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A Series of Accidents #3: Mother Night



A Series of Accidents is a series examining the books of Kurt Vonnegut. You can read the previous entry, on The Sirens of Titan, here.

Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s first great novel. It is also, not coincidentally, the first novel in which he dealt with the greatest trauma of his life: his experience of World War II. Perhaps his war experience influenced the farcical and suicidal Martian invasion in The Sirens of Titans, but here the abstracting layer of science fiction is removed. It would still take Vonnegut a little while to get to the more autobiographical Slaughterhouse-Five, but here we begin to see his major themes – the absurdity of life, the power of fiction, and the impossibility of morality – applied to a real-life situation.

The novel concerns the fictitious life of Howard Campbell, an American who served as a Nazi propagandist during World War II. Campbell was, beknownst only to him and three people in the American government, actually working as an agent for the Allies, layering coded messages into his radio broadcasts. The novel’s thematic crux is the question of whether this covert action outweighed the evil of broadcasting hatred and inciting violence. The answer that both Vonnegut and Campbell himself ultimately settle on is that it doesn’t and that, as Vonnegut says in the introduction, “We become what we pretend to be.”

The novel’s plot takes place largely in New York fifteen years after the war, where Campbell is living under an assumed identity. He receives a letter in the mail from someone who claims to know what he did during the war, which starts a chain of events that involves him being pursued by Communist agents, the Israeli military, a former soldier bent on revenge, and white-supremacist devotees of his writing. It’s a kind of picaresque novel, with the protagonist being moved from one absurd situation to another, and each incident providing a different slant on Campbell’s central moral dilemma.

Vonnegut’s fictional Nazi on the lam was clearly inspired by the real-world case of Adolf Eichmann, a former Nazi bureaucrat involved in the death camps who was tracked down by Mossad and was the object of a widely-publicized trial in Israel in 1959. For the Israeli state, the trial and subsequent execution of Eichmann (the only man sentenced to death in the country’s history) was a kind of symbolic rebuke to the Holocaust, showing that the new state had provided Jews the ability of fight back against their greatest oppressors. For the rest of the world, it was a way to finally lay to waste the spectre of Nazism.

Postwar philosophers and intellecutals took a different lesson from Eichmann. Hannah Arendt was struck by the man’s seeming lack of moral comprehension about the horrific crimes he had aided in. In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she coined the term “banality of evil” to describe the kind of bureaucratic disinterest with which he orchestrated the massacre of millions. Vonnegut takes more or less the same tact in Mother Night: he argues that the Nazis were defined not by some kind of inhuman bloodlust or megalomania, but rather by their ordinariness. As Campbell notes of his fellow party members: “They were people. Only in retrospect can I think of them as trailing slime behind.”

Like Arendt, Vonnegut argues that this banality is easy to slip into, that it requires not an evil will but simply a lack of focus. Campbell bluntly confesses to us that “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. So it goes.” This is, of course, a common moral self-examination, the question of what one would do had one been a German in the 30s and 40s. I’ve never felt confident enough in myself to say that I would have been a heroic resister, and I don’t think Vonnegut was easier.

Mother Night goes further to suggest that it is Campbell’s most endearing qualities – his commitment to pursuing his own art, his fanatical love of his wife – that lead him to passively abet evil. Campbell and his wife Helga form a “nation of two”, and ignore the nation of millions descending into fascism around them. He sees his propaganda work as a way of continuing his artistry: “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 any harm in it.” Again, it’s not hard to imagine this as self-suspicion on the part of Vonnegut, who couldn’t even claim loyalty to his family over art.

At times, Vonnegut seems to take pleasure in having his characters describe World War II in morally indifferent terms. There’s an element of taboo-breaking in discussing the conflict, so overladen with moral overtones. Vonnegut never entertains the concept that the Nazis may have been right, but he finds it very important that they believed they were right, and wants to investigate the ways in which they came to think so. Many characters think back on their wartime actions with cosmic indifference: one says that Campbell is the only man he knows with a bad conscience about the war, regardless of side, while his sister-in-law and later lover Resi Noth bitterly notes that “A really bad conscience is as much out of my reach as a mink coat.”

It is precisely this approach, this prodding subversion of moral ideas, which resulted in Vonnegut being labelled a postmodernist.

I spent the better part of a decade in academia studying postmodern theory, and yet I still hesitate to try and define it. At its most basic, postmodernism is a skepticism towards what are broadly called master narratives, ways of seeing the world which present one story or lens as the key to everything. Such narratives range from Christianity to communism to scientific positivism. In their place, postmodernism tends to believe in a master anti-narrative – that the world, or at least the world as we perceive it, is determined by language and interlocking narrative systems.

There are certainly elements of postmodernism in Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan, but Mother Night seems like a neat origin story for Vonnegut’s involvement in this literary movement. Campbell’s faith in art and his own morality is destroyed by the devastation of World War II – and this was also true of literary modernism (the movement which postmodernism is, well, post-.) The modernists believed that truth could be found by delving into the human psyche, but they were also attracted to totalizing, futuristic political visions ranging from fascism to FDR’s New Deal. The carnage of the war showed that such visions ultimately created a level of bloodshed never seen before or since.

If all of the grand systems and inner truths had lead to war, the postmodernists believed that the only response was to reject such truths and admit the instability of reality and the absurdity of looking for meaning. They came to see the world as made up not of concrete, observable objects, but of stories and narratives. Early postmodern writers like William Gaddis, John Barth and Vladimir Nabokov (more on him lately) were beginning to write fiction that didn’t purport to describe any imaginable reality, but rather an endless cascade of stories.

(All of this is vastly oversimplified but hey, this isn’t a dissertation.)

Campbell is, as far as I can tell, a modernist. He’s obsessed with inner states of mind, and the one creative work of his which is described in any detail (Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova) takes place entirely within the narrator’s mind. Player Piano is, then, an indictment of modernism and its introspection that shuts out te world and allows evil to propagate. Instead, postmodernism is concerned with surfaces and narratives. As one of Vonnegut’s characters says, “All people are insane. They will do anything at any time, and god help anyone who looks for reasons.”

Vonnegut writes in the introduction to Mother Night that “this is the only story of mine whose moral I know”, and that moral is “We become what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” This is a particularly postmodern perspective: the image does not conceal an inner truth, but rather overwrites it. As Campbell travels, he encounters Nazis and other bigots who say that they were inspired by his disingenuous propaganda, that it kept them fighting for white supremacy when they would have otherwise given up. One tells him “you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us.” Campbell’s inner intentions, then, are irrelevant compared to the image he created.

The novel is full of such transformations and revelations. When Campbell is reunited with his beloved wife Helga, he later learns that she is actually Helga’s younger sister Resi – but it doesn’t matter, of course. Everyone has their own secret identity and motives, but they never transcend the images they project. Campbell notes the impossibility of irony in such a world: -“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.”

This is not purely an indictment of the Germans. Vonnegut suggests that the same tendency to totalitarianism and self-deception exists in America. This is perhaps best embodied by Bernard V. O’Hare, a soldier who sees himself as a heroic vigilante figure trying to capture the evil Campbell, but who ultimately plays the fool. Vonnegut depicts Hitler and Goebbels enjoying the Gettysburg address, describing it as the type of rhetoric they want. The grammar of violence, Vonnegut suggests, is universal and doesn’t particularly care what ends you put it towards.

Perhaps the best-remembered postmodern novel from this period was Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Published in 1955, Lolita quickly became both a bestseller and a topic of conversation because of its controversial depiction of pedophilia. But rather than being a salacious potboiler, the actual text of Lolita is a stylistic tour-de-force which is as much about America and the nature of truth as it is child abuse.

I don’t know if Vonnegut read Lolita, but being a person involved in literature in the late 1950s it’s difficult to see how he would have avoided it. In terms of style, background and thematic interest, Vonnegut and Nabokov were worlds apart, but there are a lot of interesting similarities between Lolita and Mother Night. In some ways, it feels like Vonnegut was translating Nabokov’s novel into a version concerned with his own preoccupations. Even if there was no direct influence, it seems clear that this particular moment in American culture lead these two very different authors to a similar place.

Both Lolita and Mother Night take the form of a first-person narrative “written” by a man who is accused of unthinkable crimes, with the frame narrative of awaiting trial and execution. Both involve a semicomic tour of an exaggerated America. Both provide an introduction in which the actual author poses as a publisher or interpreter of the text (a device going back to Defoe and the birth of the English novel.) Interestingly, in both cases this was later deemed insufficient and complemented with a foreword that further distinguishes the author’s perspective from that of the narrator.

In the case of Lolita, this double-introduction is understandable given the controversy the novel engendered upon release. But there was no similar controversy around Mother Night – the book was little remarked-upon and sold poorly. I think, instead, that the redundancy of the introductory material is in both books a case of protesting too much. As anyone who’s read Ada can tell you, Nabokov probably did have some weird sexual hang-ups involving children (although he was far from the murdering and raping Humbert Humbert.) And as for Vonnegut, there were enough facts in the public record that an antagonistic reporter or columnist could unfairly label him a Nazi sympathizer.

Vonnegut grew up in a German-American family, and that hyphen was especially torturous in the first half of the 20th century. Anyone with a German last name was stigmatized during World War I, viewed as part of a potential fifth column. Towns with German names were rechristened something more patriotic, and sauerkraut was marketed as “liberty cabbage.” The Vonnegut family’s fall from wealth during this period was largely unrelated to this discrimination, but it can’t have helped, and the family may have felt under attack.

During his college years at Cornell, Kurt Vonnegut wrote editorials for the college paper arguing against becoming involved in the war overseas. His arguments largely came from the anti-interventionist rhetoric that dominated the more right-wing faction of the mid-century Republicans. Despite the apparent universalism of his argument, Vonnegut’s classmates accused him of sympathy for the Nazis. Once war broke out, however, Vonnegut voluntarily enlisted, and was sent to the front to fight people who may have been his cousins.

Twenty years later, Vonnegut wrote with decidedly more liberal politics, but his use of the Dresden bombings – a crime committed by Allies against Nazi Germany – as the symbol of the horrors of war could certainly be read uncharitably. To this day, the front that Vonnegut fought on is still used as the signal example of why war and violence are sometimes necessary. I’ve seen it argued by antifa types that the horrors of Dresden were exaggerated and used as Nazi propaganda, and should not be discussed by good-thinking people. So perhaps, by distancing himself from Campbell as much as possible, Vonnegut was hoping to head such accusations off at the pass. (If so, he needn’t have bothered, as nobody initially cared enough about his book to hate it.)

Both Howard Campbell and Humbert Humbert are worth reviling, no matter how much they try to charm us with their literary erudition. But, the broader points that bot texts make is not just that their protagonists are unsympathetic, but rather that they are unknowable. We only have their own words to go on, and they’re self-confessed liars. It’s entirely possible that Howard Campbell’s story of sending secret messages to the Americans is a falsehood, another trick from an unrepentant propagandist. Perhaps the tragic death he consigns himself to is meant to be grist for the white nationalist mill.

This narrative unreliability would become a hallmark of postmodern fiction, and certainly that of Vonnegut’s. As scholar Jerome Klinkowitz points out, Campbell’s error is that he believes in a unitary self. Like the modernists, he prioritizes the interior self and a concept of above-the-world artistry, and believes that the beauty of his mind is more important than the ugliness he puts into the world. Vonnegut makes the link between the horrors of World War II and the rise of postmodernism clear: as Adorno wrote, who could write poetry after Auschwitz?

Mother Night was adapted into a film in 1996, directed by Keith Gordon. A thirty-six year gap between book and film is unusual, but fits with Vonnegut’s late reception. Maybe the film was an attempt to cash in on the trend of Holocaust movies released in the wake of Schindler’s List. If it was, the material was misjudged: Vonnegut’s cynical, morally ambiguous story didn’t leave much of an impact with critics or audiences.

The film features a quintessential misbegotten 90s drama cast, including Nick Nolte in the lead, sparse appearances by John Goodman, and an adolescent Kirsten Dunst as the young Resi Noth. Vonnegut briefly appears as “Sad Man on Street”, which may be the perfect role for him.

Nolte’s performance is entirely unlike how I imagined Campbell. I had thought of him as a prim, reserved German, but Nolte’s version is a disheveled would-be-bohemian with a smoky voice. He comes off like a late-night radio DJ, and makes it clear how . If there’s a reason to watch the film, it’s Nolte’s performance and the interesting choices he makes.

Like other Vonnegut film adaptations, there’s a kind of literalism to Godon’s Mother Night that faithfully conveys all the plot elements of the book but somehow misses out on the tone and wonder of the prose. There are times, like the scene where Campbell receives a blowjob from Helga to the mixed soundtrack of tender music and a Hitler speech, that Gordon seems to grasp Vonnegut’s humour, but other scenes are entirely straight-laced.

The film even manages to convert Vonnegut’s shaggy dog story into a three-act structure, with roughly the first third of the movie covering Campbell’s life in Germany, the second (rather meandering) segment his time in New York, and the third his farcical flight away from and then towards Israeli captivity. It’s not a bad movie, exactly, but it ultimately falls a little flat.

The other problem of adapting a novel like Mother Night is that the ambiguities in a first-person narration get straightened out by the seemingly realist world of film. Gordon’s adaptation tries to add this uncertainty back in through the device of using black-and-white for the “present day” narrative of Campbell’s imprisonment in Israel and slick Hollywood colour for his autobiographical narrative. (It’s curious that black and white, the more antiquated and unreal-looking of colour schemes, is assumed to be more authentic, but like I said Schindler’s List had just come out.)

This is a nice formal device, but ultimately it still adds a level of certitiude to the narrative. In the book even Campbell’s description of his surroundings as he types are suspect – his conversations with Eichmann and his receipt of exculpatory evidence seem just as likely to be fabrications as anything else. The film also includes Campbell definitely committing suicide in his cell, while the novel’s ending retained at least a little bit of ambiguity. Maybe this is why Vonnegut was unsuccessful as a writer for stage and television: his ideas require the imaginative leap of prose fiction.

In the end, Howard W. Campbell is given every out, and turns them all down. He insists on his death, and whether it come from his own rope or an Israeli execution chamber is unimportant. He understands, as Vonnegut does, that the refuge of the mind is seductive but ultimately is out weighed by what one does in society.

It is always very lucrative to be a reactionary, particularly a reactionary who is educated enough to pass as a serious intellectual. Those who dedicate their intellectual efforts to supporting the ruling regime will always find their coffers full, their meals paid for, their voice broadcast far and wide. If they’re play-acting, so much the better: the people love drama.

The only problem is that one could wake up one day and find that one has abetted a world-historic act of heinous evil. Fortunately, we don’t have any racist and nationalist regimes around, and certainly not any channels full of snide spokesmen for such governments. Otherwise, it would be like America learned nothing at all from Mother Night.

Next month (fingers crossed), I’ll be writing about one of Vonnegut’s most famous novels, Cat’s Cradle.