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Mother Night (1999)

Mother Night (1999)
4.18 of 5 Votes: 2
0385334141 (ISBN13: 9780385334143)
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Mother Night (1999)
Mother Night (1999)

About book: Future civilizations - better civilizations than this one - are going to judge all men by the extent to which they've been artists. You and I, if some future archeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter. Mother Night is one of the author's favorites, so according to the above quote extracted from the book, it is how he would want to be judged by posterity. I believe I read somewhere than Vonnegut disliked being dismissed by the literary establishment as a genre writer, dealing with aliens and spaceships. Mother Night may be his answer to these critics, as it is a straightforward story without any Science-Fiction gimmicks and few stylistic experiments, a powerful denunciation of Nazism that transcends its initial borders to address universal questions about the use of power, propaganda, government secrecy, the role of art in the modern world. The absence of the SF elements may be one reason why the book is less appreciated by the author's usual readers, but for me it was just as good as his more popular titles. I admire form. I admire things with a beginning, a middle, an end - and whenever possible, a moral, too. As I said, the novel is the closer Vonnegut comes to non-genre fiction: straight up storytelling, clear prose, unambiguous message. The satire and the black humour are here of course, but I found them toned down compared to his other books I've read. The style is appropriate to the subject here, as Vonnegut explores the events of his youth that would mark and come to define his whole career: the atrocities commited in time of war, in particular the firebombing of Dresden and the revelations about the concentration camps. The Beginning Howard Campbell is writing his confession in an Israeli prison as he waits to be tried for war crimes commited during World War II. Campbell is an American playwright who married a German actress, moved to her country in the 1930's and became succesful with his plays and his poetry. During the war he was the most famous renegade American voice of the Nazi propaganda machine, his speeches full of aryan / white supremacy dogma and hatred for the Jews. The Middle Campbell was allegedly working as an undercover agent for an American Agency and his radio speeches contained hidden messages from the German spies. So, after his capture at the end of the war, his handler gets him free and arranges for his return to the US. But given the secret nature of his mission, the government keeps mum about his real activities and the rest of the world still regards Howard as a criminal. He keeps a low profile for years, living alone in a cheap New York apartment, until his identity is leaked to the press and things start to get hot. American white supremacists want to claim him as a hero figure, discharged soldiers want to kick his butt for fallen comrades and hardships endured in the war, the Russian and the Israelis are racing to get their hands on him first. His only friend is a painter living in the same building. They are brought together by a common passion for chess, and they like to debate art and current events. This section of the book was a bit dragging, with numerous flashbacks to Howard's time in Germany, cameos and anecdotes of famous Nazi leaders, internal monologues and thoughts on art. The two aspects of Howard Campbell's personality that Vonnegut wants to underline here are : his willing participation in the creation of the Nazi propaganda materials (he never denies being the author of the reprehensible materials) and his refuge from dealing with the morality of these actions by in the love for his wife. Together they are citizens of a Nation of Two (the title of one of his plays). lost in a sensual world where politics and power games are insignifiant (Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova is the title of his one novel describing Howard's infatuation with his wife). In his later years, Howard's conscience drives him to seek punishment for what he perceives as his errors in judgmement. Before coming to trial in Israel, he already has reached a verdict on his own.One particular passage about his radio transmission send a chill up my spine, as I couldn't help noticing how the peddlers of hate and intransigence, the chickenhawks who never served but loudly rattle the sabres of war, right wing extremists ans religious zealots still feature prominently on the present radio waves and television programmes, not only in the US, but in France, Austria, Russia and elsewhere: I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. The End The pacing really picks up, as the different factions converge on Howard and verbal and physical violence rise to new heights, forcing the protagonist to leave his ivory tower and take a stand for what he believes in. As he is forced to confront his tormentors and his betrayers, Howard puts on the cloak of the author's secular humanism and lashes back at their stupidity and narrow mindedness: - "You hate America, don't you?" - "That would be as silly as loving it. 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." in dealing with another zealot: There are plenty good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservations, 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 limits, that wants to hate with God on its side. It's that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. It's that part of an imbecile that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.Vonnegut lashes at us because he cares about us, and he wants us to do better. He is not simply concerned with exposing the comfortable lies we tell ourselves to justify doing nothing to change the world and stand up to the bullies, he also points the way forward. There's an impassionate plea about education that I forgot to bookmark, but you will find it in the book, towards the end. There's also the power of art to reveal and to give hope and direction to our efforts, something he still believed in in 1961. The Moral This is given in the introduction of the novel instead of in the last pages. I see in this choice Vonnegut the teacher, who provides his students with useful tips for decoding the book right from the start: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. and also: Make love when you can. It's good for you. In other words, be true to yourselves and Make Love, Not War! . Finally, the question of Howard Campbell's truth (patriot or war criminal) is left to the reader to decide, after he is handed all the facts of the equation. I remember in Breakfast of Champions there was a recurring theme of messages on tombstones. The concern about posterity is part of the present novel too, and I will close my review with a fragment of Howard Campbell's poetry, written on the trunk containing his non-propaganda writings: Here lies Howard Campbell's essence,Freed from his body's noisome nuisance.His body, empty, prowls the earth,Earning what a body's worth.If his body and his essence remain apart,Burn his body, but spare this, his heart.

Like many other Goodreads reviewers, I think this is one of Vonnegut’s best works, on par with Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, perhaps even better. It is a straight-up story, without any SF or surreal elements, and what it has to say about morality amid the atrocities of war is not comfortable to swallow. In every way, it’s black gallows humor of the highest order, and only Kurt Vonnegut could deliver it with such pathos and wisdom.Who is Howard W. Campbell, Jr? Well, he was born in the US but moved to Germany as a young boy. He becomes a playwright as the Nazis grow in power in the 1930s. He is not interested in Nazi politics, just his work and his wife Helga, the star of all his plays. But the Nazi’s love his work and take him in. So he becomes a popular Nazi propagandist, an American demagogue who denounces the Jews and promotes the Aryan race. But things are not that simple. He has also been recruited to be a double-agent for the US War Department, hiding critical info in his vitriolic broadcasts against Jews, Blacks, Catholics and other enemies of the Third Reich. So it goes…When WWII ends, he is granted amnesty by his covert US contact, allowed to escape to NY and live a monastic but anonymous existence in a small attic in a run-down building. He befriends the painter downstairs, George Kraft, with whom he plays chess three times a day and keeps loneliness at bay. However, this drab existence is ruined when his cover is blown and the Reverend Doctor Lionel J.D. Jones, dentist, embalmer and white supremacist publisher of The White Christian Minuteman, comes to his apartment. Campbell is a hero to Nazi fascist supporters in the US, and Dr. Jones is ecstatic to discover this reluctant hero after so many years. He also brings with him a shocking surprise – Campbell’s wife Helga, missing in the Crimea and assumed dead or lost in a Russian gulag. Suddenly everyone wants a piece of Cambell, both supporters and enemies, even the German and Russian governments. The action converges in the basement of Dr. Jones, during a meeting of the Iron Guardsmen of the White Sons of the American Constitution. Everyone is arrested by G-men, but Campbell is released thanks to his covert spy work during the war.Faced with unwanted freedom and the loss of his only friends, he decides to turn himself over to the Israeli government to face trial for his war crimes. And this is where the story begins…Mother Night pulls no punches in demolishing our easy platitudes about morality. Is Campbell a war criminal? Or did his spywork absolve him of all his hate-filled propaganda? Is he just an artist caught in events beyond his control, trying to survive and devoted to his wife Helga, a self-professed Nation of Two? Just following orders to survive? Isn’t that the same excuse that every Nazi leader and soldier professed? Or for that matter all the collaborators who survived the war or benefited from it? Is it not justice to take revenge on such people?Vonnegut spells out the moral in the first sentence of the introduction:“We are who we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”He also has some pretty incisive comments throughout the book, and I was amazed to discover that almost everything I highlighted was also cited in Algernon’s excellent and superior review. Here are my favorite quotes:“Future civilizations – better civilizations than this one – are going to judge all men by the extent to which they’ve been artists…Nothing else about us will matter.”“We all cling to the wrong things, and we start clinging too late. I will tell you the one thing I really believe out of all the things there are to believe. All people are insane. They will do anything at any time, and God help anybody who looks for reasons.”“The people she saw as succeeding in a brave new world were, after all, being rewarded as specialists in slavery, destruction, and death. I don’t consider people who work in those fields successful.”“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 a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.”“I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings being so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me! Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”“As a friend of the court that will try Eichmann, I offer my opinion that Eichmann cannot distinguish between right and wrong – that not only right and wrong, but truth and falsehood, hope and despair, beauty and ugliness, kindness and cruelty, comedy and tragedy, are all processed by Eichmann’s mind indiscriminately, like birdshot through a bugle.”“My case is different. I always know when I tell a lie, am capable of imagining the cruel consequences of anybody’s believing my lies, know cruelty is wrong. I could no more lie without noticing it than I could unknowingly pass a kidney stone.”
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Wow.... wow. I am just not sure what to make of this book. As a jew who still cannot think hard about the holocaust without tearing up, part of me found this book offensive. But then the literary soul in me appreciates it for its twisted view. And I do appreciate that all in all, this book is a commentary about war and more specifically, about human nature as related to war. I probably would never have picked up a book written from the point of view of a nazi (albeit an american spy-nazi). I have to admit, when I reached the end of chapter 44 when the old holocaust survivor speaks to the protagonist, I had to put the book down because of the sudden sick feeling I had in my stomach, and the knot in my throat. But then as I put the book down, I appreciated the parallel between the protagonist (basically, a nazi/american spy who kept doing bad things because he was ordered to do so... and then continued on at this point in the story because he had no will left) and all the people who blindly and meekly lived and worked and walked to their deaths in the concentration camps. And that is when you realize that all agents of war are drones that just walk forward and do what they say... and that is his commentary on war. And then the part of me who loves that kind of irony, and its underlying message, could keep on reading.Vonnegut has a way of getting you into the mind of someone whom you might not identify with. And of course, I did not identify with this man. But by the end of the book I really appreciated Vonnegut's voice, and the notion of "schizophrenia" - that someone can have two selves, the self who can be a spy doing "good" for his country, and the self that could be a nazi all along. And isn't that what people who willingly make war are like - they have a self that thinks they are doing good, that believes in their patriotism, and then the self that is willing to kill or help others kill to "do good". I love the way Vonnegut highlights hypocrisy.I love Vonnegut because he makes me think about things, and try to understand and make sense of things (even things I don't accept) that I would not normally think of. I just don't know if I can recommend this book to someone who is jewish or lost any family members in world war II. If there was a jew who could stomach this book and who still wants to walk away loving Vonnegut for his literary prowess, I suggest not reading the introduction. I also want to mention that I usually dislike war books, and tend to space out when Vonnegut starts describing battle, etc. but this book had very little of that and was more about life and inner thoughts of those in war (and after).
The only sane response to the great weight of sadness, which must come with any understanding of our species, is the sorrowful smile of your prose. Well said and a great reflection of his body of work!
Jason Koivu
I'm going to make an unpopular statement right now: This is the best of Kurt Vonnegut's novels. Okay Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five fans, fling your dung at me, I understand. The characters, setting, plot, all of it comes together in a well-wrapped tale in which a man fights the truth of his own identity under the pressing weight of the author's imposed moral law that states you are what you pretend to be. In Mother Night, the story of an American spy working undercover within Germany during WWII as a Nazi propagandist, Vonnegut intentionally portrays his main character with so much ambivalence that by the end you're not sure whether to root for or against him. Vonnegut's oft used theme, the struggle within, is at its strongest here where the main character is pitted against a real monster of an antagonist: the preponderance of evidence against himself. In other Vonnegut books I understand and sympathized with the self doubt his characters felt, but in some cases their struggles felt light to me. I should add that I read most of the author's works when I was a fresh-faced twenty year old with few cares in the world, so I don't think I understood his subject matter, that of the life-wearied, often middle-aged person whose accumulated weight of stress, daily concerns and self doubt brought on by crises endured through a life rife with experiences with horror, love, hate and, worst of all, ennui. So perhaps one day, maybe when I turn 50, I will reread Player Piano and it will rocket from my least favorite to most favorite of all of Kurt Vonnegut's wonderful novels, but for right now Mother Night stays there.
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