Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Prongs - Fourth Review - Mother Night

Mother Night
Kurt Vonnegu
t, Jr.

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

Disclaimer: Let me start off by saying I am frankly appalled at myself for ignoring Vonnegut for this long. Honestly, there was just something about reading Slaughter House V when I was barely a teenager that just really turned me off to him. So instead of sucking it up and trying again, I simply ignored what is quite possibly one of the most influential writers of my generation. I should be stoned to death, by books...encyclopedias. I am so glad that not only have I given Kurt Vonnegut another chance, but I have also discovered a new favorite author along the way. Reading Mother Night was the perfect segue to ease myself back into this literary master, and I would actually recommend it to any first (or second) time offenders like myself. With that being said, onto the review, which might get quite lengthy so hang in there.

How long would you keep a secret to save your own life? How long would you keep that secret while thousands died at your expense? How long can you wear the mask of someone else before you truly become that person? These are just a few of the questions that Kurt Vonnegut tried to tackle in his third novel entitled Mother Night. In this novel, Vonnegut uses metafiction to detail the life of Howard Campbell, Jr., a supposed Nazi, as Howard writes down his final words from a prison cell in Jerusalem. Vonnegut goes to great lengths to try and make the memoir appear to be from a once living, breathing person; he even goes as far as to make an editor's note as if Vonnegut himself were merely the editor of Campbell's story, not the actual writer. In the editor's note Vonnegut states that Campbell took the title of the book from Faust:
" I am a part of the part that at first was all, part of the darkness that gave birth to light, that supercilious light which now disputes with Mother Night her ancient rank and space, and can not succeed; no matter how it struggles, it sticks to matter and can't get free."

This sets the tone for the novel, as Vonnegut
sinks himself further and further into the identity of a man who does not exist, except in the pages of a book and the mind of an author. As Howard Campbell begins to unfold his story through his memoir, we are given insight to an extremely complicated and remarkable individual. More importantly, Campbell is giving us a front row seat to the inner workings of the minds of corrupt men, and the paradox of their actions verses their beliefs.

Howard Campbell is a man of many faces. By reputation, Howard Campbell is a Nazi ... but not just that, he is the voice of hope and moral justification to a Holocaust Germany. To a very select n
umber of Americans, Campbell is an undercover spy, and one of the greatest American heroes of the war. To Howard Campbell, he is a simply an artist who cares nothing of politics and war, outside of the boundaries of the love he has for his wife and his writing. He merely lives his life from day to day, speaking as a Nazi figure head, while simultaneously giving key information against Germany into America's willing hands, both sides feeling an invisible hold over his true nature. He says of himself,
"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!" ... “And I did fool everybody. I began to strut like Hitler’s right-hand man, and nobody saw the honest me I hid so deep inside."
But what can a man be deep down inside, when his actions do not echo his beliefs? Can you be a monster and a martyr at the same time? After the death of his wife and the end of the war, these types of questions cease to matter to Campbell, as he spirals down into a 'stateless existence,' without any true purpose or reason for living apart from his sense of curiosity about the world. The different masks begin to merge as Howard hides himself away from the world in an old apartment in New York, the place he has fled to escape persecution for 'war crimes.' While in New York, Howard recalls certain friends and events that force him to re-evaluate what decisions he has made and the consequences of his actions. He starts to see in others' examples how a mind can ignore certain truths in order to protect the masks that people wear.

Vonnegut uses countless examples of this type of double-standard lifestyle, asking the reader to question their own facades as portrayed to others and the consequences of these portrayals. It is not all so serious, especially when Vonnegut uses his dry sarcastic comments to show the irony behind many of the situations. One such case is that of an Aryan soldier that is best friends with an African American, who just happens to believe in white-supremacy. Vonnegut's social commentary is electric and strong, and can have even the best literary nut's head reeling for days over the sheer complexity of his writing. To think that a man with little to no experience with any actual Nazis could write with such force and authority over his own mind, is just astounding. The only character that appears to be within full comprehension of his actions and his mind is Howard Campbell, and despite how wrong he knows his and others' actions are, Vonnegut cannot let Campbell bring himself to care.
"They (the Nazis) were people. Only in retrospect can I think of them as trailing slime behind. To be frank – I can’t think of them as doing that even now. I knew them too well as people, worked too hard in my time for their trust and applause. Too hard. Amen. Too hard."
Despite acknowledging for a moment the evil behind the people that he served, Howard realized that he had never really seen a fault at all, because the Nazis had given him more than they had taken away. There are multiple times throughout the novel that many of the characters will overlook an obvious flaw to protect some desperate attachment they have to the actions that they are committing. Could you do the same for a friend? How about a true love? Characters try frantically to cling to lies that they refuse to acknowledge exist, while others watch without batting an eye. Does knowing that someone partakes in evil acts make them evil or is it possible to overlook their flaws for your own selfish reasoning? In turn, does that make you evil?

There are a lot of questions that are asked of the reader, considering the book's length (roughly 200 pages). Vonnegut establishes himself as a master of the literary critique by planting all of these questions into a novel that holds its own in regards to a period-relevant plot and character development. Who is Howard Campbell to you? Is he a monstrous Nazi or an unsung hero? Or is he just a man who tried to live his life in the only way that he knew how: by wearing all the different masks that we expect others to wear? Vonnegut mixes enough fact with fiction to help the reader lose themselves in the idea of 'Howard Campbell.' Enough so to make them forget the personas they carry for brief amounts of time. He also makes them question: What would we really do in his situation and does it really all matter in the end?
"Three people in all the world knew me for what I was—" I said.
nd all the rest—" I shrugged.
"They knew you for what you were, too," Frank said abruptly.
And that my friends is the true purpose of literature. To make us question and to grow. 50 big thumbs up Mr. Vonnegut, I look forward to reading more of you.



  1. Oh Vonnegut. You witty, sonuvabitch, you.

  2. I haven't braved Vonnegut yet, but you've just made me add him to the word document "Read!" Thank you :]

  3. No thank you! Glad to hear that you enjoyed the review enough to add him to your list. Make sure you let us know what you thought after you eventually get around to him. I am thinking Cat's Cradle or Man with out a Country will be my next one by him.

  4. I recently read Cat's Cradle and loved it... the time for another Vonnegut novel may be approaching.

  5. Funny, I think for many people early teens is the best time to get into Vonnegut...though I actually didn't appreciate him until at least my late teens. And, actually, I read most of his books about twenty years ago and, while returning periodically to some, barely remember Mother Night at all (despite a vague feeling of familiarity while reading your review) but now I may just have to dig it out again....

  6. I am glad that you liked the review enough to dig it back up. My lack of enjoyment of Slaughter House probably had to do with the need to be rebellious against schools, so I felt that any thing they could possibly recommend had to be worthless. Silly kids. Books are for everyone!


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