Category Archives: jonathan littell

A New Literary Approach to the Holocaust

In an essay examining The Kindly Ones in the context of other Holocaust literature, Garth Risk Hallberg nails the reason why this book is so polarizing:

But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.

Garth doesn't explicitly connect the dots, but I think it's implicit in his piece: we understand certain ways to discuss the Holocaust, The Kindly Ones offers a very, very different method. This inflames feelings.

Interestingly, Garth seems to view The Kindly Ones as a failure not in approach but in delivery. By all means, drag the Holocaust down to the level of the everyday, but replace it with something else that's sacred:

Such is our current situation. We've moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We've crossed the great divide between reverence and "meh." This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell's, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it's worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.

I'm not so sure I'd agree with all of this. True, not even the Holocaust can resist cheap commodification, but I think the fact that the depiction of the Holocaust in art can still so easily raise a controversy does say something for our reverence of it. And as the last presidential Administration demonstrated, there's still a fairly large fraction of America (not to mention the postmodern world, however you define it) that can get worked up over sacrilege. That isn't to say that the world isn't a little more like Garth says it is than it used to be, just not so much as Garth seems to be saying.

A Book Must Be the Axe for the Frozen Sea Inside Us

Steve Mitchelmore's review of The Kindly Ones starts out by citing Beckett on Les 120 journées de Sodome, and then Steve quotes Kafka on writing ("the reward for serving the devil"). Anyone at all familiar with Littell's book can see what a great set-up this is, and I don't think I've seen this particular bit of context yet applied to The Kindly Ones.

Of course go and read the entire piece. Here's one particular point that I believe hasn't been made before:

While searching for a cure or an answer, Aue expresses admiration for the capacity of the Nazis' adjudged enemy to internalise its beliefs. "When the Jew submitted to the Law, he felt that this law lived in him. National Socialism had to be that too: a living law." Such measured respect for ancient religion over fresh ideology is telling and will resurface elsewhere. It suggests in effect Aue's only means to achieve the desired state is to take Nazism toward its logical fulfilment: that is, to accept obliteration. It means he must die alongside those being killed. But how? It's a question that runs deep throughout this overwhelming novel.

Later on in the Caucasus campaign, it becomes clear the issue extends beyond the particulars of the war. Aue is leading Jewish men toward a forest clearing where his soldiers are preparing a trench. Before the slaughter can begin, they find that the Soviets have been there before. Already there are mass graves in the forest. Where ever a new trench is begun, more bodies appear, each with a bullet in the neck. The officers are agitated, the soldiers dig another trench and the Jews look on and wait. Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough. The reader, already discomforted by the horror of the scene and, if not certain, then aware of its likely accuracy to the historical record, is now as impatient as the officers for it to be over. The reader becomes a Nazi and the horror is thereby situated beyond disposable titillation. That said, the scene does seem to be too convenient, too literary, an adaptation of the historical record into a drama for the more discerning voyeur. The scene might also stand as a correlate of The Kindly Ones' literary bloodline: yet another work of fiction about the Nazis devoured by a greedy market, yet another distressing reminder of the Shoah, as if this work of leisure is also disturbing graves in order to kill nameless thousands yet again. Surely there something pathological in the demand for such cruel repetition. Setting aside repugnance in the forest, it does remain necessary to the reader’s experience of this infinitely terrible time before and after an event, a time in which dying persists. It might also be asked: how can the absolute contradiction be recognised by the reader without the means also appearing contrived and distasteful?

Next Time, Get It in the Contract Before You Give a $1 Million Advance

Jonathan Littell's recently released uber-novel The Kindly Ones may be running aground against American critics' puritanism, but don't expect Littell to care much. MobyLives reports that he recently told WSJ journalist Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg that coming to America for a book tour isn't his business.

To Plumb the Nazi Psyche

At RSB Carey Harrison has a nice post on The Kindly Ones. Carey takes into account Daniel Mendelsohn's lengthy, considered review in the NYRB, and both Carey and Daniel try to understand why Littell has made his book so dirty.

Here's some of Carey's take:

Mendelsohn’s conclusion grants The Kindly Ones a majestic, honourable defeat in pursuit of the indescribable. To my knowledge, he is the only reviewer so far to have seriously tried to assess how the hero’s ghastly secret crimes, and his almost unbearably twisted soul, could be convincingly aligned with classical literary virtues of Littell’s painstaking evocation of a man steadily succumbing to indifference, amid a horror in which he is participating. This horror alone, the horror of Babi Yar and of Auschwitz, is so memorably imagined that even without the Pelion of Aue’s inner corruption being piled upon the Ossa of the Holocaust, many readers will have turned away in revulsion. For Mendelsohn, Littell’s choice to make his hero a monster cleaves the book down the middle and leaves it scarred by a gigantic, self-inflicted wound. The New York Review of Books pays tribute to Littell’s literary antecedents, and to Littell’s own debts to Aeschylus and to pre-Christian concepts of tragic destiny. Yet the book itself remains, for Mendelsohn, a monster; it can only be redeemed by being called impossible, with a sanctifying reference to Blanchot’s estimate of Moby-Dick. Without resort to such eminences I should like to make a simpler argument for the strategic coherence of the book.

To see the book as monstrously divided is almost to grasp the literary strategy Littell has so provocatively employed. For in order to plumb the Nazi psyche – and this is quite unmistakably The Kindly Ones’s purpose, despite all the reviews that treat the book as a ‘Holocaust novel’ – it will not do to make a visit to Hell in the person of an ‘ordinary,’ representative human being. . . .

It's not terribly surprising that coverage of this book is being split among those who get it and those who, like Michiko Kakutani, are happy to wear their philistinism on their sleeve and condemn it without anything more than recourse to its transgressive nature.

Let me be clear that by "get it" I don't mean people who rapturously acclaim Littell's book (Mendelsohn, for instance, is quite critical). Rather, I'm speaking of people whose critique can demonstrate that they read the book closely enough to do more than complain about its scatological content.

UK Review of The Kindly Ones

The Guardian provides the first UK review I've seen of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

This is a decidedly positive review, and it provides some extra-literary info that I was not aware of:

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 5,000 copies. Within
months, Les Bienveillantes had sold 300,000 copies, 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. . . .

What accounts for the attention? A 900-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. The novel tells the story of the Holocaust and Nazism
through the eyes of one of the executioners, an SS Obersturmbannfürher
on the Eastern Front who is attached to the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile
execution squads whose task it was to kill Jews, partisans and other
"undesirables" in the wake of the German advance.

The reviewer goes on to praise Littell's meticulous research (5 years) and "photo-realism" detail, making me wonder if a good reference point would be William T. Vollmann's Europe Central, a book that blends surreal elements with large stretches of very detailed descriptions of World War II battlefronts.

And Stephen Mitchelmore opines that Burke missed the point of the book, although doesn't elaborate as to how.

Littell on Blanchot: Writing Is What It Is

This Space has made available in English the text of a commentary on Maurice Blanchot written by The Kindly Ones author Jonathan Littell.

Its an intriguing piece that starts with a simple question:

how to write in the wake of this thinking [Blanchot’s] without being carried away by its language? No one, to my knowledge, has managed it (except perhaps Foucault, Levinas: frightening predecessors) . . .

Littell then begins what he considers an almost impossible task by considering the nature of literature, as understood by Blanchot:

The first thing one could say about it is that it seems to us inseparable from his conception of writing as experience. "The story [le récit] is not the relation of the event, but that event itself," he wrote around the same time (in "The Song of the Sirens," reprinted in The Book to Come). Writing does not describe, does not relate, does not signify, it does not represent a thing, existing in the world of men or even only in the world of the imagination; it is neither more nor less than "the test of its own experience" (Blanchot again, I forget where, unless it’s Bataille – so indistinguishable is their thinking on this point), the faithful account of what happened at that moment, the moment when the one who, seized by the desire to write, sat down in front of a blank piece of paper and began putting language onto it. . . .

It’s an interesting piece of writing, and certainly one that makes me more eager to crack my copy of Littell’s book.

The Kindly Ones Reviewed at The Complete Review

My copy of this brick arrived this week, and while I intend to give it a fair hearing and read it in full, things like this are complicating my plans:

This massive (just short of a thousand pages in the English (and original French) edition), prix Goncourt-winning epic was certainly one of the most anticipated-by-us titles of 2009, and while we’re not sorry that we worked our way through it — it will be much discussed and reviewed in the months to come (yes, even Sam Tanenhaus and the NYTBR won’t be able to avoid this one), and we’re glad to know what the fuss will be about — and while we were prepared for it not to be a masterpiece (the reviews have been decidedly mixed), we were pretty shocked at what a poor piece of work it is. (At over 3500 words our review is one of the longer ones we’ve ever put up, but it could have been considerably longer: there’s a lot to criticise …..)

Although The Complete Review does roundly criticize The Kindly Ones, it also evoked in me far more interest in this book than did Bookforum’s lukewarm "positive" review.

With the reviews trending either very positive or very negative, and given all of the outrageous stuff chronicled in The Complete Review’s review, It looks like this is shaping up to be a very polarizing book. I’m sure I’ll be registering my opinions at some point, probably not at least for a couple of months.

First Review of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

If you know just one thing about translated literature in 2009, it’s probably that French mega-novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) is publishing in English this year. Expectations are high, especially after 2666 has primed us for enormous novels in translation.

Bookforum (which continues to snub 2666 without explanation) gets in an early review of The Kindly Ones, and although the review is positive in tone, there’s not much here to convince me that I need to wade through these 992 pages. Reviewer Leland de la Durantaye duly states that the plot is "brilliantly organized and written," although I see nothing in the review to convince me of that fact.

The book’s animating question, as described by de la Durantaye, similarly leaves me wanting:

The reader faces a powerful if implicit question: What if those we condemn did not select evil at one particular moment but, instead, found themselves in a situation where all options seemed bad, where a compromising choice was made, followed by another and another as the slope became too slippery for them to climb their way back? This does not constitute innocence, but it does demand a different answer to the question of why men and women treated their human brothers and sisters as they did.

Of course this question is hardly novel, even if you limit the field to WWII books. While it’s possible that The Kindly Ones might bring something new to this matter, there’s nothing in the Bookforum review to make me believe that.

I’ll remain open-minded about The Kindly Ones, but this first review doesn’t make a good impression.

Les Bienveillantes

Something worth keeping an eye on.

After a languid intercontinental auction that stretched for more than a week, the American rights to Jonathan Littell’s novel “Les Bienveillantes,” which became a publishing sensation in France, have been sold to HarperCollins, the publisher confirmed yesterday. . . .

“Les Bienveillantes,” which translates as “The Kindly Ones,” is a 903-page novel written in French by an American author with a defiant Nazi SS officer as its hero. It captivated the publishing industry this month at the Frankfurt Book Fair, where publishers speculated that the American and British rights could fetch as much as $1 million. In the first six weeks after it was published in France, 280,000 copies were sold.

Jonathan Burnham, the senior vice president and publisher of HarperCollins, declined to disclose what the publisher paid for the book but said it was a substantial sum.

Mr. Littell, 38, the son of the spy novelist Robert Littell, was educated at Yale but has spent most of his life in France and now lives in Barcelona. He has already sold publication rights to the book for Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, among other countries. Industry executives say the German rights alone fetched $567,000.

The book will be published in spring 2008 in the United States and Britain, depending on the speed of the translation.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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