The only other cutting I have done is in Chapter Twenty-three, which is pornographic in the original. I would have considered myself honor-bound to present that chapter unbowdlerized, were it not for Campbell's request, right in the body of the text, that some editor perform the emasculation. (Editor's Note.10)
We're prepped early on—even before the story starts—to expect kissy times…but not too much, since Vonnegut has to insert ellipses at Campbell's request when things go beyond PG-13. Since Vonnegut is the real author, of course, he could totally have just written in the racy bits, but he wants to paint Campbell in a specific—maybe uptight, maybe self-conscious—light.
This moment is kind of a funny, meta tip-off that sex is going to be a thing in the novel, but Campbell doesn't need to make it "a thing", because he's calm, cool, and collected. Nothing to see here. No pornos or anything.
And, with nothing in my life making sense but love, what a student of geography I was! What a map I could draw for a tourist a micron high, a sub microscopic Wandervögel bicycling between a mole and a curly golden hair on either side of my Helga's belly button. If this image is in bad taste, God help me. Everybody is supposed to play games for mental health. I have simply described the game, an adult interpretation of 'This-Little-Piggy' that was ours. (10.15)
This is probably the steamiest moment we get in the novel. It's totally a lovers-chilling-in-a-garden-doing-what-lovers-do kind of scene. It's like: See. We had sex for reals because I know all about my wife's belly button. We get it, guy. You're all studied up on your anatomy exam.
Probably the most telling bit here is that sex-play was a key part in keeping Campbell mentally healthy. Helga and Campbell escaped into each other during the war, and that's what kept them going.
'All you need in this world to get writing again, writing better than ever before, is a woman.'
'A what?' I said. 'A woman,' he said. 'Where did you get this peculiar idea—' I said, 'from eating oysters? If you'll get one, I'll get one,' I said. 'How's that?' (12.15-18)
According to Kraft, sexual stimulation will help Campbell write again. We're not really talking about a saintly muse here: Kraft pretty much just thinks Campbell should get some. What leads him to this conclusion? Oysters, basically—a famous aphrodisiac.
Helga and I were finally left alone.
We were shy.
Being a man of fairly advanced years, so many of the years having been spent in celibacy, I was more than shy. I was afraid to test my strength as a lover. And the fear was amplified by the remarkable number of youthful characteristics my Helga had miraculously retained. (18.1-3)
So Campbell's just about to sleep with Helga again after many years of separation (or so he thinks), and it's now that we learn that the dude has been faithful to her and never slept with anyone else. Beyond the potentially sweet moment of a second "wedding night," we get a hint that Helga might not be Helga—but how could we know?
We're being set up for a shock even as Vonnegut gives us clues about Resi's identity. After all, Campbell knows Helga's body more than anything else about her. It's a sad day when he gets confused by "the magic" of her youth.
One of the things Helga had in her suitcase, as I've already said, was a book by me. It was a manuscript I had never intended that it be published. I regarded it as unpublishable except by pornographers. (23.1)
This is the second time Campbell refers to his sex life with Helga as porn. What makes it pornography? Just the fact that it's sex? That it's written down? That it could be read? That Campbell rereads it for his own pleasure?
It was called Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova. In it I told of my conquests of all the hundreds of women my wife, my Helga, had been. It was clinical, obsessed, some say, insane. It was a diary, recording day by day for the first two years of the war, our erotic life—to the exclusion of all else. There is not one word in it to indicate even the century or the continent of its origin. (23.2)
Sex trumps geography and nationalism in this little book. It also reshapes Helga's identity: she is more than simply one Helga; each night she is a different woman. This might be saying something about these lovers' propensity for role-play or for keeping things new. By giving Helga's body multiple identities, this carefully recorded sex life erases all of her identity. If she is everyone, she is no one. Or could it mean that Helga could be anything for Campbell because she meant everything to him? Or both?
Helga knew I kept the peculiar diary. I kept it as one of many devices for keeping our sexual pleasure keen. The book is not only a report of an experiment, but a part of the experiment it reports—a self-conscious experiment by a man and a woman to be endlessly fascinating to each other sexually—. (23.4)
Okay, so Campbell made a porno. Not just any porno, but a living document that both chronicles and enhances his sex life with Helga. He calls it an experiment, though. Curious. It's almost like they're both specimens in their own sex lab.
Maybe we're reading too much into this—hey, it's why we're here—but it kind of makes us think about the emphasis on reports, experiments, and scientific documentation prevalent during WWII. Remember all those creepy experiments the Nazis did? Maybe it's nothing. But maybe this is also supposed to walk the line between "Aw, he loves his wife," and "Ew, why is he taking 'clinical' notes?"
We had been apart for sixteen years. My first lust that night was in my fingertips. Other parts of me...that were contented later were contented in a ritual way, thoroughly, to...clinical perfection. (23.12)
Here's more of that "clinical" documentation, and it is not hot. We repeat: not hot. Like, what? You're having lusty times, and the way you write about it is super off-putting. In fact, we'd probably like to nominate Campbell for a bad sex in fiction award. Vonnegut probably would love that that's our reaction. He spends a lot of time poking fun at Campbell, after all.
'I don't know,' I said. I shook my head. 'What is this strange crime I've committed?'
'I'm the one who's committed the crime,' she said. 'I must have been crazy. When I escaped into West Berlin, when they gave me a form to fill out, asked me who I was, what I was—who I knew—'(24.12-13)
Campbell's worried he committed a crime, because sleeping with his sister-in-law feels kind of incest-y, even though by modern legal standards, he's in the clear. Resi recognizes, on the other hand, that by performing a bed trick, she's committed a crime: having sex with Campbell without his consent. It's not a healthy start to a new relationship.
'Memoirs of a Monogamous Casanova is a curious little chapter in Russian history,' said Wirtanen. 'It could hardly be published with official approval in Russia—and yet, it was such an attractive, strangely moral piece of pornography, so ideal for a nation suffering from shortages of everything but men and women, that presses in Budapest were somehow encouraged to start printing it—and those presses have, somehow, never been ordered to stop.' Wirtanen winked at me. (35.43)
Campbell's porno is a hit. Nobody knows it's his, because it was stolen and published in Russia, but it's still a hit. Plus, it's perfect state-sanctioned pornography, since all the sex that's fit to print is between a husband and a wife. Well, isn't that convenient? Spiciness level: mild.
'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.' (2.23-25)
Sometimes, when you betray someone, you also betray yourself. Gutman is haunted by his choice to volunteer as a corpse-carrier. He still can't wrap his mind around why he did it. By doing it, he hurt more than the collective effort of concentration camp prisoners to stay alive (which is bad enough already). He destroyed his ability to trust himself.
'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!'(3.13)
Arpad is an interesting character: while pretending to be an S.S. officer, he actually worked to help kill other Nazis. Nonetheless, many of his duties required him to be a Nazi in reality. When he criticizes Campbell here for what he thinks is his weak-sauce anti-Semitism, Arpad says he would have killed Campbell for being a traitor. Say what? Yeah, according to Arpad, Campbell wasn't pretending hard enough to be a Nazi, and that action makes him a traitor to Germany. Treason is complicated, folks.
I did not hang.
I committed high treason, crimes against humanity, and crimes against my own conscience, and I got away with them until now. (8.1-2)
You can be free of all charges, but you can't escape the verdict in your own head and heart. This entire novel exists not because Israel is putting Campbell on trial, but because Campbell has already tried himself and found himself guilty.
My wife never knew I was a spy. (10.1)
We're pretty sure not telling your wife that you're a spy is a betrayal. We're not saying Campbell did the wrong thing in lying. We're not saying there was a good alternative. We're just saying that he made a choice, and that choice was to be more loyal to spyhood than to Helga. Hard choice. Rough consequences.
My mother and father died. Some say they died of broken hearts. They died in their middle sixties, at any rate, when hearts break easily.
They did not live to see the end of the war, nor did they ever see their beamish boy again. They did not disinherit me, though they must have been bitterly tempted to do so. They bequeathed to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the notorious anti-Semite, turncoat and radio star, stocks, real estate, cash and personal property which were, in 1945, at the time of probate, worth forty-eight thousand dollars. (11.1-2)
Campbell observes that his parents never turned their back on him, even though they must have believed he was a traitor to the U.S.—and to them. He's also got the added guilt of thinking they died because of him and their "broken hearts." Ouch. This moment also provides an interesting contrast, because later we learn that Jones's parents totally disown him for being a Nazi sympathizer.
For a little while I lied to Kraft about who I was and what I'd done. But the friendship deepened so much, so fast, that I soon told him everything. (12.1)
We think that Campbell is tired of being a fibster and just wants a friend. Too bad he unburdens his soul to another spy. Hey, you live by the sword…
'It's so unjust!' he said. 'It makes me ashamed to be an American! Why can't the Government step forward and say, "Here! This man you've been spitting on is a hero!''' He was indignant, and, for all I know, he was sincere in his indignation. (12.2)
This moment is betrayer magic. Kraft is backstabbing Campbell, but here he's waxing poetic on the U.S. government's "betrayal" of Campbell by not clearing his name. The layers of deception are too perfect—and too depressing.
I didn't have any idea how Jones had found out about me.
Kraft claimed to be mystified, too. He wasn't really mystified. He had written to Jones as an anonymous fellow-patriot, telling him the glad news that I was alive. He had also asked that Jones send a complimentary copy of his great paper to Bernard B. O'Hare of the Francis X. Donovan Post of the American Legion. Kraft had plans for me. (14.4-6)
What makes Kraft's betrayal so insidious is that he and Campbell were friends for over a year before Campbell even revealed his identity. Kraft's first move after that? He decided to plan Campbell's downfall.
What's interesting here is that Kraft plots Campbell's downfall in a way that relies on the propaganda techniques Campbell was such an expert at. It's like the perfect punishment for Campbell.
'Your soul feels love now for my soul?' she said.
'Obviously,' I said.
'And you couldn't be deceived by that feeling?' she said. 'You couldn't be mistaken?'
'Not a chance,' I said.
'And nothing I could say could spoil it?' she said.
'Nothing,' I said.
'All right,' she said, 'I have something to say that I was afraid to say before. I'm not afraid to say it now.'
'Say away!' I said lightly.
'I'm not Helga,' she said. 'I'm her little sister Resi' (23.53-61)
Hear that? It's the sound of Campbell's heart crumbling to tiny bits. This is a massive blow, and what makes it so rough is the set-up. Resi builds up the conversation about love to ensure that Campbell will profess his devotion a bunch of times. Right when it seems like Campbell has invested enough and fully expressed his love for Helga, Resi crushes his reality. It'd be kind of beautiful if it weren't so demented.
'Why did you do this to me?' I said.
'Because I love you,' she said. (24.2-3)
We figured it was important to look at this moment, because we believe Resi. That's the truly scary part. She totally pretended to be her sister and went ahead and slept with Campbell because she loves him. It's not the unconditional love that Campbell felt from Helga; it's the selfish love that drives so many people in this novel. But there it is.
I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination. (1.2)
That pretty much sums it up. Every land is no-man's land to Campbell, since he's voluntarily a rogue citizen. He doesn't feel loyal to any nation. We guess working for the Nazis might do that to a person.
I was sitting alone on a park bench in the sunshine that day, thinking of a fourth play that was beginning to write itself in my mind. It gave itself a title, which was 'Das Reich der Zwei'—'Nation of Two.'
It was going to be about the love my wife and I had for each other. It was going to show how a pair of lovers in a world gone mad could survive by being loyal only to a nation composed of themselves—a nation of two. (9.5-6)
Campbell doesn't really care what country a person's birth certificate comes from; what matters to him is who you love. He loves Helga and just wants to live all day in their bed. Population of bed: 2. If patriotism were a religion (and to some people, like Hitler, it pretty much is), then this would be blasphemy. It's WWII, and WWII was a total war. Total war isn't about your happiness—it's about your sacrifice. We can see the appeal in Campbell's fantasy to stay in bed.
We were a very popular couple, gay and patriotic. People used to tell us that we cheered them up, made them want to go on. And Helga didn't go through the war simply looking decorative, either. She entertained the troops, often within the sound of enemy guns.
Enemy guns? Somebody's guns, anyway. (10.5-6)
Did you catch that? The moment when Campbell called Allied gunfire enemy gunfire? It's hard to keep your loyalties straight when you're doing covert ops. It's even harder when you think nations and borders are stupid—which Campbell does.
If we had listened for more, had thought about what we heard, what a nauseated couple we would have been. Away from the sovereign territory of our nation of two, we talked like the patriotic lunatics all around us. (10.19)
Campbell and Helga are just a crazy pair of lovebirds surrounded by crazy Nazi patriots. Everyone's mad in this story; it's just a matter of what your madness makes you do.
Only one thing counted —
The nation of two.
And when that nation ceased to be, I became what I am today and what I always will be, a stateless person. (10.20-23)
So, why exactly is Campbell so hell-bent on seeing himself as a stateless person? Like, we get it, but it's super interesting that he chooses to lose himself in love rather than, say, be secretly super patriotic toward the U.S.
We're not naïve. We get that he's seeing the horrors of ideology run amok first hand. But he's also getting a kick out of playing into that writing wacky propaganda.
Okay, we've got no concrete answers here, but we do want to say this: the state of Campbell's statelessness is a choice. He chose to make Helga his homeland, and he chose to always be stateless ever after. But does the world let you choose like that? Is it possible actually to be stateless?
The object of the weight was to give schoolchildren something to exercise with, in between classes. The ad pointed out that the physical fitness of American children was below that of the children of almost every land on earth. (12.31)
No self-respecting patriot would be content if his or her country were anything less than number one in the world in any category. Give those children weight training, are we right? How can America say it's number one if they're objectively ranked last?
Drawn crudely in the dust of three window-panes were a swastika, a hammer and sickle, and the Stars and Stripes. I had drawn the three symbols weeks before, at the conclusion of an argument about patriotism with Kraft. I had given a hearty cheer for each symbol, demonstrating to Kraft the meaning of patriotism to represent a Nazi, a Communist, and an American. 'Hooray, hooray, hooray.' I'd said. (16.18-19)
Three different symbols, three different ideals, and it all comes down to cheering. All three of these ideologies require you to go to a sporting area and chant. This is grim stuff. Vonnegut wants us to consider that if all three of these groups are willing to shovel their citizens onto a gruesome battlefield and then tell them that to die is to live forever, then maybe people need to reevaluate how their participation in society is playing out.
'Oh, it's just so damn cheap, so damn typical,' I said. 'This used to be a day in honor of the dead of World War One, but the living couldn't keep their grubby hands off of it, wanted the glory of the dead for themselves. So typical, so typical. Any time anything of real dignity appears in this country, it's torn to shreds and thrown to the mob.' (23.42)
Campbell says this when he finds out that the U.S. swapped out Armistice Day for Veterans Day. Why do the dead have more honor than the living, in Campbell's eyes? Does Campbell value the sacrifices of WWI more because his father had a WWI picture that he loved? Is it because changing the holiday erases the past? Lots of questions.
There are no easy answers, but we're a little surprised here. This is the first time Campbell reveals any kind of patriotic sentiment: he seems to care a lot about lives lost in the line of duty—a form of combat very different from his own participation in the war.
'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.' (23.43-44)
Looking at a map, it's easy to forget that humans made up the boundaries in the first place. Animals, plants, water, air, fire, disease—all these things travel without passports. Campbell never forgets this, so he doesn't privilege one nationality over another. The illusion of statehood isn't compelling to him, and you can't be a devout patriot if you keep the reality of physical geography in mind.
The Republic of Israel stepped up its demands for me, encouraged by rumors that I wasn't an American citizen, that I was, in fact, a citizen of nowhere. And the Republic's demands were framed so as to be educational, too—teaching that a propagandist of my sort was as much a murderer as Heydrich, Eichmann, Himmler, or any of the gruesome rest. (29.5)
Whether the boundaries are imaginary or not, belonging to a nation confers certain protections that being a "citizen of nowhere" does not. Campbell's statelessness makes him more vulnerable to punishment for crimes that occurred in the service of valuing nationalism too much and human life too little.
'New York City must be Heaven,' said Mengel.
'It might well be for you,' I said. 'It was hell for me—or not Hell, something worse than Hell.'
'What could be worse than Hell?' he said.
'Purgatory,' I said. (5.56-59)
In Catholicism, purgatory is both a holding cell and a training ground. It's the place you go when you weren't good enough to get into heaven but you weren't bad enough to get sent to hell. After purgatory, you may get up to heaven, you may actually get sent to hell, or you might just hang out forever. It's depends on your soul's journey and if you can work past your sins. For Campbell, his symbolic purgatory is a time and place to stew on his regrets and guilt. For fifteen years.
My Helga believed I meant the things I said about the races of man and the machines of history, and I was grateful. No matter what I was really, no matter what I really meant, uncritical love was what I needed—and my Helga was the angel who gave it to me. (10.10)
Helga's love is described as what's promised in Christianity as the unconditional love from God. Just as Helga replaced Campbell's statehood in their "nation of two," she also acts as his holy lover who gives of herself unquestioningly.
Reading against the grain, we already know that Helga and Campbell don't really talk about politics, and they both act like good little Nazis. We think Campbell might not want to look at the fact that Helga may really have believed in all the things he pretended to believe in. Too dark? Did we pull a Resi and ruin the memory of their love? Sorry not sorry.
There was one pleasant thing about my ratty attic: the back window of it overlooked a little private park, a little Eden formed by joined back yards. That park, that Eden, was walled off from the streets by houses on all sides.
It was big enough for children to play hide-and-seek in.
I often heard a cry from that little Eden, a child's cry that never failed to make me stop and listen. It was the sweetly mournful cry that meant a game of hide-and-seek was over, that those still hiding were to come out of hiding, that it was time to go home.
The cry was this: 'Olly-olly-ox-in-free.'
And I, hiding from many people who might want to hurt or kill me, often longed for someone to give that cry for me, to end my endless game of hide-and-seek with a sweet and mournful—
We start out here with an allusion to the Garden of Eden. It's fitting that kids are playing in it, since they're supposed to be innocent and good. If we extend the metaphor, Campbell is looking at Eden longingly from purgatory. It's a world he can't access, and he's forced to remain in gloomy hiding as a result of his actions.
And so, with my Helga presumed dead, I became a death-worshipper, as content as any narrow-minded religious nut anywhere. Always alone, I drank toasts to her, said good morning to her, said good night to her, played music for her, and didn't give a damn for one thing else. (11.13)
Religious individuals aren't painted in a positive light here—Campbell calls them "nuts"—but more than that, Campbell describes himself as a "death-worshipper." It's a prime inversion of professed Christian ideals, because Christ is worshiped in part for overcoming death. Campbell builds rituals around his loss that further mimic Christian ones (solitary toasts instead of communion, nightly prayers, and playing music for Helga in lieu of a choir singing).
That may be so. 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. (29.6-7)
Mother Night is a dark comedy. We know this. We kind of think Campbell even knows this. He wants to play up the macabre humor in being a successful Nazi while secretly being a U.S. agent. Trouble is, most people don't share this sense of humor; they don't always get exaggeration or sarcasm.
Worse, for a career propagandist who doesn't believe in what he's saying, the more ridiculous Campbell's stereotypes are, the more powerful they become for people hungry for hate speech. That's why blind faith—in anything—is so messed up for Campbell. You never know how far that kind of belief will carry some people—even to violent ends.
Campbell is basically saying that his audience should have seen that what he was saying was insane. The fact that they couldn't is an ugly truth.
If there is another me after this one, I would like very much, in the next one, to be the sort of person of whom it could truly be said, 'Forgive him—he knows not what he does.' (29.51)
This is totally a shout-out to Jesus. As he's being crucified, he asks God to forgive those responsible because they don't know any better. It takes a lot of self-possession, empathy, and patience to ask something like that for your murderers—but that's not what Campbell is going for here.
Campbell's flipping the script because he says his own conscience is too heavy, and what a relief it would be if he could be a deranged sort of person who believes his own lies. Campbell is asking for the pass he feels he isn't allowed to have, because he does know better: being a Nazi is bad, even if you're doing it for Uncle Sam.
'We were all going to be born anew,' she said to him brokenly. (37.88)
Resi says this to Kraft. Apparently, even though she's a spy, too, she believed that all three of them (Campbell, Kraft, and Resi) were going to escape and live in paradise. The words she uses, of course, are pretty spiritual. It's like she's invoking a baptism—but instead of a new life in God, she's thinking of a tropical vacay.
Both moments at those splintered stairheads under the open sky were exquisite.
The exquisiteness went on for only a short time, naturally, for, like any human family, we loved our nests and needed them. But, for a minute or two, anyway, Helga and I felt like Noah and his wife on Mount Ararat.
There is no better feeling than that. And then the air-raid sirens blew again, and we realized that we were ordinary people, without dove or covenant, and that the flood, far from being over, had scarcely begun. (42.6-9)
Talk about religious imagery—Campbell and Helga have advanced from their nation of two to being Noah and his wife. Repopulating the planet, part deux. Downside: they're not really Noah and his wife, so they have no promise from God that everything will be okay. In the end, they decide to walk away, because bombs.
That one-eyed teacher set her down on the bench, propped her against the wall. And then he went to the highest-ranking person present, a vice-admiral, as it happened. 'She's a woman...hysterical...they get hysterical...she doesn't mean it...she has the Golden Order of Parenthood...' he said to the vice-admiral.
The vice-admiral wasn't baffled or annoyed. He didn't feel miscast. With fine dignity, he gave the man absolution. It's all right,' he said. 'It's understandable. Don't worry.'
The teacher marveled at a system that could forgive weakness. 'Heil Hitler,' he said, bowing as he backed away.
'Heil Hitler,' said the vice-admiral. The teacher now began to revive his wife. He had good news for her—that she was forgiven, that everyone understood. (42.22-26)
Hoooo, okay this is heavy-duty stuff right here. This goes way beyond just saying you love God and country; this is giving priestly powers to Nazis.
Okay, let's pick this moment apart.
First off we've got a tired German family. Right before this moment, the wife prays to God, acknowledging what must be his anger, considering all these explosions (which must be a sign of his wrath). She's asking him to stop. Yeah, well, her husband whacks her upside the head to get her to stop. Not cool, bro.
Then we realize that this dude is actually terrified of the S.S. men. Turns out the S.S. dudes don't care, and what follows is an over-the-top spiritual encounter derisively recalled by Campbell.
It's insane and kind of gross that the S.S. men are felt to offer not only absolution (forgiveness), but also a benediction (blessing) for the woman's "sins." The "Heil Hitler" response takes the place of "Amen," and religiosity turns out to be a really scary parallel to Nazism.
O'Hare had a far more exciting view of what we were to each other. When drunk, at any rate, he thought of himself as St George and of me as the dragon. (43.13)
This is religious allegory on top of religious allegory. St. George's dragon was a stand-in for the Devil. Guess we know what that makes Campbell to O'Hare.
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. (3.2-3)
If you've ever talked about literature at a party—come on, we know you have—you know that people are pretty inclined to both praise and diss works of literature they haven't actually read. There are different reasons for that, but when your own opinions are so ingrained in your brain, sometimes it's hard to hear new things. That sounds like a dangerous way to go through life—not to mention a disservice to whatever it is you're supposed to be reading.
Hoess heard that I was a writer, and he got me to one side at the party, and he said he wished he could write.
'How I envy you creative people—' he said to me. 'Creativity is a gift from the gods.'
Hoess said he had some marvelous stories to tell. He said they were all true, but that people wouldn't be able to believe them. (5.2-4)
Calling a skill a gift kind of obscures the hard work that goes into it. We don't think that's actually what Hoess is getting at here; it's more like he's trying to understand why writing isn't a go for him. What we really want to pause on here, though, is the notion of unbelievable stories. This is a happy little meta moment, since Campbell is actually telling us a story we can't believe. And yet it's true.
'I saw the play you've got running now, and I've read the one you're going to open.'
'Oh?' I said. 'And what did you learn from those?'
He smiled. 'That you admire pure hearts and heroes,' he said. 'That you love good and hate evil' he said, 'and that you believe in romance.' (9.64-66)
According to Wirtanen, Campbell's easy to read. In fact, he's a hopeless romantic who's a sucker for a good story—Campbell's own stories told him so. Everyone's a literary critic.
His examination papers were quite probably the longest such papers ever written in the history of dental education, and probably the most irrelevant as well. They began, sanely enough, with whatever subject the examination required Jones to discuss. But, regardless of that subject, Jones managed to go from it to a theory that was all his own—that the teeth of Jews and Negroes proved beyond question that both groups were degenerate. (13.5)
Here's another instance when writing reveals too much of the inner soul of the writer. In this case, it's not a reader or viewer doing the interpretation; rather, it's the act of writing itself that drags the truth out of Jones. He's so filled with paranoid, obsessive hate, that he can't even hide it to save his degree. The more he writes, the more his gnarled beliefs come to life for him.
'Will you write a play for me some time?'
'I don't know if I can write any more,' I said.
'Didn't Helga inspire you to write?' she said.
'Not to write, but to write the way I wrote,' I said.
'You wrote a special way—so she could play the part,' she said. 'That's right,' I said. 'I wrote parts for Helga that let her be the quintessence of Helga onstage.'
'I want you to do that for me some time,' she said. (24.51-57)
Besides wanting everything Helga had, Resi recognizes the power of writing to make things real. Yes, real things are already real, but in this view, writing about real things makes them more real. That's what Resi wants Campbell to do for her. Why? Because his being able to do so would mean that he "gets" her—he really understands what makes her tick.
'When you get out of this country with your girl, get yourself new surroundings, a new identity, you'll start writing again,' he said, 'and you'll write ten times better than you ever did before. Think of the maturity you'll be bringing to your writing!' (28.22)
Writing, for Kraft, is apparently like a fine wine. Now that Campbell has aged, lived a full life, and is about to be free, he can really get going on his writing career. That's what Campbell is doing: writing to us about all he's learned from his jail cell.
Eichmann was writing the story of his life, just as I am now writing the story of my life. That chinless old plucked buzzard, with six million murders to explain away, gave me a saintly smile. He was sweetly interested in his work, in me, in the guards in the prison, in everybody. (29.27)
Eichmann shows up in this novel as a clueless, self-absorbed figure, and at this stage in his life, he's just playing the part of careful writer. He observes all those around him—probably because he's heard writing advice like "write what you know."
Yeah, when you're Adolf Eichmann, "what you know" is kind of vomit-inducing. But whatever.
The kicker? No amount of observation will turn Eichmann's writing into a self-reflexive act: he's not going to write until he suddenly sees what he's done and registers the weight of the deaths on his hands. It's just never gonna happen, because he's not capable of that kind of interiority. For Eichmann, writing is just another form of propaganda.
'You still write?' Eichmann asked me, there in Tel Aviv.
'One last project—' I said, 'a command performance for the archives.' (29.54-55)
Just as Campbell's radio broadcasts were a big phony show, his very important, heartfelt confessional is—wait. How can this also be a joke? Say it ain't so, Campbell, say it ain't so. Sigh. Well, this complicates things. It's getting to be that you can't take a dark, postmodern comedy completely sincerely anymore—oh, yeah. That. Teehee. Okay, so all writing is complicated, and this novel is no less so. We'll just leave it at that.
'We thought you'd kill yourself before the sun came up again.'
'I should have,' I said.
'I'm damn glad you didn't,' he said.
'I'm damn sorry I didn't,' I said. 'You would think that a man who's spent as much time in the theater as I have would know when the proper time came for the hero to die—if he was to be a hero.' I snapped my fingers softly. 'There goes the whole play about Helga and me, "Nation of Two,'' I said, 'because I missed my cue for the great suicide scene.'
'I don't admire suicide,' said Wirtanen.
'I admire form,' I said. 'I admire things with a beginning, a middle, an end—and, whenever possible, a moral, too.'
'There's a chance she's still alive, I guess,' said Wirtanen. 'A loose end,' I said. 'An irrelevancy. The play is over.' (32.29-36)
This mini-manifesto on writing makes it sound as if Campbell is invoking some serious rules thrown down by Aristotle on form and content. What's with all this beginning, middle, and end stuff? Why do we need a moral?
Is Vonnegut himself adhering to these rules? It doesn't feel like it, since Campbell's narrative jumps around a lot, even if the twists are perfectly timed. Then again, Vonnegut does play fast and loose with his casually obvious foreshadowing.
What's the moral we're going to take from this? That in his anger, Campbell has reduced the value of his and Helga's lives to a matter of entrances and exits onstage. Womp womp.
'It's a mutilation!' I said. 'The pictures are bound to mutilate the words. Those words weren't meant to have pictures with them! With pictures, they aren't the same words!' (36.3)
Someone is ticked. And that someone is Campbell. He's totally miffed that someone added pics to his sex book about Helga. First off: fair. This is definitely a violation of privacy. No doubt about that. Secondly, it's super interesting to think about the interplay between image and text. Here, the images undo the value of words. They make what was kinda sorta porn into some real nasty Nazi porn (disguised as not porn, of course, because Nazis aren't supposed to be into porn). Yeah, it's complicated.
It was dumb luck that brought us together. No conspiracy was involved at first. It was I who knocked on his door, invaded his privacy. If I hadn't carved that chess set, we never would have met. (11.23)
This story wouldn't be a story without Kraft's betrayal, and Campbell wouldn't have met Kraft if it weren't for the random urge to 1) carve a chess set, and 2) show it to someone. The mechanism of chance in this instance works through both creativity and the need to connect to another human. But doesn't that mean that there's something intentional about this meeting? Maybe the chance meeting is not so random after all?
I induced him to unlock them all by asking him if he played chess. There was dumb luck again. Nothing else would have made him open up. (11.25)
Coincidence alert. Of course, we don't really know if this is true. We're going along happily reading the novel, when this great moment comes. We're like, "Ooooooh—fated friendship." But if we step back, we can see that this could also just be the story Campbell tells himself. Why is he being so victim-blame-y towards himself? Weird.
'My name is Dr. Jones. I have a surprise for you,' he said. (14.24)
No joke: this sentence is super creepy in isolation. Okay, it's creepy in context, too. Campbell's life is about to get flipped upside down and turned inside out, because Jones is about to offer him a link to his past: Helga. Except—spoiler alert—it's not really Helga. You can't trust anyone or anything around here.
'No one knows everything,' he said. 'Did you know,' he said, 'that until almost this very moment nothing would have delighted me more than to prove that you were a spy, to see you shot?'
'No,' I said.
'And do you know why I don't care now if you were a spy or not?' he said. 'You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would go on talking calmly, just as we're talking now. I would let you wander off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?' he said.
'No,' I said.
'Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us,' he said. 'I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler—but from you.' He took my hand. 'You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.' (18.85-89)
Mr. Noth, sir? What? This is one of those wink-wink moments in campy comedies when we get an audience laugh track to show we're all in on this joke that Campbell is a spy, and nobody knows, even though they're getting this close to guessing. What we're getting here is a story-within-the-story, and a little bit of camp. Noth makes the above observation in order to drive home the fact that Campbell was too good of a Nazi.
Even if Noth were to feel a shred of guilt about what he's done, he's going to pass the buck and put the blame on Campbell's broadcasts. Campbell is happy to let him: he blames himself for it all, even though the truth is complicated.
The details of his death came to hand by chance, in a Greenwich Village barber shop. I was leafing through a girly magazine, admiring the way women were made, and awaiting my turn for a haircut. The story advertised on the magazine cover was 'Hang-women for the Hangman of Berlin.' There was no reason for me to suppose that the article was about my father-in-law. Hanging hadn't been his business. I turned to the article. (20.2)
One aspect of the unique coincidences we often find in postmodern novels is that everything in the wider world is seen to reflect, affect, or somehow connect to the inner, private world of the novels' main characters. Only in this scenario would a random photo in a magazine at a barber shop relate the intimate details of Campbell's life. But maybe that's actually how things work in reality?
Resi told me later what the last things the man said were, and what the present for me was in the shopping bag.
'I'm one guy who hasn't forgot that war,' he said to me, though I could not hear him. 'Everybody else has forgot it, as near as I can tell—but not me.
'I brought you this,' he said, 'so you could save everybody a lot of trouble.'
And he left. Resi put the noose in the ash can, where it was found the next morning by a garbage man named Lazlo Szombathy. Szombathy actually hanged himself with it—but that is another story. (26.35-39)
This moment is beyond bizarre. We're not 100% certain we're supposed to look too closely at it, though. Here's our official take: what we're getting here is postmodern absurdism, though it still carries some weight, because Campbell actually is inadvertently responsible for another person's death.
'I found out she was missing the same day you did,' he said.
'How?' I said.
'From you,' he said. 'That was one of the pieces of information you broadcast that night.'
This news, that I had broadcast the coded announcement of my Helga's disappearance, broadcast it without even knowing what I was doing, somehow upset me more than anything in the whole adventure. It upsets me even now. Why, I don't know.
It represented, I suppose, a wider separation of my several selves than even I can bear to think about.
At that climactic moment in my life, when I had to suppose that my Helga was dead, I would have liked to mourn as an agonized soul, indivisible. But no. One part of me told the world of the tragedy in code. The rest of me did not even know that the announcement was being made. (32.20-25)
This is a spy's worst nightmare. We think. We're not spies. As far as you know, anyway, and we can't tell you one way or another for certain, so stop asking.
Anyway, this moment is pretty messed up. The notion of Campbell being two people at once is worth a pause. See, for the most part, he's in charge of this double life. He is the spy, he is the Campbell people see. All of a sudden, thought, he's strangely aware that he's no longer in charge. Actually, it dawns on him he never had control over his spy-self.
If his spy-self is fake, and his fake-self is fake, where is the real Campbell? Oh, yeah: he said that guy disappeared when Helga died. He was only real when he was in love, and living in that private country, population two.
'"This thing's been a building over the years," I told 'em,' said O'Hare. '"It's in the stars—" I told 'em, "in the stars that Howard Campbell and me meet again after all these years." Don't you feel that way?' he asked me.
'What way?' I said.
'It's in the stars,' he said. 'We had to meet like this, right here in this very room, and neither one of us could have avoided it if we'd tried.'
'Possibly,' I said. 'Just when you think there Isn't any point to life—' he said, 'then, all of a sudden, you realize you are being aimed right straight at something.' (43.32-36)
Yeah, O'Hare really buys into this Romeo and Juliet kind of love. Hate. We mean hate. This speech isn't really about Campbell, though: O'Hare's claims to an epic battle between the two have more to do with his own dissatisfaction with life than with any real concern with Campbell's crimes. Seems like Vonnegut is trying to say blaming it on the stars feels pretty appealing when you've got nothing else really going for you.
I don't like this one but use it if nothing else comes up:
'When I heard you were alive, I knew it was something I had to do. There wasn't any way out' he said. 'It had to end like this.'
'I don't see why,' I said.
'Then, by God, I'll show you why,' he said. 'I'll show you, by God, I was born just to take you apart, right here and now.' (43.61-63)
O'Hare has travelled clear across the country in order to hunt Campbell down, all the while telling himself that it had to be this way. O'Hare could have, we don't know, just as easily not done any of this, right? He could have just hung out at home with his bazillions of kids and taken a nap. And yet he chooses to trek over to NYC on this mission. Is the problem that his life at home has no meaning? And now he's looking for it in any quest he can make up?
So here I am in Israel, of my own free will, though my cell is locked and my guards have guns. (45.1)
Surprise, surprise. We're going along reading this novel, expecting that Campbell's going to be caught at any moment, since he's writing from jail, when lo and behold, he turns himself in. Now, he does say it's of his own free will, but he's been living in hiding for so long that maybe he pulls an O'Hare and just decides that this is how it has to be.
'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.
'Leichentriiger 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. (2.17-22)
Sick. The ideological mindset that makes total war permissible is also the foundation for developing an entire institution designed to systematically kill millions of people. On top of that, the Nazis are trying to normalize the whole thing by setting horror to crooning music and sing-song orders. Nasty.
'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 recommendation. 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. (3.21-27)
Arpad's experience of WWII is unique. Like Campbell, he's a pretend Nazi. Unlike Campbell, he's a combat officer. Here', we're getting a peek at how Arpad would use his authority to kill other Nazis: he would say that they were being too friendly to Jews. Arpad is the actual mole the higher-ups are looking for, but he maneuvers things to protect himself and take out some S.S. men in the process.
He never told me what the book meant to him, and I never asked him. All he ever said to me about it was that it wasn't for children, that I wasn't to look at it.
So, of course, I looked at it every time I was left alone. There were pictures of men hung on barbed wire, mutilated women, bodies stacked like cord-wood—all the usual furniture of world wars. (7.4-5)
Campbell's first exposure to war is this text from his childhood. We have two takeaways from this snippet. This first is the harsh description of the ravages of war as "furniture." It's jarring, but it feels sadly true. The cruelty shouldn't be commonplace, but in war it is. The second is that Campbell sees this as a child, after his father says that it isn't for children. Why is this noteworthy? Because it reminds us that war and its traumas happen to children, too—even though it's not for them.
I got away with them because I was an American agent all through the war. My broadcasts carried coded information out of Germany.
The code was a matter of mannerisms, pauses, emphases, coughs, seeming stumbles in certain key sentences. Persons I never saw gave me my instructions, told me in which sentences of a broadcast the mannerisms were to appear. (8.3-4)
Not all warfare is about guns blazing and bombs dropping. This story focuses on participants like Campbell, whose involvement is less militant but no less real. Campbell's propaganda, whatever his reasons were for producing it, inspires nasty people to do nasty things.
'You made her happy,' he said.
'I hope so,' I said. 'That made me hate you more,' he said. 'Happiness has no place in war.' (18.79-81)
Harsh. But true? We're not sure. We do really like all those stories about finding a silver lining even in the darkest clouds, but we can see where Noth is going with this, and we're not on board.
'What does it mean?' said Helga.
'Maybe they declared war last night,' I said. She tightened her fingers on my arm convulsively.
'You don't really think so, do you?' she said. She thought it was possible. 'A joke,' I said. 'Some kind of holiday, obviously.' (23.25-28)
When you've survived WWII, it's really easy to believe that another huge war can start at any time. What's more disturbing is the notion that patriotic displays convince people that war is imminent, even if that's not necessarily the case. Propaganda does real damage, folks.
We saw a Veterans' Day parade down Fifth Avenue, and I heard Resi's laugh for the first time. It was nothing like Helga's laugh, which was a rustling thing. Resi's laugh was bright, melodious. What struck her so funny was the drum majorettes, kicking at the moon, twitching their behinds, and twirling chromium dildos. 'I've never seen such a thing before,' she said to me. 'War must be a very sexy thing to Americans.' (24.60-61)
This comment is actually a bigger zinger than it seems at first glance. Think about it: Vonnegut fought in WWII. Other than Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was basically untouched by warfare stateside. If war seems sexy to Americans at home who didn't participate in it, it's because they only got the see the parades, not the hangings, rapes, starvation, bombing, and gunfire. The scantily clad women kicking up a storm in a war pageant indicate that the population has no clue—or that it wants to forget—the real face of war.
Watching Kraft pop away at that target, I understood its popularity for the first time. The amateurishness of it made it look like something drawn on the wall of a public lavatory; it recalled the stink, diseased twilight, humid resonance, and vile privacy of a stall in a public lavatory—echoed exactly the soul's condition in a man at war. (28.10)
Did Campbell just compare the human soul in wartime to a poo-stained public restroom? He did. That observation accompanies his realization about why the target he designed using Jewish stereotypes was so successful. Why else would people be so on board if their souls hadn't been turned to toilets during the war?
Colonel Frank Wirtanen had the impudent pink-baby look that victory and an American combat uniform seemed to produce in so many older men.
He beamed at me and he shook my hand warmly, and he said, 'Well—what did you think of that war, Campbell?'
'I would just as soon have stayed out of it' I said.
'Congratulations,' he said. 'You lived through it, anyway. A lot of people didn't you know.'
'I know,' I said. 'My wife, for instance.' (32.14-18)
It takes all kinds to make warfare go 'round, and Wirtanen embodies the happy sort that thrives in war. Not that he's happy about the carnage, but he's the sort of man who fell out of a Currier and Ives painting and into an army uniform. He's the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed version of war.
It's a big enough job just burying the dead, without trying to draw a moral from each death,' he said. 'Half the dead don't even have names. I might have said you were a good soldier.' (32.41)
Don't go looking for morals in a postmodern novel, and don't go hunting for meaning in war. Really. It'll only hurt your heart. If you have to, though, think of it this way: this line could be a reminder that tending to the dead provides meaning enough.
'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. (3.8)
Propaganda messes with a lot of things. Most notably? Reality. It alters what we think we know of the past and what we're experiencing in the present, and that in turn meddles with the future. If individuals have a warped perception of reality, then their actions will adapt to that version of "truth," and a new reality can come about that's even more twisted.
I had a certain amount of skill as a dramatist, and Dr. Goebbels wanted me to use it. Dr. Goebbels wanted me to write a pageant honoring the German soldiers who had given their last full measure of devotion—who had died, that is—in putting down the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Dr. Goebbels had a dream of producing the pageant annually in Warsaw after the war, of letting the ruins of the ghetto stand forever as a setting for it. (5.8-9)
Here's an example of an instance when art is employed to intentionally alter historical memory and solidify a lie. If Campbell were to write a pageant commemorating the Germans, then future audiences who weren't there might really believe the Nazis weren't the bad guys.
Goebbels asked me where I'd gotten the working title, so I made a translation for him of the entire Gettysburg Address.
He read it, his lips moving all the time. 'You know,' he said to me, 'this is a very fine piece of propaganda. We are never as modern, as far ahead of the past as we like to think we are.' (5.20-21)
Poor Honest Abe. We're pretty sure this is Vonnegut rubbing it in that nothing is sacred, and anything can be used for insidious purposes. On the flipside, it could also be his reminder that maybe our own politicians—no matter how we've valorized them—may have their own skeletons hanging around.
'Howard—' he said to me, '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 archaeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter.' (12.9)
Kraft is espousing a popular belief that some people hold about civilization. For one thing, a lot of the time, all we have left of the past is art and artifacts. But if you ask Kraft, we tend to romanticize being human, because if all we are amounts to eating, sleeping, and pooping, then what's the point? Why are we even here? Why can we talk and sing and paint? We need meaning. History gives us meaning, and art gives us meaning, so we're going to go for those things, argues Kraft. That doesn't mean there actually is no meaning; it just means that we're susceptible to lots of kinds of meaning, good and bad, true and false.
And he was, at the very same time, doing a portrait of me that surely showed more sympathetic insight into me, more intuitive affection than could ever have been produced by a wish to fool a boob. (14.7)
Talk about wry and bitter humor. Campbell is sitting for a portrait—like one of the greats of history—and he's desperately trying to convince himself that this means that Kraft really knows him. Like really knows him in his heart of hearts. Everyone wants to be known, and Campbell's having a rough time over his friend being a spy. He's adamant, then, that Kraft's skill at painting him means that Kraft's affection is real.
On and on Helga spun her yarn, weaving a biography on the crazy loom of modern history. (16.20)
At first glance, Helga is telling us what happened to her after she was captured, and Campbell is weaving imagery around to make this small moment a part of "modern history." But this is fake history that Resi is telling. That makes Resi ("Helga") both a woman weaving fate and a liar "spinning a yarn" to beguile her listeners. But her loom is "modern history"—is that concept a lie, too? Mayhaps.
'Don't feel you have to thank them. They feel they owe you a debt of gratitude they'll never be able to repay.'
'For what?' I said. 'For having the courage to tell the truth during the war,' said Jones, 'when everybody else was telling lies.' (16.28-30)
This is just a perfect little bundle of gut-punching regret for Campbell. Background: Jones has returned Helga (Resi) to Campbell. Now he says everyone involved in that reunion thanks Campbell for being the bearer of truth. But all of what Campbell said in Germany was a lie. So, in a twist of misplaced gratitude—and to really pile on the guilt—Campbell has to accept thanks for the shameful act of messing with history and endangering millions of people.
The New York Times published a portrait of me as a much younger man, my official portrait as a Nazi and idol of the international airwaves. I can only guess at the year in which the picture was taken, 1941, I think.
Arndt Klopfer, the photographer who took the picture of me, did his best to make me look like a Maxfield Parrish Jesus covered with cold cream. He even gave me a halo, a judiciously placed spot of nebulous light in the background. The halo was no special effect for me alone. Everybody who went to Klopfer got a halo, including Adolf Eichmann. (29.22-23)
Talk about propaganda. This portrait paints Campbell and Eichmann as saints or holy martyrs or something. As far as creating an alternate narrative of history goes, this one's a whopper. It's convenient for convincing people casually flipping through the newspaper without their critical thinking caps on that Campbell might not be sooooo bad, but nothing about it is actually true.
'You think I was a Nazi?' I said.' Certainly you were,' he said. 'How else could a responsible historian classify you?" (32.71-72)
The question of responsibility is interesting here. The work of doing history requires a lot of care, honesty, and a sincere search for truth. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, history can elude us. For instance, Campbell's entire life is a lie, but the effects of his propaganda are far-reaching. By all accounts, he's a famous Nazi, so how else would he go down in history?
My story is told, and none too soon—for tomorrow my trial begins. The hare of history once more overtakes the tortoise of art. There will be no more time for writing. Adventuring I must go again. (45.2)
Correct us if we're wrong, but the tortoise is supposed to win the race because it takes the steady route while the speedy bunny naps, right? Okay, that's what we thought. So, while Campbell makes art the tortoise (the winner that will live on), history hops back to the starting line. It's an interesting notion that art can only function when history takes a nap. Too bad that's a lie, and history (life?) waits for no one.