The Short Version: Howard Campbell Jr., one of the most notorious Nazi propagandists, was also an American double agent. But was he too good at his “fake” job? As Vonnegut says in his ‘introduction’ to Campbell’s ‘memoir’, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
The Review: So the thing I’m discovering about Vonnegut is that he is infinitely quotable. The phrasing is not such that you feel like he’s trying, either – he’s just… saying smart, funny, true things and you happen to be there to hear them. The tone so far in my dive into the Vonnegut canon strikes me as that of an idealized grandfather: he’s witty, a little old-fashioned, terribly smart, and full of love.
Take love, for example. This book came to me (as did the pressure to bump up Vonnegut in the Catch Up lineup) from my girlfriend as a Christmas gift and her inscription tracked a great quote from this novel: “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.” That alone is a beautiful sentiment, one that I hope all lovers out there might aspire to: knowing that, should the rest of the world go running down, the two of you can still make the best of what’s around. And Vonnegut’s depiction of the love between Campbell and his wife is exactly that: they are the sort of couple you want to be. They have each other’s back 100% and the madness of the outside world matters so much less when they’re together. I can tell you that this is a marvelous thing.
But even as Vonnegut touts this beautiful version of reality, he’s questioning it, too. For this is also, at its heart, a war novel – perhaps the best novel about the aftermath of World War II that I’ve ever read. It does not look at the broader socio-economic impact of that war, nor does it really have much concern with trying to capture the war itself. Vonnegut has done that elsewhere; here, he’s essentially asking himself a very serious question and then turning his consideration of it into a novel. The question is: what would you do if you found out that a Nazi war criminal was, in fact, a US double agent? What if a man who inspired vitriolic hatred and, although he didn’t push the button or pull the trigger, the deaths of thousands had simply been playing a part?
This is the point of his statement in the introduction: we must be careful what we pretend to be. And from nearly the minute Vonnegut says this, he is already working on the reader: the next section of the book is an editor’s note, where Vonnegut explains his edits to this manuscript memoir of “The Confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr.” and we’re suddenly being told that this is not Vonnegut’s writing, but the text of a real man. Vonnegut is pretending not to be the author of his own work, in a sense. But he’s also not a terrific editor – despite the tweaks he outlines in the note, he doesn’t take Campbell’s note to change the dedication from “To Mata Hari” to Campbell himself. It’s a moment of quirky humor, and while this doesn’t have the laugh-out-loud wacky laughs that seems to define much of Vonnegut’s other work, there is a sense of play running throughout this novel: Vonnegut is enjoying himself and, as such, so are we.
But just because he’s enjoying himself doesn’t mean he’s also not taking the main point of the book very seriously. And I’ve been dancing around it a bit, holding off writing this review for nearly a week, because there’s something about the topic he’s addressing (“we are what we pretend to be” / the specific example of a ‘good Nazi’) that forces you to really think before you speak. Vonnegut fought in the war, of course – he was captured, he was in Dresden. It could be so easy for him to take the position of O’Hare, wanting nothing more than to see the man swing – and he is unsparing with him. When Campbell is talking to his handler Wirtanen at the end of the war, Wirtanen asks him what he would’ve done if the Nazis had won. And Campbell is forced to realize that he would’ve gone on, doing the same thing he’d been doing. In some ways, it’s Campbell’s nation of two that allows him not to look at the atrocities of fascist Germany, to play ping pong with Goebbels – but is that okay? Is it okay to look the other way and so fully become the role that you’re playing, even if you don’t believe a word of it in your heart of hearts?
If no one hears anything other than what you say, doesn’t that become (in the court of public opinion) what you defacto believe? And when Campbell tries to salvage his life, to quietly slip into Greenwich Village and go on about his business quietly, his question comes back to haunt him. The wackiest humor of the novel comes from the Greenwich Village-era characters – the Russian spy neighbor, the crazy old men running a small Nazi group in NYC, their chauffeur who’s known as “the Black Fuhrer of Harlem” (now, come on, that’s hilarious). And the book feels, in these moments as well as a handful of others (giving notes/agent advice to Eichmann in prison, for example), like a true sibling to Cat’s Cradle and the other apparently hilarious Vonneguts I’ve yet to read. But there’s a real heavy thoughtfulness to this one, one that makes you think and doesn’t allow you to quite form an opinion – in the way that you might easily walk away from Cat’s Cradle saying “yup, the arms race is ridiculous and science is dangerous!” and be done with it.
This one makes you work.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. “We are what we pretend to be.” A good moral, one we all would do well to keep in mind – I know I should. It’s easy to pretend to be something in public and believe yourself to be another thing in reality… but if you pretend for long enough, if no one sees the other thing, doesn’t it become who you are? I’m still ridiculously shy but people rarely believe that: while it comes out now and then, it seems more like a divergence than a usual M.O. because I’m good at pretending I’m not shy. So what does that mean then: am I or am I not? Is Campbell guilty or not? Can someone be both things at once, existing in that dual state?
And if this were the only thing Vonnegut was addressing in the novel, it’d be tremendous in and of itself – but he mentions another moral in that intro: “Make love when you can. It’s good for you.” He isn’t just talking about sex, folks – a nation of two, whether it lasts longer than some real nations or for just a short while, can only make the world a better place for the time that it exists. It can give you sanctuary.
A book on love and morality, peace and war, all together. How magnificent.