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Literature: Mother Night

Mother Night is a 1961 novel by Kurt Vonnegut that tells of the life of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an expatriate American who moved to Germany with his German wife shortly after World War One. Despite being an infamous Nazi radio personality and propagandist under Joseph Goebbels, Campbell is actually an author who writes sappy idealistic Medieval European Fantasy plays and spends all of his time obsessing over his wife; in actuality he has no interest in politics, the war, the Nazi movement, or anything besides his wife. However, he's also Double Agent under a minor division of the US and sends coded messages for reasons he doesn't even understand.note 

Continuing indifferently even following his beloved wife's death, Campbell soon finds the war over, and himself a war criminal. Left in New York by his recruiters without evidence to prove his innocence, Campbell spends two decades surprisingly happy in almost isolation with his only friend, George Kraft. This changes when a white supremacist newspaper, which publicizes Campbell's history and current life, makes his past and crimes resurface again, attracting the attention of Israel and a number of old enemies who want justice.

Made into a film directed by Keith Gordon (Back to School, The Chocolate War) and starring Nick Nolte in 1996. It's not bad, and quite faithful to the source material.

Tropes in this book include:

  • An Aesop: Vonnegut states in the introduction that this is his only story whose moral he knows: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." What you do is more important than what you believe. You are good or evil based on your acts, not whether or not you think you are good or evil. He was asked to become a Nazi by an American agent and the information he provided the Allies throughout the war was of great help. The aesop is illustrated when near the end of the war a Nazi friend tells him he knew the protagonist was a spy but never reported him because whatever damage he did as a spy would be more than offset by the help he was giving the Nazis in his cover role. Obviously, that would bother any anti-Nazi person, which he was.
    • At the end of the introduction, Vonnegut adds two further morals: "When you're dead you're dead." and "Make love when you can. It's good for you."
  • Author On Board: Campbell, mostly neutral and silent on American politics and society, suddenly bursts out with revulsion at the conversion of Armistice Day to Veterans' Day. Vonnegut, in Breakfast of Champions, made it quite clear that Campbell's reaction mirrors his own.
  • Becoming the Mask: While arguably the moral and the point of the story, since Campbell has no opinions or feelings on nearly anything, the disturbing conclusion is that there was nothing under the mask to begin with.
  • Bittersweet Ending: When Campbell is soon to be sentenced to death, he receives a letter from Wirtanen; in it, he goes against orders and vindicates Campbell of all blame. Campbell, however, decides freedom would be a less happy ending for a man who doesn't have a reason to live, and chooses execution anyway.
  • Black and Grey Morality
  • Broken Aesop: The intended Aesop seems to have been Becoming the Mask is bad, but the text seems to spell out that all of Campbell's problems stem from him refusing to care about anything other than his wife and maintaining his staunch neutrality in the face of everything that happens around him and to him.
  • Code Name: "Blue Fairy Godmother"
  • Crapsack World
  • Dead Person Impersonation Resi Noth pretends to be her sister, Helga.
  • Dedication: Campbell dedicated the book to Mata Hari, who "whored in the interest of espionage" like him. However, in a foreword, he writes that it should've been dedicated to someone less exotic and more contemporary. He ends up dedicating it to himself: "to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."
  • Dissonant Serenity: Campbell lived his entire life like this.
  • False Friend: Heinz, Campbell's best friend, was a member of the Jewish underground who hates him enough to testify against him. Also, Kraft and Resi are Communists (but the latter falls for Campbell instead).
  • Epigraph: A quote about patriotism from Walter Scott's poem "The Lay of the Last Minstrel":
    Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
    Who never to himself hath said,
    “This is my own, my native land!”
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d
    As home his footsteps he hath turn’d
    From wandering on a foreign strand?
  • For the Evulz: Inversion. Campbell becomes a spy, but possibly more because he found it entertaining than out of a sense of good or loyalty.
  • Goodbye, Cruel World!: Not exactly a suicide note, but sort of. In the last chapter, Campbell describes that he got a letter from Wirtanen which would absolve him, but he decides not to use it and allow himself to be hanged. He ends the book with these words: "Goodbye, cruel world! Auf wiedersehen?"
  • Anti-Heroic BSOD: At one point, Campbell realises that there is precisely nothing he can do that won't make his situation even worse, and so simply remains standing on a New York sidewalk for hours, not moving a muscle.
  • Humans Are Bastards
  • Lack of Empathy
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: There are two introductions - one by Vonnegut that speaks about the book plainly, another where Vonnegut speaks as the editor of Campbell's autobiography.
  • Mysterious Protector: Frank Wirtanen, the American who made Campbell a spy during the war, takes this role in Campbell's life after the war, showing up out of nowhere and helping him out of trouble. The only reason he fails is because Campbell doesn't care much about being saved.
  • Oh, and X Dies: We're told in the introduction that Resi Noth will die in Chapter 39.
  • Positive Discrimination: Averted. One of the people Campbell encounters is the Black Führer, who is an African American who sided with Japan during the war and dreams of dropping atomic bombs on anyone who isn't black or Japanese. Especially the damn Chinese! Who he considered white, because he doesn't like them.
  • Public Secret Message: This is how Campbell passes on information to the Americans. He's given a list of things they want him to find out about the Nazis, and after he finds them out he communicates the answer on his radio show by, say, coughing in the middle of a certain sentence if the answer is "yes" and not coughing if the answer is "no", or by using a certain word he wouldn't otherwise use, etc.
  • Reverse Mole: Campbell takes up this role during the war, secretly conveying messages for the American agents through his Nazi broadcasts. Whether or not he does so out of "goodness" however, is a different matter.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Campbell to Bernard B. O'Hare near the end, after Bernard's long rant about how Howard is pure evil, possibly even the devil. Campbell's response also serves as a rant against blind faith and radical hatred.
  • Smart People Play Chess: When Campbell first meets Kraft, the first thing they do is play a gentlemanly game of chess using pieces Campbell carved himself. Both are highly experienced players, and Campbell notes that he "was able to come up with enough intuitively interesting moves to give my new friend entertainment while he beat me."
  • Stealth Insult: Campbell has to deliver an eulogy for August Krapptauer, a neo-Nazi who died of a heart attack after carrying Camplbell's luggage. Campbell says something he believes: that "Krapptauer's sort of truth would probably be with mankind forever, as long as there were men and women around who listened to their hearts instead of their minds." The audience of neo-Nazis applauds him.
  • Stealth Parody: What Campbell hoped he would be, but he ran badly afoul of Poe's Law.
  • Strange Bedfellows: The alliance between American Nazi white supremacist Dr. Lionel Jones, "black Führer" Robert Sterling Wilson, and Catholic priest Father Patrick Keeley.
  • Suicide by Cop: What Campbell wanted when he turned himself over to the Israelis.
  • Suicide Is Painless: Despite a heartwarming letter from Wirtanen proving his innocence, Campbell accepts he still has nothing left to do with his life, and decides to hang for his crimes anyway.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: The premise of the book; Campbell, a deep-cover spy for the Allies, has been left with only his ruined reputation in New York city by the people he risked everything for.
  • True Neutral: Campbell, so much so it's explained In-Universe. He cares about his wife and their "Nation of Two", and no-one and nothing else.
  • Was It All a Lie?

Motherless BrooklynLit FicMy Name Is Red
Moscow - PetushkiLiterature of the 1960sThe Moviegoer

alternative title(s): Mother Night
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