Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, published in 1962. I read a 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback from the library.
3 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 2
Seen the Movie: There’s a movie? Weird. There’s a movie. Have not seen it, do not plan to.
American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who spent World War II promoting fascism and hate on German radio (while being a secret agent for the United States), explains how he ended up in an Israeli prison.
Kurt Vonnegut isn’t aging well. Or maybe I’m not aging well. Authors and books I used to love are leaving me irritated. When I read Mother Night four years ago, I gave it five stars. This time, it was a struggle to justify three.
Vonnegut tells us the moral of Mother Night in the introduction: “We are what we pretend to be” (p.v). Which means this tale is about a Nazi. Our sympathies are supposed to be with Howard Campbell and I have no idea why.
There are some very good scenes, all involving events during the war (the death of a dog, the hanging of Campbell’s father-in-law, and a scene in a bomb shelter), but the events and characters in the near-present are caricatures and punchlines. Fascist, racist people are portrayed as harmless buffoons and are given more humanity than Resi Noth, who wins the award for most depressing female character I’ve encountered this year (see note ).
By the halfway point, Mother Night had me wishing I’d picked up something else from the library.
To say that he was a writer is to say that the demands of art alone were enough to make him lie, and to lie without seeing harm in it.
Father and son spend most all their spare time excavating the ruins of Hazor. They do so under the direction of Yigael Yadin, who was Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army during the war with the Arab states.
Tel Hazor is an archaeological tell (artificial mound formed from accumulated human refuse) at the site of ancient Hazor, located in Israel. In the Middle Bronze Age (around 1750 BC) and the Israelite period (ninth century BC), Hazor was the largest fortified city in the country. In the book of Joshua, Hazor is described as “the head of all those kingdoms” (Josh. 11:10). The Hazor expedition headed by Yigael Yadin in the mid-1950s was the most important dig undertaken by Israel in its early years of statehood.
Yadin (1917-1984) was an Israeli archaeologist, politician, and the second Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
“Tiglath-pileser the Third burned [Hazor] down again.”
Tiglath-Pileser III was a prominent king of Assyria in the eighth century BCE (ruled 745-727 BCE) who introduced civil, military, and political systems into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
“You are the only man I ever heard of,” Mengel said to me this morning, “who has a bad conscience about what he did in the war. Everybody else, no matter what side he was on, no matter what he did, is sure a good man could not have acted in any other way.”
I never see evidence of Campbell feeling bad for what he did. He knows it was wrong, but seems more upset about the loss of his wife than about anything he did in the war. In fact, near the end, he tells us:
It was not guilt that froze me. I had taught myself never to feel guilt.
Actually, I am willing to admit almost anything.
I was for many years the principal companion of my mother. She was a beautiful, talented, morbid person. I think she was drunk most of the time.
The gutted and scabby, bug-eyed, spavined dead in heaps.
1. affected with spavin (a disorder of a horse’s hock.
2. old and decrepit
“Auf Wiedersehen,” I said. “That’s goodbye, isn’t it?”
“Until we meet again,” she said.
I was recruited one spring day in the Tiergarten in Berlin.
The Tiergarten is Berlin’s most popular inner-city park, located completely in the district of the same name. The park is 520 acres in size and is among the largest urban gardens of Germany. When the Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1933, the Tiergarten was planned to be a central location in the new city.
“The things going on in Germany,” he said. “Hitler and the Jews and all that.”
“It isn’t anything I can control,” I said, “so I don’t think about it.”
A submicroscopic Wandervogel bicycling between a mole and a curly golden hair on either side of my Helga’s belly button.
Wandervogel is the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom. Some methods and symbols were incorporated into the Hitler Youth.
A (…) portable phonograph, guaranteed to play in any climate from the Bering Straits to the Arafura Sea.
The Arafura Sea lies west of the Pacific Ocean overlying the continental shelf between Australia and Indonesian New Guinea. It is 800 miles long and 350 miles wide.
[Potapov] actually beat the Grand Master Tartakover (sic?) in Rotterdam in 1931.
Savielly Tartakower (1887-1956) was a leading Polish and French chess grandmaster. He was also a leading chess journalist and author of the 1920s and 1930s.
He had a very live wife named Tanya in Borisoglebsk.
Borisoglebsk is a town in Voronezh Oblast, Russia, located on the left bank of the Vorona River. The population was 65,585 at the 2010 census. It was founded in 1646 and named for the Russian saints Boris and Gleb.
The Nazi propaganda mills in Erfurt, Germany.
Erfurt is the capital and largest city in the state of Thuringia, central Germany. It is 186 miles south-west of Berlin. Erfurt’s old town is one of the best preserved medieval city centers in Germany. In 1938, the new synagogue was destroyed during the Kristallnacht. The crematoria, ovens and associated plants for Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps were produced by an Erfurt company.
Former Vice-Bundesfuehrer of the German-American Bund.
Bund is German for Federation. (So the first is “Vice Federation Leader”?)
He still looked garishly boyish, as though he went to a mortuary cosmetologist regularly.
Jones’ secretary was an unfrocked Paulist Father.
The Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers is a Roman Catholic society of apostolic life for men founded in New York City in 1858. The Society’s mission is to evangelize the people of North America.
Baron Manfred Freiherr von Killinger, then German Consul General of San Francisco.
Manfred Freiherr von Killinger (1886-1944) was a German naval officer, Freikorps leader, military writer and Nazi politician. Purged during the Night of the Long Knives, he was able to recover his status, and served as Nazi Germany’s Consul in San Francisco between 1936 and 1939. He committed suicide in Bucharest.
 The character Robert Sterling Wilson, “The Black Fuehrer of Harlem” is introduced on page 75. He is “a colored man who went to prison in 1942 as a Japanese spy” (p.75). When Wilson is brought up again (p.85-88), Vonnegut is sure to tell us each time that Wilson is Jones’ chauffeur and a colored man, harping on both these things as though they are jokes. And while Wilson initially is referred to by name (like a real person, you know), he is ultimately referred to solely as “The Black Fuehrer”:
Robert was his chauffeur (…) Robert was a colored man, seventy-three years old. Robert was Robert Sterling Wilson, erstwhile jailbird, Japanese agent, and “Black Fuehrer of Harlem.”
I opened the door, and outside stood Jones’ chauffeur, a wrinkled old colored man with malevolent yellow eyes (…)
There was no Uncle Tom in this cotton-haired old colored man. (…)
The Black Fuehrer of Harlem took the news in stride.
Vonnegut finds people who are not white and/or heterosexual a joke in themselves. The element that is not white and straight becomes their only personality trait. See also Bluebeard, note  and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater (introduction).
Jones’ chauffeur, The Black Fuehrer of Harlem, was now on the platform with us.
The Black Fuehrer stood over a kettledrum in the back of the room.
At the end of each sentence in the prayer, the Black Fuehrer gave the muffled drum a thump. (…) The Black Fuehrer left his drum.
I got a nice round of applause from the audience, and a drumroll from the Black Fuehrer.
The blue and gold uniform of a Major in the Free American Corps.
In Mother Night, Campbell is the creator of the fictional Free American Corps, but I’m assuming it’s based on the British Free Corps:
The British Free Corps (BFC) was a unit of the Waffen SS during World War II, consisting of British and Dominion prisoners of war who had been recruited by Nazi Germany. Research by British historian Adrian Weale has identified 54 men who belonged to this unit at one time or another, some for only a few days. At no time did it reach more than 27 men in strength.
The idea for the BFC came from John Amery (1912-1945), a British fascist. Amery also made recruit efforts and propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany (sound familiar?). Because of such activities, he was executed for treason after the war.
She seemed in danger of dropping the vase, of withdrawing so deeply into herself as simply to let the vase slip away.
“It isn’t very likely we’ll see each other again, I guess,” I said.
“So?” he said.
I shrugged. “So nothing,” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “Nothing and nothing and nothing.”
All but immobilized by dropsical fat.
Dropsy is an old-fashioned or less technical term for edema.
I was leafing through a girly magazine, admiring the way women were made, and awaiting my turn for a haircut.
Their rags were the pathetic remains of nightgowns by Schiaparelli.
Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) was an Italian fashion designer. Along with Coco Chanel, her greatest rival, she is regarded as one of the most prominent figures in fashion between the two World Wars. Schiaparelli’s designs were heavily influenced by Surrealists like her collaborators Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. Schiaparelli did not adapt to the changes in fashion following World War II and her couture house closed in 1954.
I didn’t really steal it. I just borrowed it for all time.
“I will tell you the one thing I really believe out of all the things there are to believe.”
“All right,” I said.
“All people are insane,” he said. “They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”
She was a nonstop talker, which made her hard to know.
Chief grounds-keeper for Baron Ulrich Werther von Schwefelbad.
This name only links back to Mother Night.
I did marvelous things with the cane: rococo manuals of arms (…), polo strokes at orts in the gutter.
A manual of arms was an instruction book for handling and using weapons in formation.
noun – (archaic, dialect) – a scrap or remainder of food from a meal.
“War must be a very sexy thing to Americans.”
“You know what the answer to Communism is?” he asked me.
“Nope,” I said.
“Moral Rearmament,” he said.
Moral Re-Armament (MRA) was an international moral and spiritual movement that, in 1938, developed from American minister Frank Buchman’s (1878-1961) Oxford Group. Buchman headed MRA for 23 years until his death in 1961. In 2001 the movement was renamed Initiatives of Change.
“Run over by a Tiger tank at Aachen.”
Aachen or Bad Aachen is a spa and border city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It was the preferred medieval Imperial residence of Charlemagne. Aachen is the westernmost city in Germany. Aachen was heavily damaged during World War II.
A week’s all-expenses-paid vacation for my wife and myself at the Schreiberhous in Riesengebirge.
Schreiberhous is German for “writer house.”
The Krkonose, Riesengebirge or Giant Mountains, are a mountain range located in the north of the Czech Republic and the south-west of Poland. The highest peak, Snezka, is the Czech Republic’s highest point with an elevation of 5,2,59 feet. The range has a number of major ski resorts and is a popular destination for tourists.
The Vale of Kashmir, Zanzibar, and the Andaman Islands.
The Andaman Island form an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal between India, to the west, and Myanmar, to the north and east.
A propagandist of my sort was as much a murderer as Heydrich, Eichmann, Himmler, or any of the gruesome rest.
Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) was a high-ranking German Nazi official during World War II, and a main architect of the Holocaust.
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith. I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.
“What about Don Quixote?” he said. “That,” he said to Resi, “would make you Dulcinea del Toboso.”
Dulcinea del Toboso is a fictional character who is unseen in Miguel de Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote.
“Two are from Peekskill.”
Peekskill is a city in Westchester County, New York. Peekskill is situated on a bay along the east side of the Hudson River. The population was 23,583 during the 2010 census.
“One of the most heartbreaking letters I ever saw was from a woman in Bernardsville, New Jersey.”
Bernardsville is a borough in Somerset County, New Jersey. As of the 2010 census, the population was 7,707.
Jones introduced me next, introduced me as a man who needed no introduction.
Taking up positions before St. Vith tonight.
St. Vith is a municipality located in the Belgian province of Liege, and in the Germany speaking Community of Belgium. In 2006, St. Vith had a population of 9,169. St. Vith was fought over in the 1944 Battle of the Bulge.
“It’s a big enough job just burying the dead, without trying to draw a moral from each death.”
“There is every chance,” I said, “that I would have become a sort of Nazi Edgar Guest.”
Edgar Albert Guest (1881-1959) was a prolific English-born American poet who became known s the People’s Poet. His poems often had an inspirational and optimistic view of everyday life.
“ ‘The Goblet’ is the ‘Charley’s Aunt’ of contemporary Russian theater.”
Charley’s Aunt is a farce in three acts written by Brandon Thomas (1848-1914). It broke all historical records for plays of any kind, with an original London run of 1,466 performances.
“It is available in Hungarian, Rumanian, Latvian, Estonian.”
Rumanian is an alternative spelling of Romanian. It is sometimes used to create a more Germanic feel in text.
Kraft (…) was reading a copy of Life that had a portrait of Werner (sic) von Braun on the cover.
Wernher von Braun (1912-197) was a German (and, later, American) aerospace engineer and space architect. He was the leading figure in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the father of rocket technology and space science in the United States. In his twenties and thirties, von Braun worked in Nazi Germany’s rocket development program. After the war, he was secretly moved to the United States, along with about 1,600 other German scientists, engineers, and technicians.
The title [of the song] was “Dat Old Golden Rule.”
I believe this song is a Vonnegut invention.
“The Baron danced with my wife once at a birthday party in Hamburg for General Walter Dornberger.”
Walter Dornberger (1895 – 1980) was a German Army artillery officer whose career spanned World War I and World War II. Along with other German rocket scientists (see note ), Dornberger was brought to the United States under the auspices of Operation Paperclip.
 Resi is the ultimate male-writer-fantasy of a woman: she is beautiful, much younger than Campbell, has spent her entire life in love with him, praises him incessantly (his skills at writing and as a lover) has no personality, hobbies, or desires of her own, and sees no point in living without him after spending one night together.
“I am sorry I have nothing to live for,” said Resi. “All I have is love for one man, but that man does not love me. He is so used up that he can’t love anymore.” (…)
Resi seemed to dab her lip with a finger. What she really did was put a little capsule of cyanide in her mouth.
“I will show you a woman who dies for love,” she said.
Right then and there, Resi Noth pitched into my arms, stone dead.
Campbell never mentions her again. Nearly forty more pages of book and he never acknowledges this woman. In fact, within hours of her death, he thinks:
It was not the fact that I was so unloved that froze me. I had taught myself to do without love.
Though earlier, after sleeping with her, he did acknowledge: God forgive me, I accepted Resi as my Helga again (p.138). He seemed to care for her, at least for a couple of hours. But after death she is nothing. Less than nothing.
What froze me was the fact that I had absolutely no reason to move in any direction. What had made me move through so many dead and pointless years was curiosity.
“You’re the reason for all this trouble,” he said. He wasn’t scolding me. He was simply interested.
And then the air-raid sirens blew again, and we realized that we were ordinary people, without dove or covenant, and that the flood, far from being over, had scarcely begun.
 The implications of this are infuriating. It’s as though women just asexually reproduce to ruin these poor men’s lives, isn’t it?
“I was going to be a lawyer, a writer, an architect, an engineer, a newspaper reporter-” he said. “There wasn’t anything I couldn’t be,” he said.
“And then I got married-” he said, “and the wife started having kids right away (…). The buddy ran off with the money, and the wife kept having kids (…) After the Venetian-blind business went bust, it was frozen custard. And all the time the wife was having more kids.”
I believe we’re supposed to feel bad for this man, by the way. Bad for the “failed potential” of his life, how “fate” has treated him. If only the wife didn’t keep having kids! If only he could have had any control over it!
Coggin’s Pond, six miles due west of Hinkleyville, Maine.
I can’t find a Coggin’s Pond or Hinkleyville in Maine. Considering that every other town name in Mother Night is a real location, is this false location meant to imply that “Frank Wirtanen” is still lying to Campbell?
I’m not recommending Mother Night to anyone. The few good scenes aren’t enough to justify it. If you’re interested in Vonnegut, go for Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle or even Bluebeard. And then you can stop. You’ve got it all.
The surprising thing about Mother Night is seeing how Vonnegut finds his voice in this one. After two attempts at traditionally constructed novels (Player Piano and Sirens of Titan) he cements his style for the rest of his career in Mother Night. This is the prototype of every Kurt Vonnegut book to come after.
In non-Vonnegut recommendations, you could read Art Speigelman’s Maus or Georges Perec’s W, or the Memory of Childhood in the time it takes to read Mother Night and be better off. Those are stories of World War II with bitter humor and poignancy which are much more rewarding and important than the story of an American Nazi who didn’t really believe what he was saying.
Next week, my first Ian McEwan book and fittingly, his debut: The Cement Garden.