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Mother Night | [Kurt Vonnegut]

Mother Night

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, Kurt Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of grey with a verdict that will haunt us all. Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense.
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Publisher's Summary

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, Kurt Vonnegut turns black and white into a chilling shade of grey with a verdict that will haunt us all. Mother Night is a daring challenge to our moral sense.

As an added bonus, when you purchase any of our Audible Modern Vanguard productions of Kurt Vonnegut's books, you'll also get an exclusive Jim Atlas interview added to your library.

This production is part of our Audible Modern Vanguard line, a collection of important works from groundbreaking authors.

©1966 Kurt Vonnegut; (P)2008 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"Vonnegut is George Orwell, Dr. Caligari, and Flash Gordon compounded into one writer...a zany but moral mad scientist." (Time)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.6 (8 )
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  •  
    Melinda UT 06-01-13
    Melinda UT 06-01-13 Member Since 2009

    So hooked by audio that I have to read books aloud. *If my reviews help, please let me know.

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    "The Moral of the Story"

    My sister, a librarian and crazy mad Vonnegut fan (when he passed away she actually wrote the eulogy for her town's local newspaper), said to me when she suggested this book, that Mother Night is probably Vonnegut's most underappreciated novel, while Vonnegut himself considered it one of his best. His other personal favorites?: Slaughterhouse 5, and Cat's Cradle. She is a librarian with a PhD, so I don't argue literature with her. Having finally read this, I have to agree with my little sis, and say this is my second favorite Vonnegut book.

    He backs into this read, starting the story with the moral: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Howard Campbell proceeds to narrate his story from inside an Israeli jail cell, where he is about to be tried for war crimes, "I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination." The book examines moral ambiguity, and in true Vonnegut style, provokes the reader to a powerful, and emotional indictment against the crimes of complacency, apathy, and omission. Even from the antagonist himself we get a sense of ambiguity as we question his reliability; so apathetic about his own integrity, does anything he says have validity. Towards the ending of his story, and possibly his life, I had the sense that Howard finally looked into himself, called out for answers, and realized he heard only empty echoes--the loneliness is painful and devastating.

    Vonnegut's hallmark nonchalance appears, but as the sinister version of nonchalance, and his usual gallows humor seems to question whether it is too dark to allow any brevity. So what is there to enjoy in a story that I have described as so bleak? The answer is the magic of Vonnegut's writing -- to feel yourself respond to the quiet evil you experience in this story -- it is hearing your own conscience speaking back to you, affirming your integrity as Vonnegut intends. This may be his most contemplative book--it will definitely exercise your own morality, even leave you with a little after-burn. "All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing"... *so it goes,* ...always. Top rate production, as is always my experience with the Audible Vanguard series. You may not love this like S5 or CC, but it is a must for fans of Vonnegut.

    52 of 54 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 12-26-13
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 12-26-13 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "The mask that consumes"

    Out of the Kurt Vonnegut works I've read, Mother Night is the least off-the-wall, but it still has his signature mix of dark humor, absurdity, and sweet, sad reflection on the human condition. The protagonist, Howard C. Campbell, now awaiting trial in an Israeli jail (in 1961), is a former playwright who lived in Germany and was recruited as an agent for the United States shortly before WWII. To fulfill this role, he had to become a perfect Nazi, churning out the most vile sort of propaganda by radio, while also transmitting coded messages for the Allies.

    After the war, his only reward was to be quietly released in NYC, there to start his life over. But soon, his past began to catch up with him, first in the form of a few right-wing nutcases who still have every reason to think that Campbell is one of their own, and are his only real friends. Well, them and the Soviet agent down the hall, who has his own ulterior motives, yet is still a friend in his way.

    This is a short book with a fairly simple plot, but there's plenty of classic Vonnegut irony and moral pondering. Who is Campbell, really? The more he tells us of himself, the more we see a man who is a consummate actor, fooling everyone who was ever a significant part of his life. Does his service to his country really offset the war crimes he was party to in his assumed role? *Was* he really doing it for his country? Does his excuse really excuse him, or condemn him even more? Does his love for his German wife, who never knew that he was an American agent, lose its meaning? Is a life like this still worth living?

    They’re chilling questions, and Campbell’s friendly, nonchalant way of posing them sneaks them under your skin. The other characters we meet are rich in their own ironies: a “black fuhrer” now allied with a white supremacist, a Jew that joined the SS to escape detection (and can’t stop bragging about what a good SS man he made), and a former GI who had his fifteen minutes of fame in the war and is now a loser driving an ice cream truck, who sees his persecution of Campbell as the one thing giving his life meaning.

    Not the only Vonnegut you should read, but certainly a powerful soul-punch of a book.

    6 of 6 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Alexandria Milton New York 12-27-13
    Alexandria Milton New York 12-27-13 Member Since 2012

    Alexandria

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    "A murky shade of grey"

    “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.”

    In "Mother Night," Vonnegut takes the mother of all black and white scenarios - an accused Nazi on trial in Israel for war crimes against humanity - and adds levels of complexity and nuance until it is a very murky shade of grey. Howard W. Campbell, Jr. is an American actor living in war-time Germany when he is recruited by the CIA as an American spy. He becomes a radio broadcaster, a propogandist for the SS, helping to fan the flames of hatred and unrest. Within his broadcasts, he includes coded messages to American intelligence. But he becomes so effective in his position, plays his role so well, that it soon becomes unclear which side he's on. Campbell himself is taken aback by his own success in Germany and amongst the Nazis, for (as the quote above illustrates) he layered it on so thick in his broadcasts that he never thought such vile would ever be taken seriously by society, let alone swallowed and digested whole. After the war ends, the CIA refuses to acknowledge their relationship with him for fear of aligning themselves with such a notorious Nazi war criminal, while all the time he had been following their directives, sacrificing his whole self - life, reputation, career, marriage - for a sense of moral patriotism, rather than patriotism connected to country, which he wholly rejected.

    “You hate America, don't you?'
    "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.”

    This book takes a close, questioning look at moral culpability, individual reasoning, and personal responsibility. What is the nature of his guilt, if any, both in the eyes of society and in his own conscience? What is the responsibility of society towards the individual? What are the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions, and does our righteous reasoning make them justified? This slim story raises many questions with no easy answers. It is brilliant.

    4 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lloyd Inver Grove Heights, MN, United States 01-14-14
    Lloyd Inver Grove Heights, MN, United States 01-14-14 Member Since 2007
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    "Does not include Introduction or Editor's Note"
    Any additional comments?

    "Mother Night" is my favorite Vonnegut book. Although characterized as "Unabridged," this performance does not include Vonnegut's introduction to the novel or the prefatory section labeled "Editor's Note." I think this is extremely unfortunate (hence my lukewarm overall rating). The introduction is the source of my favorite Vonnegut quote ("We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be"). It was also, when I read the book about 35 years ago, how I first became aware of the Allies' deplorable destruction of Dresden during World War II.

    Excluding the Editor's Note doesn't make sense because it is clearly part of the story, introducing the conceit that Vonnegut is just the editor responsible for preparing the "American edition" of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.'s "confessions." The Note also closes with another favorite quote: "This book is rededicated to Howard W. Campbell, Jr., a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
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