Welcome to The Valve
Login
Register


Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

Articles
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

Comments
RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

XHTML | CSS

Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

 


Blogroll

2blowhards
About Last Night
Academic Splat
Acephalous
Amardeep Singh
Beatrice
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogenspiel
Blogging the Renaissance
Bookslut
Booksquare
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cliopatria
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
CultureSpace
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Fernham
Ferule & Fescue
Ftrain
GalleyCat
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
Idiocentrism
Idiotprogrammer
if:book
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Kitabkhana
Languagehat
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
MadInkBeard
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Moo2
MoorishGirl
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Philobiblion
Planned Obsolescence
Printculture
Pseudopodium
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
ReadySteadyBlog
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
S1ngularity::criticism
Say Something Wonderful
Scribblingwoman
Seventypes
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Splinters
Spurious
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
Uncomplicatedly
Unfogged
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
Waggish
What Now?
William Gibson
Wordherders

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

A Discussion About The Kindly Ones

Posted by Adam Roberts on 04/08/09 at 08:29 AM

Valvers Andrew Seal and Adam Roberts have been swapping emails for a couple of weeks discussing Jonathan Littell’s big novel The Kindly Ones.  The dialogue, which is spoiler-laden, takes off from Andrew’s Blographia posts on the book and the Valve pieces Adam posted as he was reading the thing.  Their (our) discussion is posted below the fold.

Andrew: I’m trying to come up with some questions and ideas for our dialogue; one element I was having a lot of trouble with (and ended up leaving completely alone in my post) was the “pineal eye"/gunshot wound and its significance. Did you have any strong feelings about that?

Adam: I agree with you that the head wound ‘third-eye’ thing is problematic.  On a practical level, clearly, Littell needs somehow to get his narrator out of Stalingrad alive; and only a serious wound is going to work as far as that is concerned.  But the difficulty with the head wound is that it leaves open the possibility that it is this brain damage that is responsible for Aue’s later excesses—that before the wound he is a diligent, dutiful murderer with nothing more eccentric about him (in that context) than a bit of brother-sister rumpy-pumpy in his past; where after the wound and because of the wound he’s the unhinged individual who does all the things in ‘Air’ and ‘Gigue’.  This would be a problem, I suppose, because it would compromise the representative capacity of Aue as a character.  It would be unusually obtuse to write a novel implying that Germany perpetrated the holocaust because it had, in some sense, been brain damaged.  I don’t mean to be stolidly literal in this: Kindly Ones isn’t an allegory, and Aue isn’t presented as a ‘representative German’ except insofar as he is, you know, hard working and focussed on the specificity of the work he is given.  Nonetheless something like this has informed the dispraise of a number of reviewers, who argued that the novel would work better if the narrator had been more like Eichmann, and less like the insane brother from Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn.  I’m not sure about this—except where the headwound is concerned.  What I mean is that being gay, or having had incestuous feelings to one’s sister, don’t speak to motivation, to the reasons a person chooses to do bad things, in the way that suffering severe brain damage does.

For me the extended phantasmagoria immediately after the head-wound is more interesting.  It struck me particularly, I think, because I’m such a big fan of SF, so much so that there’s a danger I’ll see it where it may not be.  I did see it in Kindly Ones, though (and not just because Littell’s first published book was a SF novel that he’s now disowned).  I’m curious what you made of all the science fictiony, Vernean-Burroughsian material in the novel.

Andrew:  I have to confess, I don’t know very much about (and haven’t read very much) science fiction.  I agree with you that perhaps the brain damage opens up some possibilities for reading the rest of the novel that simply don’t contribute to anything--not to our understanding of Aue as a character, not to our understanding of the job he’s performing, and most of all not to the reverie passages. I tried not to read with the possibility of brain damage in mind, and I do think that there are a few points in the novel which stand out as disavowals of reading the wound as an authorial cop-out. The primary one being, I think, the confirmation of what certainly seems like a hallucinatory passage, where Thomas gets hit with shrapnel--later we find out that it did happen, since he bears a scar and acknowledges the episode. Although that technically happens before the head wound, I felt this was a sort of sign from Littell that the reader shouldn’t be overly enthusiastic in attributing unreliability to the narrator whenever/wherever possible.

A quick google leads me to Georges Bataille, and taking a look at the relevant section in Visions of Excess, this seems very much like something Littell was drawing from.

I guess I generally take a very skeptical view of the sort of esotericist criticism that insists these kind of references within the text are coded such that only a diligent or vastly literate reader will gather the full meaning of the book, or of the idea that only by reconstructing the author’s trail of reading can we understand a book. And this is certainly an issue for reading Kindly Ones, I think; it’s very tempting to say something like, “If you haven’t read Blanchot, you can’t understand The Kindly Ones.” I’m not an author, though--do you feel like you want the readers of your books to be trying to track your references in this way? Do you leave “easter eggs” for them?

Adam:  Putting in gags or in-jokes is one thing; burying something crucial to the understanding of your text looks more like cheating.  On the other hand, Littell talks about Blanchot a fair bit in interviews and so on; and has published at least one essay on him (a commentary on B.’s ‘On Reading’ piece: here ((translated here) so it’s not exactly buried away. The specifics of that passage you pick out from Visions of Excess are certainly interesting; and you’re right, that section reads almost too directly as a gloss upon what Kindly Ones does.

His ‘On Reading’ piece is interesting too, I think, for different reasons … it addresses the situation of ‘the author’; and the author (‘Jonathan Littell’) keeps intruding into discussions of this particular novel: he’s a good man, a bad man; he has the right to write these things, he doesn’t have that right; he’s laughing all the way to the bank, he’s a serious and ethical person who worked for an NGO on hunger … and so on.  This is what he himself says, quoting Blanchot:

D’où la vanité de demander à l’écrivain ce qu’il avait «voulu dire», comme si l’écriture procédait de son vouloir, de sa libre et souveraine volonté. Il faudrait la mettre en rapport, plutôt, avec l’angoisse, Blanchot, on l’a vu, le souligne (invoquant l’exemple de Kafka). Déjà, en 1935, dans Le dernier mot, un de ses tout premiers récits, il écrivait : «La peur est votre seul maître. Si vous croyez ne plus rien craindre, inutile de lire. Mais c’est la gorge serrée par la peur que vous apprendrez à parler …

‘Anguish’ and ‘fear’ rather than ‘will’ or ‘desire’ at the heart of the writing process … that’s interesting.  Strange—or, probably not if I come to think of it—how bleached of fear Aue is in most of this book; how little anguish he registers.

But since you ask about my own writing practice, and since we’re talking about Littell’s likely influences (and talking about SF) let me say something that did occur to me as I was reading.  Littell has written a novel about genocide (called The Kindly Ones) narrated by a flawed and in many ways amoral narrator called Aue, who travels about his world, has various encounters, some strange sex, murders a few people, although really the most significant thing about him is that he is (partly) responsible for mass murder on a vast, numbing scale.  A few years ago I wrote a science fiction novel about genocide (called Stone) narrated by a flawed and in many ways amoral narrator called Ae, who travels about his cosmos, has various encounters, some strange sex and murders a few people, although really the most significant thing about him is that he is (partly) responsible for murdering the entire population of a planet.

Now I’ve no reason to believe (and, actually, several reasons to disbelieve) that Littel has so much as heard of my SF novel.  Quite apart from anything else, the differences between the two books (over and above the difference of genre) are even more pronounced than the similarities—I won’t list all the differences here, or it would swiftly become very tedious.  But other than the most obvious (that my book is far-futuristic and interplanetary and Littell’s book historical and European) there’s the point that my novel mocks the nature of SF specificity—lots of invented terminology, appendices maps and so on—where Littell presents actual specificity with a completely straight face.  But the real reason I mention this is because it foregrounds for me exactly this question of addressing these issues historically as opposed to fantastically—SF is full of genocide, and often in nakedly celebratory terms.  Read E E Doc Smith, or actually any one of a number of Pulp and Golden Age SF writers, for examples of that.

If Littell’s point is that one aspect of the tragedy of Nazism was that a fundamentally adolescent, science-fictional Weltanschauung got itself projected upon the actual world—then as Rich Puchalsky noted in the comments to the earlier posts, that’s already been done (Spinrad’s Iron Dream is only one of several interesting books that explore this: Burdekin’s Swastika Night is another) and Kindly Ones starts to look belated and kind of superfluous.  Actually I think Littell is doing a lot more than that; although I suspect that is part of what he’s doing.

But there’s another angle.  The standard (if you like) SF take on Nazism is alternate history … there’s a whole subgenre called ‘Hitler Wins’, of which Dick’s Man in the High Castle is perhaps both best-known and best, in which history is replayed via German victory, and the book explores the dystopian possibilities of what such a postwar world would look like.  Holding the subject matter at one remove like this at least partially inoculates the books against the sort of hostility Littell’s book has provoked; because on some very obvious level such books don’t make implicit truth claims the way Kindly Ones does (just look at the historical verisimilitude).  This seems to me very wrong-headed.  Books aren’t life.  In fact, one of the ways I’m toying with reading this book is precisely as, inter alia, an intervention into the now bulging mini-genre of Hitler Wins books: not a world in which Hitler wins the war, but a textual universe in which Hitler saturates; a world in which Hitler has won the narrator’s consciousness, as it were.

My novel, Stone, isn’t a Hitler Wins alternate-history: it’s set in some far future of interstellar travel.  But it does have quite a lot to do with quantum physics, and the idea that observation affects reality.  And this in turn made me wonder about what in my series of ongoing reading posts I kept coming back to as the ‘veillant’ aspect of the novel: Les Bienveillants as surveillance (I mean: spectator, observer, watcher; although I note that ‘surveillant’, in French, actually means ‘prison warder or guard’ and also ‘supervisor, overseer’), the extent to which the novel is based on the belief that observing something is not a neutral, scientific or distancing matter; that observing something affects it and you—that watching the murder of Jews makes you as complicit as pulling the trigger.  What did you think about that?  Or am I putting too much emphasis on the watching aspect?  My Ae discovers that the universe he lives in literalises this, via a strong reading of the Copenhagen quantum hypothesis.  But Littel’s Aue seems to be an exemplification of the very basic but very important point: it all depends upon how you see the world.

Andrew:  The presence of SF and the possibility that it is, as you say, about “a fundamentally adolescent, science-fictional Weltanschauung got itself projected upon the actual world,” is I think matched by a running commentary on romanticized 19th C. novels of war or heroism: War and Peace is unmissable, though not directly referenced, but Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Stendhal, and of course Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale are both cited repeatedly. If Littell is indicting SF or trying to tie it to Nazism, he is certainly doing so to this genre as well. I’m not sure either is a major concern for him, but I think these two need to be paired together.

I really like your idea about treating the novel as an intervention into the Hitler Wins genre: I think especially recently (even more so since 1985, when DeLillo’s White Noise mocked Hitler Studies) there is an attempt to understand Hitler as a sort of primal scene for the whole Nazi psyche, capable of unlocking the complexes and cathexes of the German soul if only we could understand him. There was the movie Max, for instance, which starred John Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who tries to help the young Hitler achieve his dreams of artistic success; the German film Der Untergang (Downfall) raised some eyebrows with a, if not sympathetic, at least fully humanized Hitler as seen through the eyes of one of his secretaries. Then there was Norman Mailer’s Castle in the Forest—which fixates on Hitler’s childhood.

One of the most interesting things, for me, about The Kindly Ones was how inaccessible—both on a psychological level and on a narrative or plot level—Hitler is to Aue and, even more, to the reader. The whole biting scene, I think, just made that inaccessibility absurd, but it didn’t contradict it. It’s a totally ridiculous parallel, but when Hitler hobbles into that scene to pin medals on Aue and the others, I thought of the scene at the end of Philip Pullman’s Amber Spyglass, where Lyra and Will get to the Ancient of Days just as he’s expiring of tremendous old age. Aue’s ludicrous action deprives the reader of any meaningful confrontation with Hitler, and thus any meaningful confrontation with Nazism as it could be contained in one man. We are given a chance for a half-page or so to read Littell’s descriptions of Hitler as an embodiment of Nazism, then the biting occurs and we’re too thrown to keep that embodiment idea in our heads.

The ‘veillant’ aspect of the book is certainly one I picked up on as well, though I had some trouble fitting it into my focus on work. But I think this is because I was thinking of “looking” or even “watching” as passive actions; when you point to the ‘prison warder or guard’ or ‘overseer’ this makes a great deal more sense to me. The Oresteia opens with a night watchman, for one thing, if we want to keep reading for allusions, but more important to me is Littell’s insistence throughout the book on the completely aleatory distribution of actions within an army: the watchers at an execution are no less culpable than the shooters because it is only the arbitrary orders of other men that have put the guns in the others’ hands.

Also, I think the notion of watching as no less participatory than acting has obvious (and well-remarked upon) effects on the position of the reader. I do think the discourse of witnessing is crucial to the novel, although I think that the force of it is less about trying to make the reader be a witness than it is about the efforts we make to change the act of witnessing to something less active. This is why of all the criticisms of the novel the comparisons of Aue to Zelig, as the uber-improbable figure who pops up everywhere, irritate me the most, especially since these references (I’m thinking mainly of Samuel Moyn’s review from The Nation) don’t talk about Zelig’s chameleon-like nature, just about the fact that he’s humorously ubiquitous. Zelig is, one could say, an anti-witness, and I find him distinctly unuseful as a comparison to Aue.

Insisting on the activeness of the witness is also a way of talking about the conversion of the Furies into the Eumenides, this revision of the role of the witness from a persecuting (or prosecuting) force to a docilely observant one. And I think we see that Littell directly implicates the reader in this conversion: the only use of the term is on the last page, in the last line, when the only witnesses to Aue’s actions that remain are his readers. “The Kindly Ones were on to me.” Are we, though?

Adam: What do you make of Thomas?  Might we want to take him, as Rich P. suggests, as a kind of author stand-in?

Andrew: I thought your description of Thomas as a deus ex machina or as a get-out-of-jams-free card was much better; of course the frequency with which Aue runs into any of the friends he makes--Hohenegg, Osnabrugge--is uncanny. Again, though, I think the Zelig comparisons miss the mark; constantly new characters just seems like a really poor alternative to developing a few characters more while sacrificing a small amount of probability. I guess different readers have different valuations of fictional probability, however.

Thomas in many ways actually seemed much more believable and “real” to me than Aue; Thomas Hauser’s character type seemed more universal to me, as if I could meet him today: that same assured sense of knowing where the crucial connections are to be found, whose stock is on the rise, whose is stagnant or falling, and the constant focus on incremental advancement, an ally won here, a patron there. I won’t say I’ve met people like that because it would be a little rude, but I found Thomas to be sort of familiar.

Thomas’s inexplicable patronage of Aue led me to wonder on more occasions than the last page, what relationship does he have to the Kindly Ones, watching over Aue? His nick-of-time rescues of Aue certainly seem angelic, but why would Littell give Aue a guardian angel? The snappy answer is laziness or lack of skill; I don’t buy this because I found a lot of the writing to be both diligent and skillful, and I dislike presuming authorial misconduct where it’s usually me not working hard enough to figure out some narrative riddle. But I don’t really have an answer for Thomas; I guess I just accepted his presence and his role while reading the book, and didn’t really try to fit him in later.

Adam:  Surely not laziness, no.  But I can certainly see the argument that, broadly speaking, Nazi Germany was not punished for its crimes; a few token representatives were hanged at Nuremberg, rather more escaped (many with the active connivance of various Western powers) or were recruited into the cause of antiCommunism, and in a decade and a half Western Germany was one of the great powers of the world again.  I’m not suggesting Germany didn’t learn important and (of course) very hard lessons; but this isn’t the trajectory a Götterdämmerung is supposed to follow.  So, yes, I guess it’s non-negotiable, for this fictional project, that Aue escapes; and not just so that he’s in a position to write his memoirs.  The innocent suffer, the guilty go unpunished (save, perhaps, the odd nip on the schnozz); this, I guess, is the world Littell is painting.

I think what I’m trying to get at is the way Littell negotiates the borderline in The Kindly Ones between pseudo-documentary verisimilitude and phantasmagoria.  Often the line is drawn clearly:  Aue is dreaming, say; he’s just been shot in the skull; or he is suffering from a head-spinning fever.  But then there’s all the goings-on in Air—did he actually kill somebody in that section, do you think (a peasant woman, perhaps, who wandered into his path), or only imagine doing so? What’s going on with all the imaginary people there?

And then there’s a particular sort or class of character in the novel.  What do we make of the obese Bond Villain Mandelbrod, with his trio of identikit pneumatic blonde assistants?  What I mean is: in a book that accumulates so much specific realistic detail, with respect to characters as well as actions, isn’t Mandelbrod too obviously a grotesque, a caricature?  Like somebody who has wandered in from another novel.  The two detectives, Weser and Clemens, seemed to me similar, if not so extreme, cases.

I can’t shake the sense that Littell is trying something really quite ambitious in mixing an emulsion of Realism and the hallucinatory like this.  I guess, if he has done it successfully (really not sure if he has) then each should act as a gloss upon the other.  I’ll also stoop to autobiography for a mo: I’m not Jewish but my wife is, which means our kids are.  Last Saturday but one we all went off to synagogue (I don’t usually go) for a blessing ceremony for the kids, which involved standing on the bimah with Rachel and our two kids reading stuff out to the congregation, and having the Rabbi say some stuff.  It was all very nice, actually, and everyone there was perfectly welcoming.  Now it so happened that I was, at that point, just finishing off the last section of Littell’s novel (I don’t mean I was reading it in the synagogue .... actually you know what? I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable even carrying a copy into the synagogue.  But I’d been reading it the night before, and finished it that afternoon).  Now whilst my attention was mostly on the service, at one point it wandered sufficiently for me to have this vertiginous sense of the fundamental oddity of the Holocaust—surrounded as I was by a group of thoroughly nice people having spent the previous week putting my head imaginatively into the mental space of an ideology that wanted all of them dead.  I don’t mean to be facile here; and most of the time it’s easy enough to hold in one’s head (indeed, hard enough to avoid thinking about) the lengthy and murderous history of European anti-Semitism.  But at the same time it’s a phantasmagoric, peculiar and surreal business.  That, I take it, is one of the effects Littell is going for by mixing in so much that we might call SF, or Pulp, or Noir-crime, or whatever.

Andrew:  Part of the disjunction or simple queerness of the novel (in the non-gender/sexuality sense of the word, though that would be interesting to add to this discussion) is that the particular brand of realist/fantasy emulsion that Littell employs is not really similar to the other “brands” of fiction dealing with fundamental horrors through surreal or fantasy elements: a creature like Mandelbrod would not really fit either in a magical realist novel or in a novel we’d call “Kafkaesque” (I’m not trying to say that Kafka himself maintains this particular emulsion, but that the books which are called Kafkaesque generally do, and generally do in similar ways).

Nor are these elements fully like any avant-garde writing I know; I suppose a reading of Bataille (again) could recuperate a lot of the dream sequences and maybe a lot of “Air,” but I don’t really see affinities or even attempted affinities between the class of characters you mention and someone like Bataille, or really even someone like (W.S.) Burroughs, though I can’t say that for sure because I haven’t read very much of him. But generally, while a character like Mandelbrod seems like a clump of narrative excess, it’s a very different kind of excess from the intentional excesses of avant-garde art. And if we can talk about the non-realist elements of magical realism or Kafkaesque novels as being excesses (which I think is a very reactionary way of thinking about them), then it seems to me that Littell’s varieties of excess are further away still.

The necessity of specifying which Burroughs I was referencing, though, does lead right back into SF, I think--would it be flip to call Littell’s work “hard history,” sort of like “hard SF” in that the author is imposing constraints on his creativity which are given by currently existing structures, but which do not completely exclude pockets of the stuff that makes it science fiction? I’m not sure how much interpretive work this term, “hard history,” actually does, but it certainly seems to me that reading Littell’s book as part of one of the other (non-SF) genres which narrate mass death or mass misery doesn’t really do that work either.

Adam:  I’ve enjoyed this exchange very much, and it has helped me get, I think, a better sense of the book.  So for instance it has brought into focus for me a sense I had of evasiveness in the text itself (which may in turn explain why the book has so markedly polarised opinions); not evasiveness in a straightforward, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth way (self-delusion, or -exculpation), but something more deeply bedded in Littel’s project.  I like ‘Hard History’, actually, on the model of ‘Hard SF’, in part because the claims of Hard SF to ‘objective truth’ are just as illusive as the idea that Kindly Ones accesses some sort of objectivity about the holocaust ... of course Littell isn’t trying to do that.  I don’t mean ‘evasiveness’, then, in terms of a simple truth-function.  I mean it, I think, in some relationship to your more general angle re: work and death ... work and sex as well.  The designedly workmanlike descriptions not only of dying, but of all Aue’s sexual kinks and excesses, the way ‘Air’, say, is such a slog to get through: it’s as if the point is to lay bare the fundamentally boring nature of pornography. It’s possible to consume pornography without clocking just how repetitive and dull it is because arousal distracts the consumer; by stripping away the possibility of arousal (I find it hard to imagine many readers getting aroused by Aue’s shenanigans) Littell lays bare the substratum of tedium.  Something similar is going on with the larger focus of the book: refusing to present, or re-present, ‘the glamour of evil’, refusing to take the Holocaust as an Adornoesque ultimate that baffles all signification, refusing even to gesture towards Death as a profound transcendence ... actually ‘evasion’ isn’t really the right word for this.

I’m curious, though, that you think reading Kafka’s novels in terms of ‘excesses’ is ‘a very reactionary way of thinking about them.’ Why reactionary, exactly?  (Do you mean, regarding their excesses from a sort of antibody perspective, as problems to be isolated and ‘solved’?)

Andrew: I guess what I meant by saying that reading Kafkaesque non-realist elements as “excesses” was a reactionary attitude was that assuming that these elements are flourishes or more generally anything added to a basic realist plot (and therefore extractable, less necessary) is a way of treating reality as something inexcessive, as something which generally seeks or maintains an equilibrium. I think that is very reactionary, and very inaccurate.

I actually really wanted to talk more about sex in the post I wrote about work and death: I particularly wanted to try to gloss what was for me one of the most interesting passages of the book, but I ended up leaving it out because it just wasn’t fitting very well. The passage was:

“For man has taken the coarse, limited facts given to every sexed creature and has built from them a limitless fantasy, murky and profound, an eroticism that, more than anything, distinguishes him from the animals, and he has done the same thing with the idea of death, but this imagination, curiously, has no name (you could call it thanatism, perhaps): and it is these imaginations, these forever rehearsed obsessions, and not the thing itself, that are frantic driving forces behind our thirst for life, for knowledge, for the agonizing struggle of self. I was still holding L’Education sentimentale, set down on my lap almost touching my sex, forgotten, I let these idiot’s thoughts dig into my head, my ears full of the anguished beating of my heart.” (883-4)

The Freudian eros/thanatos dialectic is strangely under-determined (I think) for a book that deals with sex and death so much; except in this section, the two drives seem almost decoupled, which I read as being the result of an extreme division between work and the private life, or between one’s professional activities and one’s interior thoughts. Even in this section, Littell seems to be suggesting that the death drive is capable of overwhelming the sex drive ("my sex, forgotten") simply because it is not as regulated by the work of constructing fantasies and naming them, taxonomizing them. Because there is not really an orderly pornography of death in the same way that there can be said to be an orderly pornography of sex, because there is no thanatism as there is eroticism, the death drive is ultimately the stronger and the more uncontrollable.

The implications for the book as a whole seem to be rather obvious, so I won’t elaborate on them, but this is (equally obviously) a really icky line of thought. I don’t think that the book is meant to fulfill this work of constructing a “thanatism,” although in a way, this has been how Littell’s critics have been reading it. I guess I just don’t see the same kind of commitment to the depiction and imagination of death in the novel as we find in, say, Ballard or the section of Bolaño’s 2666 that deals with the femicidio of Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juárez to make me believe that Littell really intended to create a “thanatism.”


Comments

A clarification: treating a character as an authorial stand-in is, in my opinion, almost exactly the same thing as saying that they act “as a deus ex machina or as a get-out-of-jams-free card”.  They serve the function within the narrative that the author needs served, as if the author is reaching into the text as a character.

And that answers all sorts of questions—“Thomas’s inexplicable patronage of Aue”, for instance, is not inexplicable; Littell is the necessary patron of Aue, and has to make sure that he gets out alive in order to tell his story.  The same goes for the watching over and the “nick-of-time rescues”.

Does that count as laziness or lack of skill?  No, not necessarily; I tend to think that these instances point out fundamental problems in the narrative that can’t be papered over.  A demiurgical reading takes these things seriously as indicators that point back to problems that help you learn about the text.  My personal reference case is Mieville’s Iron Council, in which the nearly authorial execution of a character points back to the difficulty of either describing a successful socialism or allowing the socialism in the book to fail.  In this case, I’d guess that Littell seems to have the conflicting goals of damaging his character as much as possible and of making sure that he survives to tell his story.  (How many Germans really survived severe head wounds at Stalingrad?  That seems to me to be a good deal more improbable than anything else.)

The E.R. Burroughs link might be good in that regard, actually.  A Burroughs Martian story is, among other things, a narrative about someone who gets shot at quite an unreasonable number of times and somehow survives to tell about it.  John Carter, Burroughs’ main Barsoomian hero, was supposed to have been a captain in the Southern army in the U.S. Civil War, and therefore in a hidden way occupies a somewhat analogous position.  A good deal of the described absurdity of Aue strikes me as a broad way of ironizing the heroic narrative (i.e. instead of plotting to assassinate Hitler, he bites his nose).

By on 04/08/09 at 04:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been reading the Kindly Ones, and I can’t say I have a great knowledge of the Holocaust (I’m a highschool student) and I’m just taking the book as it is; not being quite so history-savvy I’m finding it to be a very good character study, and generally, a pretty interesting story. I’ve grown rather sympathetic towards the Max character (as much as one can attempt to identify with such a personality, I’ve attempted, and I don’t hate him as much as I first did.)
The actual reading of the book has been the uphill climb for me, the endlessly detailed (almost overtly boastful of all the research the author’s done, hmm) descriptions of the inner workings of the SS et al were gratuitous and at times, quite dull.
Aside from that, it’s interesting, and I’ll be persevering. Even the less enthusiastic reviewers have to admit that the book is beautifully written.

The Kindly Ones is just what I need to detox from all that ‘Twilight’ by Stephanie Meyer rubbish that the rest of the teen population is feeding off of.

Over and out.

end note: The Hitler-nose-biting-thing. Brilliant. Not sure if it is meant to be serious, it had me laughing though. Honestly.

By on 06/09/09 at 08:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:

Name:
Email:
Location:
URL:

 

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: