Released a few years before ‘Slaughterhouse 5’, ‘Mother Knight’ is probably best seen as a companion piece to that work. In some ways a more conventional narrative, it tells in diary form the story of Howard W. Campbell Jr, an American, who moved to Germany in 1923 as a child, and became a well-known playwright. Married to a German woman, he is approached by an American shortly before the second world war starts, and asked to stay in Germany and become a spy for the American. This he does, reluctantly, because in order to maintain his cover he has to become an enthusiastic propagandist for the Nazis. As he observes “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” – pretending to be a Nazi for so long corrupts his soul, and he finds it hard to argue with or oppose the Americans he meets later in life who hate him, as a symbol and public face of the Nazis.
I don’t know if there was a real-life American equivalent of Campbell, but the obvious English parallel is with William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, who must surely have provided some inspiration for the novel, even if unlike Campbell, Joyce remained an unrepentant Nazi.
The reader is left in doubt throughout the novel whether his defence – that he was acting as a spy – is genuine. He presents no evidence in support of it, and the suggestion that he was conveying messages in his broadcasts through coughs and hesitations is implausible, to say the least. However, the final dénouement reveals his story – his defence – was actually true all along. By then it is too late for Campbell, having lost everything he values he passes his own sentence on himself.
Vonnegut is novelist of ideas – he throws them around casually, sometimes following them through, but often discarding them. This makes ‘Mother Knight’ a surprisingly easy and enjoyable read – the cast of characters was entertaining, including some cutting portraits of American Nazis, and the shifts of mood from comedy to black farce worked well. It’s also quite a brave novel – it addresses serious themes and topics such as the holocaust, the rise of fascism, and nationalism. The central character is perhaps hard to like – as narrator of his own story we should normally be sympathetic to him – we understand his motivation, even when what he does is questionable. Campbell never attempts to justify his actions in the war, but he is not prepare to accept some of the lazy condemnation thrown at him which has parallels with the way opponents of the Nazis were treated (the stealing of the light bulbs for example). Just to illustrate the point, there is a brief discussion of nationalism which quite bravely in post-McCarthy America rejects the whole concept of being proud of one’s country:
“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.”
You can see Vonnegut warming up for ‘Slaughterhouse 5’ here, although without some of the surrealist components of the later novel. I also caught some echoes of ‘Lolita’ as well – both novels being the posthumous prison diary of someone reviled by society. I will definitely be returning to Vonnegut – he writes well, entertainingly, is refreshing unstuffy and unpretentious, but at the same time deals with serious themes. Recommended.