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.


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I read the first hundred pages or so of this book when it was first published in French. I felt that Littell’s first great mistake was to cram as much of his research as possible onto the page, to the extent that the texture of the prose was dry and uninvolving, and the story hence lacked any true narrative drive. He hadn’t taken the time, it seems, to have absorbed and chosen more critically what was useful to his story and to cast aside what wasn’t.
His second mistake, or rather sin, was of pride. One sensed that he felt he was writing a great, “important” book, and this can easily blind the reader to the flaws of the book. Note I said that I’d read a hundred pages. I didn’t honestly see any point in going on.

Haven’t we pretty much covered the whole Monsters = Real People Just Like You And Me thing? I get it. If Littell wanted to address the whole Nazi question in a more provacative way he should’ve taken Bolano’s strategy from 2666: 992 pages of one atrocity after the next with no psychoanalyzing (that’s not a word, is it?). Pointing out the banality of evil is getting tired. What we need to do is reinvigorate the atrocities that the Nazi’s committed, not flatten them out. And right now, it seems like the only way to reinvigorate things is to present them as unimpeachable facts within the context of fiction.

H.S.: I’m not sure how much of 2666 you’ve read, but it’s not 992 pages of one atrocity after another. It’s a novel composed of five separate parts or books, and one of them deals specifically with the crimes in St. Teresa. Contrary to what some reviewers have said, this isn’t a litany of crime scenes and autopsies; the narrative contains recurring characters (such as a policeman and an American profiler).
I don’t think the issue with Littell really is about what he can point out or what he cannot. As a novelist, he has his point of view and his both global and more specific intentions in writing this book. I’m not sure how much of it you’ve read, but for me the issue, as a novelist reading another novelist, was how well (or otherwise) he brought his narrator to life and how well he’d integrated his research into the narrative.
As for the atrocities, Les Bienveillants contains enough of them to satisfy anyone seeking them out, believe me. His facts are, in fact, unimpeachable, as they come from archives and the historical record. It’s his abilities as a novelist, an artist, that remain in question.

I was only referring to the St. Teresa portion of 2666. If was to write a novel about The Holocaust I would use that section as a template for how to approach what the Nazis did. That’s all I was trying to say. That I’m getting tired of the angle a lot of writers are approaching the Holocaust from. Yes, we know, these were regular people, just like you and me, etc, etc. I would argue that the reason this approach is so popular right now is because the West, America specifically, is trying to rationalize what we have done in Iraq. We were just doing what we were told to do, right? Isn’t that always the argument? At one time, I guess, this was a novel approach to genocide, but now it’s just starting to sound like an excuse, a collective shrug of the shoulders.
I know this has nothing to do with your post or the book or anything. But this is what your post made me think about.

“As for the atrocities, Les Bienveillants contains enough of them to satisfy anyone seeking them out, believe me.”
Not really, they’re actually few and far between.

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