notorious propagandist in Goebbel’s Ministry, and can trace hundreds of examples of misinformation to his own industry. He hosts regular broadcasts to America, extolling the virtues of Nazism and denouncing, in every more vituperative (and ridiculous) terms, the evils of international Jewry. This, however, is a front to hide the fact he is operating as a US spy, a fact known to only three men (one of whom is FDR himself). The story is narrated by Campbell and it is made clear from the outset that he is in an Israeli prison awaiting trial for war crimes. What is not known is how he comes to be in this position. This is what unfolds in the novel.
Campbell is a typically ambivalent Vonnegutian character. He states: ‘I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.’ Although he is the narrator and main character, he is not, as is customary for Vonnegut, an easily likeable individual. He is, like all of us, full of contradictions, and it feels as though darkness is never far away. He tell us:
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.
In other words, Vonnegut is telling us, he is everyman. And what would you have done in the same position, reader?
Campbell rises to prominence in Nazi Germany despite not believing a word of the propoganda he produces. The only thing that seems genuinely to excite his interest is his love for his actress wife, Helga. Even his enlistment as an American spy by Frank Wirtanen is effected with the same degree of diffidence. He has no knowledge of what information he is transmitting, which he does through a carefully orchestrated combination of stammers and coughs and verbal tics which can be ‘translated’ by agents back home into messages. In an ironic twist, one of his last messages is that his own wife has died. This, however, proves to be a turning point. Campbell has lived a reasonably contented life until his wife’s disappearance and presumed death, after she visits the eastern front to entertain the troops and becoming embroiled in a Russian offensive. Thereafter, Campbell falls into a decline. He becomes a ‘death worshipper, as content as any narrow-minded religious nut anywhere.’ The war is being lost and he attempts flight as the Russians close in. He is captured by Lieutenant Bernard B. O’Hare but is rescued by his ‘Blue Fairy Godmother’, his spymster Wirtanen, and given passage back to America.
The novel intersperses modern day (ie 1961) events with Campbell’s wartime recollections. In the modern day he is living anonymously in New York (although even this attempt at secrecy is characterised by diffidence – he even uses his exact name) until he finds his identity revealed in the ‘White Christian Minuteman’ a ‘scabrous, illiterate, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, anti-Catholic hate sheet’ produced by Reverend Dr. Lionel J.D. Jones, a xenophic, Hitler-loving anti-semite who believes that the orthodontics of blacks and Jews proves their inferiority and has connections to various, ludicrous right-wing organisations. From this moment, Campbell’s life begins to unravel.
Firstly, Jones visits Campbell, bringing with him Helga, the wife that Campbell had presumed dead. The couple soon rediscover their intimacy. Meanwhile, however, events are closing in around Campbell. Once his identity has been revealed, he is subject to a torrent of abuse and opprobrium from the newspapers and general public, who all believe him to be a traitor. Attempts are made to extradite him to Germany. His nemesis, O’Hare gets in touch. He then discovers that Helga is not, in fact, Helga, but her younger sister Resi, who had always loved him ‘even more than Helga’. Life becomes intolerable for Campbell. His friendly neighbour, Kraft, a Russian, plots with Jones and his right-wing conspirators and Resi, with whom Campbell is now reconciled, to secure Campbell’s escape to Mexico City. Campbell goes along with the idea, but once again his Blue Fairy Godmother intervenes, and warns him that Kraft and Resi are Russian spies and the Mexico City idea is a plot to kidnap him and take him to Moscow where he will be put on trial as an American imperialist spy.
However, rather than escape, Campbell, now reduced to despair, decides to go along with the plan anyway. He confronts Kraft and Resi, who convince him that, while they had indeed been Russian spies, they had not intended to return him to Moscow and were intent on double-crossing their spymasters. Before they can escape, the group are raided by the US authorities and Resi commits suicide. Wirtanen once more comes to Campbell’s rescue, but when he returns to his flat he is confronted, again, by O’Hare. O’Hare, however, is a pathetic figure and is easily bested by Campbell in a fight. At this point, Campbell sinks into utter despair and gives himself up to the Israeli authorities, to be taken and put on trial for the war crime of spreading propoganda.
While awaiting trial, he receives a letter from Wirtanen who breaks his cover and insists that he will, if requested, sign a sworn affidavit that Campbell was a secret agent acting on behalf of the Allies. Rather than celebrate, Campbell sees this as another failure and resolves, as the book ends, to commit suicide by hanging himself. This is, for all its bleakness and apparent hopelessness, an act, at least, of redemption. Campbell has reconciled himself to his past. Being Vonnegut, there are no glib and easy endings, and it is the more dramatic for that.
The story is an early run-through of what would become typical Vonnegut themes. The avowed theme of the book, stated upfront at the beginning, is: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." This shows itself throughout the entire novel, but is most powerfully expressed in a scene between Campbell and his German father-in-law, a low-level police chief, who tells Campbell:
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.
Campbell may have not believed a word of his propaganda, may have believed it to be utterly ridiculous, but that does not signify: others did, others believed and acted on that belief. That is what is dangerous.
Vonnegut is also warning us that that human beings are consistently poor at learning from their mistakes, both collectively and individually. Campbell and Jones’ chauffeur discuss the next war, when it will be ‘Japan’s turn to drop one [hydrogen bomb]. The rest of the colored folks gonna give them the honor of dropping the first one.’ When Campbell jokes, on Veterans’ Day, that maybe they’d declared war again, Helga believes him. ‘She thought it was possible.’ One of the most pathetic characters in the novel is O’Hare, who cannot let go of the past, and his need to finally capture Campbell. This is a classic example of Nietzschean ressentiment, someone eaten by a need to gain revenge, to that extent that he ends up a poor, drunken, shell of a man, so intent on revenge he confronts Campbell completely unarmed and without any plan as to what to do.
As with a lot of Vonnegut’s fiction, it looks backward to the Second World War but it is also entirely contemporary. For example, with the character of Lionel Jones, the ludicrous racist, Hitler-loving bigot, Vonnegut is drawing clear parallels between Nazism and the xenophobia exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan and the white supremacists who were still a malevolent force in the US in the late fifties and early sixties.
In a late, comic scene, Vonnegut has Campbell introducing Adolf Hitler to the Gettysburg Address. It is, according to Hitler, ‘a fine piece of propaganda’. Even the land of the free, Vonnegut is warning us, can have its articles of faith turned into something evil.
Mother night is in many ways a trial run for Slaughterhouse 5. The character of Campbell even appears in that later novel, and the Dresden bombings feature at the start of this novel. But it is the absurdity of mankind that is Vonnegut’s abiding theme, its intolerance and inability to love. As well as his principal moral - "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’ – Vonnegut presents us with two further ones: ‘Make love when you can. It's good for you’ and ‘When you're dead, you're dead’. This trinity of thought makes up much of Vonnegut’s credo in this work and in his entire oeuvre. It’s very simple and yet, sadly, as he predicted, we don’t seem able to learn it.