Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense. American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a spy during World War II, is now on trial in Israel as a Nazi war criminal. But is he really guilty? In this brilliant book rife with true gallows humor, Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of gray with a verdict that will haunt us all.
“A great artist.”—Cincinnati Enquirer
“A shaking up in the kaleidoscope of laughter . . . Reading Vonnegut is addictive!”—Commonweal
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About the Author
Date of Birth:November 11, 1922
Date of Death:April 11, 2007
Place of Birth:Indianapolis, Indiana
Place of Death:New York, New York
Education:Cornell University, 1940-42; Carnegie-Mellon University, 1943; University of Chicago, 1945-47; M.A., 1971
Read an Excerpt
The Third . . .
My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.
The year in which I write this book is 1961.
I address this book of mine to Mr. Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Institute for the Documentation of War Criminals, and to whomever else this may concern.
Why should this book interest Mr. Friedmann?
Because it is written by a man suspected of being a war criminal. Mr. Friedmann is a specialist in such persons. He had expressed an eagerness to have any writings I might care to add to his archives of Nazi villainy. He is so eager as to give me a typewriter, free stenographic service, and the use of research assistants, who will run down any facts I may need in order to make my account complete and accurate.
I am behind bars.
I am behind bars in a nice new jail in old Jerusalem.
I am awaiting a fair trail for my war crimes by the Republic of Israel.
It is a curious typewriter Mr. Friedmann has given to me--and an appropriate typewriter, too. It is a typewriter, too. It is a typewriter that was obviously made in Germany during the Second World War. How can I tell? Quite simply, for it puts at finger tips a symbol that was never used on a typewriter before the Third German Reich, a symbol that will never be used on a typewriter again.
The symbol is the twin lightning strokes used for the dreaded S.S., the Schutzstaffel, the most fanatical wing of Nazism.
I used such a typewriter in Germany all through the war. Whenever I had occasion to write of the Schutzstaffel, which I did often and with enthusiasm, I never abbreviated it as "S.S.," but always struck the typewriter key for the far more frightening and magical twin lightning strokes.
I am surrounded by ancient history. Though the jail in which I rot is new, some of the stones in it, I'm told, were cut in the time of King Solomon.
And sometimes, when I look out through my cell window at the gay and brassy youth of the infant Republic of Israel, I feel that I and my war crimes are as ancient as Solomon's old gray stones.
How long ago that war, that Second World War, was! How long ago the crimes in it!
How nearly forgotten it is, even by the Jews--the young Jews, that is.
One of the Jews who guards me here knows nothing about that war. He is not interested. His name is Arnold Marx. He has very red hair. He is only eighteen, which means Arnold was three when Hitler died, and nonexistent when my career as a war criminal began.
He guards me from six in the morning until noon.
Arnold was born in Israel. He has never been outside of Israel.
His mother and father left Germany in the early thirties. His grandfather, he told me, won an Iron Cross in the First World War.
Arnold is studying to be a lawyer. The avocation of Arnold and of his father, a gunsmith, is archaeology. 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.
So be it.
Hazor, Arnold tells me, was a Canaanite city in northern Palestine that existed at least nineteen hundred years before Christ. About fourteen hundred years before Christ, Arnold tells me, an Israelite army captured Hazor, killed all forty thousand inhabitants, and burned it down.
"Solomon rebuilt the city," said Arnold, "but in 732 B.C. Tiglath-pileser the Third burned it down again."
"Who?" I said.
"Tiglath-pileser the Third," said Arnold. "The Assyrian," he said, giving my memory a nudge.
"Oh," I said. "That Tiglath-pileser."
"You act as though you never heard of him," said Arnold.
"I never have," I said. I shrugged humbly. "I guess that's pretty terrible."
"Well--" said Arnold, giving me a schoolmaster's frown, "it seems to me he really is somebody everybody ought to know about He was probably the most remarkable man the Assyrians ever produced."
"Oh," I said.
"I'll bring you a book about him, if you like," said Arnold.
"That's nice of you," I said. "Maybe I'll get around to thinking about remarkable Assyrians later on. Right now my mind is pretty well occupied with remarkable Germans."
"Like who?" he said.
"Oh, I've been thinking a lot lately about my old boss, Paul Joseph Goebbels," I said.
Arnold looked at me blankly. "Who?" he said.
And I felt the dust of the Holy Land creeping in to bury me, sensed how thick a dust-and-rubble blanket I would one day wear. I felt thirty or forty feet of ruined cities above me; beneath me some primitive kitchen middens, a temple or two--and then--
Tiglath-pileser the Third.
Special Detail . . .
The guard who relieves Arnold Marx at noon each day is a man nearly my own age, which is forty-eight. He remembers the war, all right, though he doesn't like to.
His name is Andor Gutman. Andor is a sleepy, not very bright Estonian Jew. He spent two years in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. According to his own reluctant account, he came this close to going up a smokestack of a crematorium there:
"I had just been assigned to the Sonderkommando," he said to me, "when the order came from Himmler to close the ovens down."
Sonderkommando means special detail. At Auschwitz it meant a very special detail indeed--one composed of prisoners whose duties were to shepherd condemned persons into gas chambers, and then to lug their bodies out. When the job was done, the members of the Sonderkommando were themselves killed. The first duty of their successors was to dispose of their remains.
Gutman told me that many men actually volunteered for the Sonderkommando.
"Why?" I asked him.
"If you would write a book about that," he said, "and give the answer to that question, that ‘Why?'--you would have a very great book."
"Do you know the answer?" I said.
"No," he said, "That is why I would pay a great deal of money for a book with the answer in it."
"Any guesses?" I said.
"No," he said, looking me straight in the eye, "even though I was one of the ones who volunteered."
He went away for a little while, after having confessed that. And he thought about Auschwitz, the thing he liked least to think about. And he came back, and he said to me:
"There were loudspeakers all over the camp," he said, "and they were never silent for long. There was much music played through them. Those who were musical told me it was often good music--sometimes the best."
"That's interesting," I said.
"There was no music by Jews," he said. "That was forbidden."
"Naturally," I said.
"And the music was always stopping in the middle," he said, "and then there was an announcement. All day long, music and announcements."
"Very modern," I said.
He closed his eyes, remembered gropingly. "There was one announcement that was always crooned, like a nursery rhyme. Many times a day it came. It was the call for the Sonderkommando."
"Oh?" I said.
"Leichentärger zu Wache," he crooned, his eyes still closed.
Translation: "Corpse-carriers to the guardhouse." In an institution in which the purpose was to kill human beings by the millions, it was an understandably common cry.
"After two years of hearing that call over the loudspeakers, between the music," Gutman said to me, "the position of corpse-carrier suddenly sounded like a very good job."
"I can understand that," I said.
"You can?" he said. He shook his head. "I can't," he said. "I will always be ashamed. Volunteering for the Sonderkommando--it was a very shameful thing to do."
"I don't think so," I said.
"I do," he said. "Shameful," he said. "I never want to talk about it again."
Briquets . . .
The guard who relieves Andor Gutman at six each night is Arpad Kovacs. Arpad is a Roman candle of a man, loud and gay.
When Arpad came on duty at six last night, he demanded to see what I'd written so far. I gave him the very few pages, and Arpad walked up and down the corridor, waving and praising the pages extravagantly.
He didn't read them. He praised them for what he imagined to be in them.
"Give it to the complacent bastards!" he said last night. "Tell those smug briquets!"
By briquets he meant people who did nothing to save their own lives or anybody else's life when the Nazis took over, who were willing to go meekly all the way to the gas chambers, if that was where the Nazis wanted them to go. A briquet, of course, is a molded block of coal dust, the soul of convenience where transportation, storage and combustion are concerned.
Arpad, faced with the problem of being a Jew in Nazi Hungary, did not become a briquet. On the contrary, Arpad got himself false papers and joined the Hungarian S.S.
That fact is the basis for his sympathy with me. "Tell them the things a man does to stay alive! What's so noble about being a briquet?" he said last night.
"Did you ever hear any of my broadcasts?" I asked him. The medium of my war crimes was radio broadcasting. I was a Nazi radio propagandist, a shrewd and loathsome anti-Semite.
"No," he said.
So I showed him a transcript of a broadcast, a transcript furnished to me by the Haifa Institute. "Read it," I said.
"I don't have to," He said. "Everybody was saying the same things over and over and over in those days."
"Read it anyway--as a favor," I said.
So he read it, his face becoming sourer and sourer. He handed it back to me. "You disappoint me," he said.
"Oh?" I said.
"It's so weak!" he said. "It has no body, no paprika, no zest! I though you were a master of racial invective!"
"I'm not?" I said.
"If any member of my S.S. platoon had spoken in such a friendly way about the Jews," said Arpad, "I would have had him shot for treason! Goebbels should have fired you and hired me as the radio scourge of the Jews. I would have raised blisters around the world!"
"You were already doing your part with your S.S. platoon," I said.
Arpad beamed, remembering his S.S. days. "What an Aryan I made!" he said.
"Nobody ever suspected you?" I said.
"How would they dare?" he said. "I was such a pure and terrifying Aryan that they even put me in a special detachment. Its mission was to find out how the Jews always knew what the S.S. was going to do next. There was a leak somewhere, and we were out to stop it." He looked bitter and affronted, remembering it, even though he had been that leak.
"Was the detachment successful in its mission?" I said.
"I'm happy to say," said Arpad, "that fourteen S.S. men were shot on our recommendations. Adolf Eichmann himself congratulated us."
"You met him, did you?" I said.
"Yes--" said Arpad, "and I'm sorry I didn't know at the time how important he was."
"Why?" I said.
"I would have killed him," said Arpad.
What People are Saying About This
“A great artist.”—Cincinnati Enquirer
“A shaking up in the kaleidoscope of laughter . . . Reading Vonnegut is addictive!”—Commonwealth
“Vonnegut is George Orwell, Dr. Caligari and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer . . . a zany but moral mad scientist.”—Time
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Reading Vonnegut is wonderful and frustrating---somewhat like trying to eat one potato chip: You'll find yourself wanting more and more, so ONE Vonnegut book isn't going to cut it. Thank God he's written so many, and that so many are great. MOTHER NIGHT is the story of WWII and a spy's life. It is at once suspenseful and highly entertaining, much like the writing you'll find in the works of Palahniuk of Jackson McCrae. The wonderful thing about Vonnegut though, is that you're left to make your own judgements about the characters in his stories.
I searched around for a good Vonnegut novel and this one I picked up very luckily. This novel was Vonnegut's absolute best out of the ones I have read (Galapagos, Hocus Pocus, and Jailbird also). What was so great about this book is that it was so surprising. Almost every moment was unexpected. This is an absolute must read. I am a slow reader and I read this in less than a day. If I could I would give Mother Night 10 Stars!
I have read several Vonnegut novels and have yet to read a bad one. Mother Night is quite solid plot-wise and has some good satire. It's not quite as out-landish as some of Vonnegut's other works but as straight fiction it does quite well. Just don't expect a lot of sci-fi accoutrements.
One of the most powerful books that I have ever read and the film does the book justice. This book challenges morals and makes you answer questions in which you must go deeper than you ever have before.
This was a strange book to read leading up to Trump’s America. After all the talk during the 2016 election about how the media, and news reporting, affected the political process, it’s kind of scary to compare that to a Nazi propagandist. Makes you ask yourself a lot of questions that are difficult but necessary. Does Howard W. Campbell Jr’s claim of being an American spy and not believing in the Nazi fanatacism actually matter at all? His actions seem to speak loudly enough, such that the whole world is convinced that he is as fervent a Nazi as Hitler himself. So much of this book was unsettling and strange. Campbell’s wife’s sister; the American secret agent whom no one else knows about. The polite Nazis who want to support and bolster Campbell. How powerful is propaganda? That’s the basic question for any book club reading this one. There’s more, about artists and the masks they wear. About creating art as a form of escapism. About whether an artist should be responsible for the things their creations inspire in the world. By the end of the novel your head is reeling from unanswered questions. Great discussion points, but nothing that can be answered. Only philosophically explored. I have to say I prefer Slaughterhouse-Five, and of course my favorite Vonnegut: Cat’s Cradle. It’s good to read more Vonnegut any time, certainly. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this one, though.
I've read nearly all Vonnegut's works, and this one is an unequivocal 5-star masterpiece to stand amongst his other greats. This book in particular almost seems to be the wisest, most world-weary of his efforts, a deeply personal story that superbly explores the themes or morality, identity, justice and even love, yet with a much more subdued but still enjoyable splattering of the writer's trademark wit. Even the way the story unfolds in its non-linear pseudo memoir reveals a more advanced and perfected style, that sublimely allows the tale be told in the most engaging and suspenseful manner. This is a very great book.
Kurt Vonnegut rejects suspense. I'm okay with that. His books are good practice for being an old man resigned to the insignificance of one human life on a grand scale and the insignificance of all else on a local scale. I'm okay with that, too.
One of Vonnegut's earliest novels, and of all I've read of his, one of his best.
Quick, clever, sour, and damning to anyone who ever equivocated or tallied with moral calculus. Not entirely earth-rending but still deeply unsettling and prickling with guilt.
Wow, glancing over the shoulder of a passenger on the train this morning, this title caught my eye...and brought back the memory of reading this masterpiece. I totally forgot this classic and knew I didn't add it here. A remarkable novel about one man's discovery of his inner self, a man accused of "crimes against humanity" during world war 2. But things are not what they seem to be on the surface. Read this wonderful book. And thank you to the man on the subway for bringing this back to me.
I read this book only because it was written by Vonnegut and it is one of his best. It is about a Nazi propaganda peddler during WW2 and his life running from war crimes. I really enjoyed this because it was great to see what Vonnegut thought life would be like for a Nazi during WW2. He never fails to add humour to the tragic war.
When I finished this novel, I knew that I had read something special. I had already read several of Vonnegut's novels including Slaughterhouse Five (which I read in college) when I was told by a clerk at a bookstore that this novel was Vonnegut's masterpiece. He was right. Everything in the work is not what it seems. The novel itself is broken into small chapters, each one a gem with some new twist or character, making the work fast paced and eminently readable. God, I wish I could write like this guy.
I have to admit that I have never read anything from Vonnegut prior to this volume. Wow - this is a great read. The black humor, the satire, and the mixing of the absurd with true human emotions makes the novel worth reading. Love, hate, patriotism, shame, and honor -- all woven through the blackest of humor.
This is my first Vonnegut and I'm a complete convert. It's a gem - clever, funny, beautifully constructed and incredibly readable. Books narrated by anti-heroes have never quite done it for me, but Campbell, the narrator, is cleverly revealed as bad, but not evil and no worse than most of us are capable of being. A small masterpiece.
I have to confess the only Vonnegut novel I tried prior to this was Slaughterhouse 5, which I really didn't like. That stopped my reading of Vonnegut right there. But I found this book in a charity store and thought an author with such an high reputation was worth another shot.I'm glad I gave Vonnegut a second chance because this was a really good novel. Whereas I disliked S5 for, in my view, trying too hard to be too obviously clever Mother Night almost feels too simple. It's written in a wonderfully easy manner but it's no less powerful as a result. Truly black humour here (but that's my sort of thing) and a compelling tale, I thought. Highly recommended.And, lastly, if we're into quoting here, the passage that struck me most heavily in these fraught times was:'There are plenty of good reasons for fighting,' I said, 'but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on his side. It's that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. 'It's that part of an imbecile,' I said, 'that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.'
Vonnegut is at his best with this novel, in which a thick gray fog is allowed to settle on everything we believe we see in black and white.The novel's anti-hero, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., served the Americans as a spy by adopting the role of a high-ranking Nazi official charged with promulgating anti-American propaganda. Throughout the novel he tells us of the pragmatism that kept him alive during the war and after it: to himself he ascribes neither guilt, nor a sense of loss, nor a loathing of death, nor heartbroken rage, nor a unlovability, nor a sense of the cruelty of God (pp. 231-232). He steals, lies, deceives, schemes, and somehow even when caught manages to purchase freedom by one means or another. His world is not black and white, but gray, a full-blown cloud of obscuring mist. In order to perform the greatest acts of espionage, he was forced to author and deliver the most hateful of anti-Semitic screed. Which outweighs the other, the sinner or the saint? Impelled by whatever situation he finds himself in, our hero eventually loses all sense of black or white and opts for suicide over freedom when freedom might lend him another opportunity to pick sides.The book's most compelling passage, to me, came on page 233 and following, in which Campbell explains the way in which his colleagues (standing in for all of us) are able to cope with themselves:"I have never seen a more sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind, a mind which may be likened unto a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random...The dismaying thing about the classic totalitarian mind is that any given gear, though mutilated, will have at its circumference unbroken sequences of teeth that are immaculately maintained, that are exquisitely machined...The missing teeth, of course, are simple, obvious truths, truths available and comprehensible even to ten-year-olds, in most cases. The willful filing off of gear teeth, the willful doing without certain obvious pieces of information -- That was how a household as contradictory as one composed of Jones, Father Keeley, Vice-Bundesfuehrer Krapptauer, and the Black Fuehrer could exist in relative harmony --That was how my father-in-law could contain in one mind an indifference toward slave women and love for a blue vase -- That was how Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, could alternate over the loudspeakers of Auschwitz great music and calls for corpse-carriers --That was how Nazi Germany could sense no important differences between civilization and hydrophobia..."This passage stands in stark contrast to the totality of Jonthan Kozol's The Night is Dark and I Am Far From Home, which I read immediately before picking up Vonnegut. This last book offers a world of stark blacks and whites, in which action of an incontrovertible nature is demanded of the reader, should she not wish to bear the label "hypocrite." Vonnegut, on the other hand, leaves us wondering how in the hell hypocrisy can be defined in the first place.Like all of his best books, Vonnegut's Mother Night asks more questions than it answers.
It would be pretentious and preposterous to announce to the world what Kurt Vonnegut's "greatest novel" is. So I won't say Mother Night is his strongest work. But I will think it. You know, just to myself.Mother Night is pure Vonnegut (obviously; he DID write it). Our main character, Howard Campbell, is an imprisoned American spy who used to broadcast German propaganda during World War II. The book goes over his life, and since this is Vonnegut writing here, the commentary cuts like a razor.I've read some other reviews of Mother Night on Library Thing, and they're all very good, so I'm going to take a different direction from this point on.Vonnegut is my favorite writer. I truly believe that 2007 lost one of the greatest American minds that ever lived. Everything he has written -- from the The Sirens of Titan to A Man Without a Country -- has been decades if not centuries ahead of its time. And Vonnegut had a style that I have tried to explain to some orally, but it never seems to come out the right way, so I'll try it here. Vonnegut wrote in such a way that was purely conversational, yet at the same time, always thought-provoking and in search of greater truth. His satire is second to none in that it doesn't satirize specifics. It satirizes everything we hold dear, and makes a mockery out of what we take to be rational thought, those thoughts ingrained in us since we were children. And while he does this, it is taken as completely matter-of-fact, as if you were sitting having a beer with him, smoking a cigarette in a bar, and he were just meddling away, telling you about his life.He wrote like he weren't trying. So when he hammers a point home it hits you much harder. This is the kind of oration that the greatest rhetoricians in America use, though not as well. While I disagree with his train of thought, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh is very good at spitting Bush administration talking points at his audience so matter-of-factly that it can become easy to find yourself saying, "Yeah, I mean we would have been fools NOT to bomb Baghdad. What's wrong with the 70 percent of Americans against the war?"Okay. Limbaugh...Vonnegut...in the same essay? Sorry people. But this is why I have so much trouble voicing my thoughts on Kurt Vonnegut. I see his techniques everywhere. Yet, for him, they didn't seem like techniques, they seemed banal. I think he was so smart that I still can't fully grasp his writing, even though I read Slaughterhouse Five when I was 13 (I re-read it when I was 22) and read Welcome to the Monkey House when I was 24. (I still am 24, by the way.) I'm just as clueless now as I was then about Vonnegut's writing. I can't understand how one person can get across so much in such a small amount of space. He understood things the way no one has before, and I have yet to see his protege make his or her way out of the fog that is the slow decline of American literature.Consider this quote from Mother Night:You hate America, don't you?" she said."That would be as silly as loving it," I said. "It's impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn't interest me. It's no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can't think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can't believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to the human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will."I mean to think Vonnegut wrote Mother Night in 1961, and by the 2000s we've got The Da Vinci Code revolution...it's sort of sad.I apologize to anyone who got nothing out of this review. Maybe it was more for me than it was for you. Maybe not. But if there's anything you CAN take out of my ramblings, I hope it is this: read Kurt Vonnegut.
This story was a solid read. The flow of action and events keeps the pace up for the length of the entire story.
I first read Slaughterhouse-Five in a college English class and fell in love. I needed more. Mother Night is the second Vonnegut book I've read and it did not disappoint. What I thought of Campbell in SH5 is not how I saw him to be in this novel. Vonnegut reuses characters and they do not always maintain the same personality accross the board. I came to realize that by doing this, Vonnegut uses another stylistic approach to represent schizophrenia ( at least how I see it). This book was an amazing read!