Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Whole World's a Stage

I just finished up with the very first session of Padfoot and Prong's Good Books Club, an online bookclub which will be held on the third Sunday of each month in a chatroom. I had never used a chatroom before so I wasn't sure how that was going to work out, but it was actually very easy. In addition to Padfoot and Prongs themselves, there was also Tara SG of 25 Hour Books and Lula O. of Strictly Letters. This month's selection was Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, and let me start off with my edition's really freaky cover:

The scribbling is part of the design, BTW. I nearly jumped back when I first saw it at the library! I asked if anyone else had this edition but most seemed to have one with a guy riding a dog. Interpretations, anyone?

There is a lot going on with this book, but what we discussed most was the dissonant art of pretending. Of claiming to be one thing but acting like just the opposite. Of refusing to accept responsibility for your own actions because you knew they were wrong even while you were doing them. BUT, you did them, so what you actually thought of your actions is irrelevant to the big picture because you still contributed to the Nazi Hate Machine. Oh what a tangled web we weave. . .

Howard Campbell was an American living in Germany during World War II. He accepted a job as a spy for the American military: he would use his background as a playwright and actor to spew out Nazi propaganda over the radio. (Nazism, in many respects, may be thought of as one big theatrical show: the parades, the violent hate, the melodramatic us-versus-them, the caricaturing of the Jews, the "master race," the plans for world domination - the whole absurd, over-the-top, tragic shebang.) But in reality, his speeches were embedded with codes - in the pauses, cleared throats, and so forth - that would convey important information to the Allies. Of course, only one individual, an intelligence agent named Frank Wirtanen, actually knows of Campbell's secret mission. To the rest of the world, Campbell is either a traitor and war criminal or a glorious hero for the neo-Nazi/white supremacist cause. But which is he really?

We all agreed that he was a coward, for one. Selfish, definitely, in his notion of a separate "nation of two" consisting of himself and his wife Helga, apart from the world and apathetic to it, even as it falls apart into utter chaos and bloodshed. He's a perpetual victim who refuses to accept that his actions are as much a part of him as his own self-image is. One picture that seemed to arise from our discussion was that of a man trapped in a web: Howard Campbell is a pretender and a liar, and so is everyone else around him. He has nowhere to run, because even his only friend plans to betray him and, on top of that, it turns out his wife isn't his wife. Sheeeesh. Even one of his Israeli guards, a Holocaust survivor, confesses to having escaped by hiding his Jewish background and becoming a fanatical SS officer. Can the authentic person in the room please stand up?

One interpretation was that Campbell's two-faced act reflects the response of ordinary Germans to the rise of Nazism. (I brought up Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us.) That it was basically a survival mechanism. But it was also agreed that Campbell got himself into the whole hot mess in the first place, as he certainly could have left Germany when things started to get bad, but he didn't. He is a highly passive individual: he lets circumstances and other people dictate who he is, even when he knows that the person he's posing as - the person others want him to be - is evil. He actually "wrote" (or rather, Vonnegut did) the following poem which I think sums up quite a bit:

I saw a huge steam roller,
It blotted out the sun.
The people all lay down, lay down;
They did not try to run.
My love and I, we looked amazed
Upon the gory mystery.
"Lie down, lie down!" the people cried,
"The great machine is history!"
My love and I, we ran away,
The engine did not find us.
We ran up to a mountain top,
Left history far behind us.
Perhaps we should have stayed and died,
But somehow we don't think so.
We went to see where history'd been,
And my, the dead did stink so.

We each had to describe our favorite passage or moment in the book. A popular one was what Vonnegut, as Campbell's "editor," stated as being the moral of the story: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Another was the metaphor, used at the end, of the totalitarian mind as a series of gears that keeps turning, even though some of its teeth are missing. Those missing teeth represent the ability of the human mind to make important connections or recognize certain facts. Like, how playing great classical music over the loudspeakers at Auschwitz in between calls for the corpse-carriers is really ironic and seriously fucked up.

In his great novel Unforgiving Years (written post-WWII and also dealing with the subject of totalitarianism - in this case, Soviet communism), Victor Serge describes civilization as "a form of schizophrenia." We all agreed that schizophrenia was definitely a very strong presence in Mother Night. All the characters were sick. They weren't real people - only a series of fa├žades, actors taking their roles way too seriously. When Campbell commits suicide, the curtains fall and the play finally ends. I must be executed by myself, Campbell sheepishly admits, for crimes against myself.

Unfortunately, we didn't get around to the neo-Nazis Campbell unwittingly befriends in New York, in addition to their ally, the Black Fuehrer of Harlem, who spent time in prison for spying for the Japanese because he wanted to side with "the colored people." Even though the session ran for an hour and a half, we still lacked the time to cover everything. Mother Night has just so much going on. We ended by reflecting on what a deep guy Kurt Vonnegut was. "Ocean," someone said succinctly.

A bit of a side note: I read a book awhile back called Landscape in Concrete by Jakov Lind. Lind was an Austrian Jew who survived World War II by pretending to be a Dutchman and working for the German Institute for Metallurgical Research of the Imperial Air Ministry of Traffic. Posing as a Nazi is really an unconscious act, Lind later said, one merely "nods and obeys, one adapts." Landscape in Concrete deals with very similar themes as Mother Night, as well as Joseph Heller's Catch-22. It concerns the misadventures of one Gauthier Bachman, a big dumb German soldier, who merely wants to obey and serve the Fatherland. Along the way, however, all he ends up doing is allowing himself to be manipulated into behaving in ways contrary to his nature and allowing others to turn him into a monster. I definitely recommend it. It's a great read.


Lula O said...

Great review! I still need to write mine. Probably will sleep on it to come up with a good angle. There's a lot to cover.
Now I must watch your video.

What fun this is!

Padfoot and Prongs - Good Books Inc. said...

Really great review! Thanks so much again for participating. Make sure you email with your address so we can send the mugs!

Emily said...

Oh man, I have such specific and sad associations with this book...I read it when I was 15, in Spain, and aMAZingly homesick. It kind of convinced me that people were unreal monsters and I would never be able to return to the home I knew (may I repeat that I was 15). I remember sitting against a tree in the big public park in Madrid, and sobbing for hours. It was heavy. I would probably be able to handle it better now.

Although all Vonnegut's stuff has dark themes, I found Mother Night darker than most in mood, which is interesting. And good lord, your cover is terrifying.

taraSG said...

Really really great review! I love how you tied in the discussion!

Tara SG

E. L. Fay said...

Lula: Your review was great! Glad you liked mine.

P&P: Thanks! Will do!

Emily: That's such a funny story! What were you doing in Madrid? Did you live there?

Tara: Thanks! The discussion really made me think of the book in ways I hadn't before.

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