Best known now by the 1996 Nick Nolte film of the same title, Mother Night (1961) is a dazzling narrative of false, shifting identity. The story tells of the odyssey of Howard Campbell, Jr., the book’s protagonist, and is a paradigm of shifting loyalties, ambiguous commitment, and tales of personal compromise. Campbell is an American emigre in Germany at the time of Hitler’s ascension; he is married to a German, his relations with the Nazi regime are excellent, and he agrees to spy for them and to become a broadcaster for the regime; but then, increasingly disaffected, Campbell becomes a double agent, then perhaps a triple agent, sending coded messages to the Allies.
fter the War, he is tried for war crimes but is exonerated. The novel is written in memoir format from the point of view of the exiled Campbell, who, indifferent to outcome, plots suicide.
Here is a moral tale without a moral, or perhaps, according to Vonnegut, a tale with several morals. Vonnegut, a science fiction writer in his early career, knew the science fiction community very well, and it is more or less accepted that the conflicted and indecipherable Howard Campbell is modeled upon John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910–1971), the great editor of Astounding and Analog whose decades long rightward drift led him to endorse George Wallace in 1968.