Mother Night

( 76 )


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.

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Mother Night

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385334143
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 56,721
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s black humor, satiric voice, and incomparable imagination first captured America’s attention in The Sirens of Titan in 1959 and established him as “a true artist” (The New York Times) with Cat’s Cradle in 1963. He was, as Graham Greene declared, “one of the best living American writers.” Mr. Vonnegut passed away in April 2007.


Born in 1922, Vonnegut grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. His architect father suffered great financial setbacks during the Depression and was unemployed for long stretches of time. His mother suffered from mental illness and eventually committed suicide in 1944, a trauma that haunted Vonnegut all his life. He attended Cornell in the early 1940s, but quit in order to enlist in the Army during WWII.

Vonnegut was shipped to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was captured behind enemy lines and incarcerated in a German prison camp. As a POW, he witnessed the firebombing of Dresden by Allied forces, an event of devastating magnitude that left an indelible impression on the young soldier.

After the war, Vonnegut returned home and married his high school sweetheart. In addition to two daughters and a son of their own, he and his first wife adopted three children orphaned in 1958 by the death of Vonnegut's sister Alice. (He and his second wife adopted another daughter.) The family lived in Chicago and Schenectady before settling in Cape Cod, where Vonnegut began to concentrate seriously on his writing. His first novel, the darkly dystopian Player Piano, was published in 1952 and met with moderate success. Three additional novels followed (including the critically acclaimed Cat's Cradle), but it was not until the publication of 1969's Slaughterhouse Five that Vonnegut achieved true literary stardom. Based on the author's wartime experiences in Dresden, the novel resonated powerfully in the social upheaval of the Vietnam era.

Although he is best known for his novels (a genre-blending mix of social satire, science fiction, surrealism, and black comedy), Vonnegut also wrote short fiction, essays, and plays (the best known of which was Happy Birthday, Wanda June). In addition, he was a talented graphic artist who illustrated many of his books and exhibited sporadically during his literary career. He died on April 11, 2007, after suffering irreversible brain injuries as a result of a fall.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Kurt Vonnegut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 11, 1922
    2. Place of Birth:
      Indianapolis, Indiana
    1. Date of Death:
      April 11, 2007
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

Ancient history.

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.

Chapter Two

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."

Chapter Three

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.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 76 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 76 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2006


    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2001

    Vonnegut's Absolute Best!

    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!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2002

    Well Done

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2001

    Definitly a keeper!

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2014

    a solid read

    This story was a solid read. The flow of action and events keeps the pace up for the length of the entire story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2014


    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2012


    Classical Vonnegut and a must-read for his fans. Perfect blend of humor, tragedy and insight.

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  • Posted January 9, 2012

    Entertaining Story That Questions One's Morals

    In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut takes a break from time travel and other worlds. Instead, he tells the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. who worked as a US spy and as a Nazi propagandist during World War II. In his later years Campbell has lived a rather dull life, but his world is turned upside down when he is put on trial for war crimes. Vonnegut shows both sides of Campbell's earlier life and leaves it for the reader to decide if he is guilty or not.

    This is a book filled with thought provoking questions, but it also has a wonderful and easy to follow plot. Even if the reader is not digging deep into the themes, they will be entertained with Vonnegut's ability to tell a story.

    This is one of the best books I have read, and it shows a different side to Vonnegut. His fans will still love it, but it is a great read for anyone.

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  • Posted November 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Essential Vonnegut. Don't miss it.

    How did I manage to go so long without reading this novel? Why hasn't it received the same popular and critical praise as Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat's Cradle? There's no science fiction here. Just loads of humanity, war and regret. The story moves quickly and has lots of surprises and twists that never feel cheap, making it the perfect match for Vonnegut's direct and unadorned style of writing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2011

    A masterpiece to enjoy

    Thrilling twists and turns, a great realistic fiction novel. One of the unexpected great books, a mind-blowing book.

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  • Posted September 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Only two words.....

    THE MASTER!!!!
    Everything this man has written is absolutely fantastic. My favorite author, hands down. Rest in peace Mr. Vonnegut.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2005

    Outstanding book about ethics...

    Though written as a novel about an American's involvement in the Nazi Germany war machine, it is an incredibly good book about the individual's responsibility for his actions. The ending capped a flawless novel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 10, 2000

    True Vonnegut Classic

    The novel Mother Night is an outstanding look at the spy life of World War II. I had to read this book for a college composition class, and could not put it down. A rather suspenseful and entertaining novel for those who enjoy mystery and war.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 14, 2000

    Great, Addicting Story

    Kurt Vonnegut's 'Mother Night' was the first book I read in his large series. I can now honestly say, i'm hooked on his writing. The story was outstanding, I almost literaly could not put the book down. When I planned to read for an hour, turned into 2 or 3 hours. You can actually picture yourself in the story, right next to Howard. You'll be with him for every surprise, and every depression, you will feel what he feels.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2000

    'He could dance on the ground while he strangled' (MN 87).

    ...a single example among hundreds of dark and almost sick humor lines found in Kurt Vonnegut's 'Mother Night.' This magician of subliminal messaging continues to capture the human instinct to ponder new ideas, thoughts, and theories. In 'Mother Night,' the reader follows the life of an American playwright named Howard Campbell. Instead of implying any sort of bias judgment on him, Vonnegut demands the reader to draw his own conclusions and opinions. A truely stimulating novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 1999

    why i love kurt

    this book clinched it for me, the author is brilliant....i was haunted by the first twenty pages...then laughed while being haunted the rest of the book until the end when i had to stop everything to digest it all...vonnegut does what all great authors should do, makes you think, laugh, and hurt, and he does it seemingly without effort...easily my favorite book of his

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    Posted July 13, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 29, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

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