The OF Blog: Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones

Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you'll retort, and I don't want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you. You might find it a bit long - a lot of things happened, after all - but perhaps you're not in too much of a hurry; with a little luck you'll have some time to spare. And also, this concerns you: you'll see that this concerns you. Don't think I am trying to convince you of anything; after all, your opinions are your own business. If after all these years I've made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae - what do we do with such an appalling realization? (p. 3)
Almost 64 years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the Shoah/Endlösung/Holocaust (each of those words bearing its own indelible image) remains an extremely controversial topic. From those like David Irving who have tried to downplay (if not deny outright) the horrors of the situation to those like Daniel Goldhagen, who in his 1996 book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, sought to spread even further the blame for the atrocities against the Jews to those who note that the very real sufferings of the millions of other ethnic groups, such as the Gypsies, need to be brought to the spotlight, how one chooses to discuss the events of 1933-1945 can easily will determine who will condemn and who will praise that intrepid soul. It is little surprise, therefore, that American/French writer Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones has drawn fierce criticism and received lavish praise from writers and critics in both France and the United States over the past three years.

The Kindly Ones is a fictional first-person narrative of the Alsatian factory owner (and former Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD) officer) Dr. Maximilien Aue, as he writes a quasi-confessional memoir from the vantage point of at least 30 years after the war. Over the course of this nearly 1000 page narrative, Littell's Aue rambles, digresses, retrenches, emphasizing before decentering his actions during World War II on the Russian front. There might be a dozen pages or more devoted to his relationships with both men and women, followed by a paragraph or two that seemingly glosses over the death and suffering of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs.

For many readers, Littell's prose will be unsettling. Aue, by nature of his office as a SD officer in the Nazi SS, will leave many readers uncomfortable just by knowing that they are reading about some of the 20th century's worst deeds from the point of view of one of the perpetrators. Others will find details of Aue's personal life, from his bisexuality to the gradual uncovering of the specifics behind the one "loving" relationship in his life (and I put "loving" in quotes, because the nature of that relationship is very debatable, to say the least) to be disturbing. I myself could understand why others would be at unease reading about these events from Aue's perspective, but I found myself drawn further and further into the narrative due to how Littell chose to tell this story.

I have taught lessons on the Holocaust for over 10 years now, from the middle school level to assisting a professor with a graduate seminar on Hitler's Germany. One of the more difficult questions raised in these lessons by students is that of "Why did so many people want to participate in these horrible deeds?" It is a daunting question for historians to explain, because the answers can be even worse than the question itself. While I am favorable to the Functionalist interpretation of the Endlösung, there is something appealing about the Intentionalist argument that the Shoah resulted from conscious decisions of the upper echelons of the Nazi government. After all, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners would not have become the NY Times bestseller that it did in 1996 if it weren't for millions of readers worldwide who had at least some sympathy for his extreme Intentionalist argument that there already was a inclination in Germany towards favoring a "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Problem" before the National Socialists came to power in 1933.

Littell's book treads carefully around this argument. It is quite clear that not only has Littell done quite a bit of research into this time period, but that with his treatment of the 1941 massacres and Aue's passing comment about how so few are dedicated Party members on the front, Littell's novel could be seen as a Functionalist interpretation of the Holocaust. Aue is not a gung-ho partisan who wants to butcher the neighboring Jews (that task is left to the Ukranians, who are more than willing to do the task for the Einsatzgruppen), but instead a cynical, world-weary cosmopolitan who has come to view these actions as being little more than unfortunate necessities.

In fact, these "unfortunate necessities" haunt the second half of the book. As Aue narrates the events (sometimes becoming too passive of an observer, leading to relatively lifeless chunks of prose in the middle portions of the novel), it is what isn't said that becomes as important as what is said. Littell has Aue raise the question of guilt, only to let it drop purposely, while the 1941 massacres begat the more systematic death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, Chelmno, and Belzec. In a weird, perverse way, his raising and then dropping of the issue of guilt mirrors that of other, more recent atrocities, such as those of Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica (some of which places Littell has visited as a worker for an international NGO). It is as if Aue, speaking from a fictional past, while describing an even more distant actual past, hints at the very real denials and downplaying of atrocities that is so current today across the globe.

As an account of the Holocaust and how "ordinary" people can get caught up in such actions, Littell's novel is provocative and for the most part, rings true. As a narrative, there are several weak points, starting with Aue's inconsistency as a character. By this, I am referring more to how "strong" he is in relation to the events he narrates, as often I felt as though Aue "disappeared" for dozens of pages at a time. Also, I have to question the effectiveness of having Aue be a closeted bisexual, as well as how his relationships with family members were depicted. I believe that Littell loses some of the power of his novel by having Aue take on characteristics that make it easier to view him as a pervert or a monster than it would have been if he had been an "everyman" character whose actions during the course of the novel would have forced readers to confront more directly the idea that they too could easily have been caught up in the hatred and the killing of former friends and neighbors.

While the mythic Kindly Ones do not make an appearance at all until the final page, The Kindly Ones does give hints of the tortures that Aue faces as a result of his sometimes-passive participation in the Final Solution. It is a shame, however, that it took so long for Littell to build to that point. Yet despite the rambling, digressive narrative, despite the inconsistencies of Aue's character, despite the difficulty in accepting the premise behind Aue, The Kindly Ones is a powerful work. Messy, disturbing, and more than a little graphic in places with its scatological and sexual references, Littell's novel deserves praise for its attempts to tackle an event that is still an explosive minefield for anyone trying to unravel its mysteries. It is a mess, but it is a glorious, necessary mess and for that alone readers ought to read it. Just don't be surprised if virulent reactions follow.

Publication Date: March 3, 2009 (US). Hardcover.

Publisher: Harper


Brody said...

Great take on this one, and I'm even more inclined to add it to my tbr pile. Thanks

Gonzalo B said...

Thanks for an excellent review. Virulent reactions have already followed, including some from people who have not read The Kindly Ones and refuse to do so.
It seems to me that many American reviewers are simply wary of ambitious books and would rather dismiss them offhand than make an effort to take them seriously. In the New York Times, one critic accused Littell of "dolling up the Holocaust with pop-culture conventions." According to the reviewer, one of these "conventions" was Max Aue's ubiquity, which he somehow equated with Forrest Gump's (!).

Likewise, Kakutani and others have criticized the novel for its violence and steadfastly held onto its graphic depictions of cruelty to knock it down (is there nothing more to Littell's work?). Others have stooped much lower and simply resorted to pathetic snark. The worst example of this hack arrogance was the Wall Street Journal writer who without reading The Kindly Ones compared it to Britney Spears' memoirs.

Then there are others who have already announced that they just won't read The Kindly Ones. Something similar happened with the publication of Bolaño's works in English. Many commentators didn't read 2666 or The Savage Detectives and yet complained about the allegedly hyperbolic praise the author got for writing them (N+1's take on the author being a prominent example).

I guess I can understand the reluctance to tackle a 1,000 page novel if you have to meet deadlines and are paid peanuts for your reviews. Nonetheless, critics shouldn't just read the titles they are paid to review. I think dismissing a novel that at the very least is worthy of serious consideration in such a manner betrays a serious lack of professionalism.supeapho

Larry Nolen said...


Glad you enjoyed it!


I had read that NYT review a couple of weeks ago on Amazon's Omnivoracious blog (where it was linked) and like you, I just shook my head at how a "professional" reviewer (although I guess I'm on the cusp of being one in the sense that I've been paid for my reviews before) could so totally fail to engage with the work at hand, being content instead just to comment from preconceived notions.

That n+1 article on Bolaño was interesting. Although I disagree with it quite a bit, at least it was a bit less virulent than was Kakutani's review. I wonder what the n+1 article writer would have thought if s/he were familar with Horacio Castallenos Moya or Roque Dalton. I remarked to a Salvadorean friend of mine this weekend after reading Bolaño's Entre paréntesis that it was quite obvious in hindsight just how much those two influenced his view of the world and how to express it in writing.

All I know is that as a reviewer, I try to leave myself open to more possibilities than the preconceived notions that I bring to the table when I begin reading a book. If I don't, then what results couldn't in all fairness be called a "review."

Gonzalo B said...

While it's impossible to ignore one's preconceived notions on certain authors and titles, the lack of critical rigor of some reviewers is truly appalling. More than once I've been commissioned by an editor to review a book that I ended up loathing but I'd like to believe I've never engaged in such petty attacks as the ones in that particular NYT article.

I agree that the N+1 commentary is not as vitriolic but its carelessness and sweeping judgments bothered me just the same. According to whoever wrote it, one of the reasons for Bolaño's success in the Spanish-speaking world is his spare prose and how it supposedly contrasts with the more florid prose of other writers in the language. The article also points out how Hemingway popularized the spare style years ago but how it is still somewhat of a novelty in the Spanish-speaking world. The arrogant ignorance of that statement not only betrays a total unfamiliarity with Latin American literature - clearly, the author has not heard of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Osvaldo Soriano, Alan Pauls, Ricardo Piglia or Bolaño's good friend Rodrigo Fresán, among hundreds of others - but a childish desire to be provocative.

In any event, the N+1 commentary at least shows a willingness to discuss ideas. The Pavlovian rejection that Littell's work has been met with is much more troubling.

Matt Keeley said...

Did anyone here read the NYRB review of The Kindly Ones? Very good review I thought.

I'm still somewhat interested in this book, but I'm not sure what it has to offer that a reread of 2666 doesn't.

Liviu said...

2666 is a very mature novel and it shows; Kindly Ones is raw and has noticeable flaws - for me lack of balance was the major one - but it's truly *raw*, darker and much more horrifying than 2666; there were passages there that truly haunted me for a long time

In 08 2666 was the clear best novel I read, while in 06 Kindly Ones (Fr ed) was the same and most likely it will be this year (Engl ed) too.

Other than that it's hard to compare the two in meaningful ways...

Unknown said...

I have only just begun to read this novel, but what strikes me most about it thus far is how very compelling that voice is. I'm interested in studying the book -- once I've read it through once -- to try to figure out how Littell (and, by extension, his translator) could make such a character so interesting, could give him such a tremendously fascinating and hypnotizing voice, that one is compelled to read on almost despite oneself. Or so, at least, I find it to be. It really seems like a masterful work in that regard.

John said...

I thought you would be interested in a translation diary by The Kindly Ones translator into Hebrew:

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