The Kindly Ones has ratings and reviews. Glenn said: “Please, mein Herr, shoot the children cleanly.”― Jonathan Littell, The Kindly OnesSu. Les Bienveillantes de Jonathan Littell a créé l’événement de la rentrée littéraire Selon l’auteur, la portée du roman dépasse le seul génocide des Juifs. 78 Myth, Morals, and Metafiction in Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes [ PM LA and Littell has asked his translators to use in each language the name under.
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T his remarkable book was first published in France inas Les Bienveillantes. The first significant work of Jonathan Littell, Francophone son of American spy author Robert, it was an entirely unexpected success.
Gallimard, the publisher, originally printed 5, copies. buenveillantes
Within months, Les Bienveillantes had soldcopies, had been welcomed by critics as the most important book for 50 years and had won the Goncourt and Femina prizes. Stupendous sums were paid for its foreign rights and it went on to sell more than a million copies across Europe. Now it has been translated into Bienveillantew and will surely cause a similar fuss. What accounts for the attention?
A page work written in impeccable French by an American, albeit one educated in France, was always going to be talked about. But the main reason for the book’s notoriety is its subject matter.
Both in France and across Europe, there were fierce debates about the morality and feasibility of giving voice to such a character.
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
In Germany, Littell was accused of being “a pornographer of violence”. But The Kindly Ones also owes its success to its quality as a work of fiction. Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history.
Max Aue, the narrator, is a jurist by trade, a classicist by training and an aesthete by nature. He reads Flaubert as he treks through northern Pomeranian forests escaping oncoming Russian forces and savours the finest claret. As German critics pointed out, Littell is more at home with French cultural references than German ones.
Aue is interested in the potential philosophical justifications for the mass murder of Jews and regularly consults Plato. At the same time, he is a closet homosexual who once had an incestuous affair with his sister and is a suspect for the brutal murder of his mother and stepfather. Whether all these elements add up to a plausible character or even a plausible Nazi is debatable. But as Littell has stated, with his interest in Greek philosophy and his cold, ironic eye, Aue is an excellent prism through which historical events can be examined.
One of Littell’s purposes with this novel is clearly a documentary one.
The Kindly Ones
Whatever other criticisms have been levelled at it, no one has questioned the thoroughness of konathan research, an exhaustive process that took five years and included walking the lihtell he describes.
The book was written quickly, by hand, one winter in Moscow. Littell inserts the character of Aue into a landscape of impressive historical exactitude; the pages describing his arrival in Stalingrad are especially rich in detail, pace and clarity. This is narrative photo-realism, the work of a gifted writer who in lean, sharp prose conjures a powerful sense of place and action. His fingernail sketches of senior Nazis, including one of Hitler in his bunker, are superb.
No wonder French critics hailed the return of 19th-century realism and even spoke of a new War and Peace. Yet it would be wrong to value The Kindly Ones only for its contribution to history. The novel is also a gripping military adventure story and a study in collective pathology. Above all, it is a sophisticated exploration of issues of morality, evil and luck. Littell told interviewers that the character of Aue allowed him to examine what he himself might have done had he been born in different circumstances at a different time.
In the preface, Aue assumes a creepy complicity between himself and his readers. His opening sentence – “O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened” – recalls, especially in the French original, Charles Baudelaire’s: There is no absolute evil, banal or otherwise.
There are, as Aue says, simply bineveillantes, good or bad The novel as a whole brilliantly shows how “ordinary men” become killers.
biemveillantes Through its first pages, we follow an Einsatzgruppen about its grisly littlel. Though many of its members are vicious antisemites and sadists, most are distinctly normal.
As massacre follows massacre, they are progressively brutalised. At first, some balk at shooting unarmed civilians, but soon such reluctance becomes a thing of the past. The men eat sausages and drink beer in pauses during the “Aktion” at Kiev, which saw more than 30, Jews killed in two days. Their commanders have difficulties holding back volunteer shooters.
By the time Aue arrives at Auschwitz, this process of collective desensitisation has reached a new extreme. Industrialised death on a vast scale, conceived in part to spare troops direct involvement in mass killing, is seen as a rational, indeed inevitable, solution to “the Jewish Problem”.
This view of Nazi actions is certainly in keeping with the latest Holocaust scholarship, which has destroyed the “I had no choice but to follow orders” excuse. Recent work has shown that those rare individuals who refused execution squad duty were not punished.
The truth is that though many found shooting unarmed Jews, especially women and children, highly disagreeable, there was no great desire to step out of line. An bienveillantex belief in the necessity of their task meant that initial qualms were overcome and they came to see killing as a job like any other.
The Kindly Ones, unsurprisingly for such an ambitious novel, does have flaws. The copious scatological and sexual references may strike some readers as excessive. From the lengthy descriptions of Aue’s diarrhoea to the dying slave workers in the Reich’s factories who shit standing up because to stop working would mean certain death, this is a novel preoccupied with faecal matter.
Jonathan Littell – Les Bienveillantes – The Kindly Ones
At one point, Max, living his own Armageddon as Germany collapses around him, sodomises himself with a tree branch. Likewise, the incestuous and murderous subplot, that sees Aue pursued across half of Europe and half the pages bienceillantes two police officers, is overwrought and far-fetched. Littell often allows his narrative to ramble, devoting 60 pages to an impossibly bureaucratic argument between the SS and the regular army over the precise definition of Jews in the Caucasus, and bienveillanhes long passages to turf wars between senior Nazis.
These sections make important historical points, but readers may struggle to get through them. Having littell the jnoathan in French on its publication, I also found the translation overly literal. Aue’s words seem much more foreign, stilted and sententious than they did in the original.
Littell chose to write in French because it best renders Aue’s mix of viciousness, chilly irony and confidentiality. In that language, he is precise, ironic, almost intellectually playful and certainly provocative. In English, at least in this translation, he often comes across as precious.
Littell’s final message is naturally bleak. Our relative relegation of this greatest of European traumas to memorial days, museums and books is a useful way to avoid confronting the most difficult questions of all, which are not about the victims, but about the killers.
Any attempt to portray the perpetrators of the Holocaust as human, such as the recent jlnathan of Bernard Schlink’s book The Reader, provokes massive controversy.
Bienveillanhes will thus be interesting to see how this book is received in the English-speaking world. Whatever reaction his novel sparks, Littell has undoubtedly succeeded where many ambitious writers have failed.
The Kindly Ones reveals something that is desperate and depressing but profoundly important, now as ever. Max Aue, the SS executioner, states the truth with typically brutal clarity: Topics History books The Observer.