The Kindly Ones and The Problem of Point of View in Literature

Dan Green offers an excellent corrective to those who managed to forget that The Kindly Ones is being narrated by an unreliable narrator.

One has to assume that in creating a narrator with such extreme limitations as Dr. Aue, Littell is fully aware of building in a space for ambiguity and uncertainty, of presenting us with a character whose every utterance has to be considered potentially compromised by context. One might assume further that Littell is posing to readers an explicit challenge precisely to scrutinize the text in this way, not to take it as the author’s own account of Nazism or to judge it by standards inappropriate to the kind of work it is. Thus when Laila Lalami complains that the reader of The Kindly Ones is not “drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted,” she implies the novel would be less objectionable as a portrait of a “monster” if instead of its “plodding style” it employed beautiful language, unified the point of view so that the narrator seemed less dissociated, or made Aue’s personal life more “intriguing” and less repellent. She is asking it to be something other than itself, something less troublesome.

For a text authored by an SS bureaucrat to exhibit “beautiful” language would defy belief even more considerably than does Aue’s ability to show up at every important stage of the Final Solution, which Lalami describes as “unrealistic.” If ever a novel justifies a “plodding style,” The Kindly Ones is it . . .

Quite correct. To paraphrase Wayne Booth, authors can get away with bloody murder (no pun intended) by invoking the first-person as a defense of “poor” writing.

Later Dan writes:

Peter Kemp further complains of the “pitiless prolixity” with which Aue tells his story and doubts “Aue’s prodigious capacity to recall in profuse, minute detail all that was done and said. . . .” That a fussy bureaucrat like Maximilien Aue would remember his actions in great detail–that he might even have records of them–doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me, but the question of whether Aue knows too much brings us back to Aue’s status as narrator. Perhaps he does too conveniently recall the details of his wartime experiences. As far as I know, no one has questioned the accuracy of the historical details in which Aue’s fictionalized story is embedded, but of course there is no way to “verify” the details of the fictional story. Ultimately, it really makes no difference: these are the things that were “done and said” that Aue wants us to know, and the impression they leave about him is presumably the impression he wants to leave.

The same is true of the plot developments that place Aue at so many of the crucial events of the war’s waning years. Perhaps Aue is manipulating the historical record in order to give himself a role in all of these events, but again it doesn’t really matter. The self-portrayal that emerges is the one Aue must intend. That this portrayal is a damning one suggests either that Aue is (consciously or subconsciously) submitting himself for judgment or that his particular involvement in the Final Solution is to be taken at face value. The former is not impossible, especially given his willingness to reveal all of his psychosexual problems as well. However, accepting that Aue happened to be in a position to witness so much of Nazi Germany’s dissolution, at least for the purposes of the novel his fictional existence makes possible, doesn’t seem to me such a difficult concession. His presence at the decisive stages of this process could just be, in fact, the reason he decided to write his memoir, following up on the less comprehensive accounts of other ex-Nazi colleagues. . . .

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Green has the point. To a more simple level, the fact is that the Kindly Ones’ super-evil nazi acts like a charismatic psychopath out of a pulp fiction. I just love how Thomas Harris reworked the gothic scheme in his Hannibal novels, that they’re great entretainment, but Littell wants to be Dostoievski here. And it fails. You have to know what kind of material you have, what kind of inner life your characters ACTUALLY have.


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.

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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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