Monday, March 16, 2009
Littell’s Kindly Ones: 1
There were no takers for a Kindly Ones reading group, so I’ve decided just to blog my own reading progress without expecting anything by way of group discussion. This is partly just to motivate me to get through the book’s 984 large close-printed pages (it’s 1403 pages in the original French, I see)—and I’ll note at the start: I find Littell’s, or his publisher’s, decision to print all the book’s dialogue in solid unparagraphed chunks plain annoying. But it’s also because I usually respond critically (if I’m not being pompous here) to a book after I have finished reading, and after I’ve tried to digest the whole thing. I’m mildly curious to see how well my on-the-go reactions stand up after I’ve finished the whole thing.
The book is in seven parts, each with a musical title (‘Toccata’, ‘Allemandes I and II’, ‘Courante’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Menuet (en Rondeaux)’, ‘Air’ and ‘Gigue’). I’ll post, then, seven posts, upon completing each section.
So, the beginning. This Toccata presumably touches on the themes of the whole in brief (21 pages in the UK edition). Our man, Max Aue, having passed himself off as a Frenchman to avoid prosecution for his actions in the SS during the war, is now running running a Lace Factory in France. He is married, and has a family, but you wouldn’t describe him as happy. He is, he says, setting down his life story, not in the spirit of self-exculpation but simply ‘to set the record straight.’ His tone is cool and dispassionate, only occasionally lyrical, for he considers himself not-quite human. Sometimes, he says, he might have ‘a human thought. But this is a rare thing’:
Yet if you put your work, your ordinary activities, your everyday agitation, on hold, and devote yourself solely to thinking, things go very differently. Soon things start rising up, in heavy, dark waves. At night, your dreams fall apart, unfurl and proliferate, and when you wake they leave a fine bitter film at the back of your mind, which takes a long time to dissolve. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that. Even a man who had never gone to war, who has never had to kill, will experience what I’m talking about. All the meanness, the cowardice, the lies, the pettiness that afflict everyone will come back to haunt him. No wonder men have invented work,; alcohol, meaningless chatter. No wonder television sell so well. [7-8]
I’m wary of the implicit claim in those last few sentences towards a kind of universality of ethical focus—and, from what I’ve read the prodigious and detailed specificity of the book as a whole also works against a more general applicability. But I’ll confess I’m quite struck by that middle bit there, and take it as a kind of keynote to which the narrative will return: ‘I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far from complex than that.’ The passive voice of ‘these too exist, no doubt’ is nicely done.
A couple of other notes. One is the title: ‘Les Bienveillantes’ are, indeed, the Eumenides of Greek Mythology; although ‘kindly ones’ lacks the veilleurs (the watchers, the good-surveillers) implicit in the original. I have no idea if that is going to prove significant, though I’ve a hunch that Aue is more watcher than actor. Which is to say, maybe the French title is a tad less ironic than the English.
Secondly, I was struck by the opening sentence:
‘Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.’
(The next sentence is: ‘I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know’). My first thought (it’s a pedantic little crotchet of mine) is that the translator actually meant to write: ‘O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.’ But I’ll let that go. My second thought was: this is a deliberate echo of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, whose famously amoral, violent and affectively flattened narrator is fond of the vocative (‘Let me tell you, O my brothers…’). I wonder: should I be reading this whole novel as a kind of elaborate gloss upon, and real-life repositioning of, Burgess’s novel?
I like the notion. But checking the original French (extensive chunks of the book are available online here) I don’t find that vocative O in the passage:
Frères humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ça s’est passé. On n’est pas votre frère, rétorquerez-vous, et on ne veut pas le savoir. Et c’est bien vrai qu’il s’agit d’une sombre histoire, mais édifiante aussi, un véritable conte moral, je vous l’assure. Ça risque d’être un peu long, après tout il s’est passé beaucoup de choses, mais si ça se trouve vous n’êtes pas trop pressés, avec un peu de chance vous avez le temps. Et puis ça vous concerne: vous verrez bien que ça vous concerne. Ne pensez pas que je cherche à vous convaincre de quoi que ce soit ; après tout, vos opinions vous regardent. Si je me suis résolu à écrire, après toutes ces années, c’est pour mettre les choses au point pour moi-même, pas pour vous.
So maybe I’m overreading.
each with a musical title
Not just any old musical title: this is a Baroque sonata da camera, consisting of abstract pieces (Toccata, Air) interspersed with dances (Allemande, Sarabande, Minuet, Gigue).
Compare for example Handel’s Sonata in E minor (HWV 398), which goes Andante, Allegro, Sarabande, Allemande, Rondeau, Gavotte.
Not sure if this has any bearing on the book.
I don’t have anything to contribute but This Space’s‘s review has really intrigued me about the book.
I’ll let the idea die quietly here, in the comments thread of a completely different post.
Yes, well, you see, some of us didn’t know you were asking the question over there in that other thread (OK, I confess, I don’t read every comment that goes up on every post). But now you have a head start.
Sorry Rohan, erm, Ro’an: you’re right, I did rather bury that original comment.
I haven’t read this, but doesn’t a book like this have an especially great presumption-of-trashiness to overcome? I mean, a novel about a surviving SS officer, allowing the rehearsal of banalities about the banality of evil. Plus, so wiki informs me, an extra incestuous relationship with his sister. Isn’t there something very provincial, very culturally sheltered, about hailing that as a great work, at this date? Maybe he’s a strong stylist or something; I don’t know.
Or, to rephrase—I read the This Space review that Jake links to above. It quotes part of the work as follows:
“If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it’s to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae – what do we do with such an appalling realization?”
To have this sentiment coming from a surviving SS officer is artistically appalling. It’s appalling because it hitches an experience of universality to the fake interest generated by any book with a swastika on the cover and the promise of a genocide scene.
I mean, I know this exact trope. I’ve written a poem / manifesto that figures everyone as larvae. But it can’t be a sincere expression of universality coming out of the mouth of an SS officer rehearsing his actions. I don’t mean the question of whether the character is sincere or not, I mean that it’s authorially insincere.
For what it’s worth, “The Kindly Ones” does not have a swastika on the cover.
Rich’s haughty distaste for the book appears almost universal, at least among people who haven’t read the book.
"But it can’t be a sincere expression of universality coming out of the mouth of an SS officer rehearsing his actions. I don’t mean the question of whether the character is sincere or not, I mean that it’s authorially insincere.”
Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of the book (NYRB) tackles precisely the universality/uniqueness opposition that seems to be bothering you, using Aeschylus as a lever for lifting this burden off of the author for long enough to assess the book as a noble failure. I was ready to dismiss the book for reasons similar to yours before I read his take on it.
"I don’t mean the question of whether the character is sincere or not, I mean that it’s authorially insincere.”
That’s sort of the open secret, is it not? Or the white elephant in the room, among critics and publishers? It appears that Littell and perhaps his publishers are Sokaling their way to the bank, not necessarily consciously. Not that it can quite be considered a hoax of a sort in publishing, no matter Littell’s intentions, because, from all descriptions, it’s too much the sort of thing that gets published regularly, with roots that trace far back. (It is a fiction, not factual analysis, so if anyone wants to say the novel is a mock rendering of much insipid, insincere, or false lit, they are certainly free to, and free to make what they want of it. I don’t recall any such claims.)
There’s something more going on in addition, which I touch on in a meta interview, while writing mostly about Bolaño in a related different vein:
“Once more to the liberal cesspool. Once more to the conservative craphouse. As widely reported and discussed, Littell’s prize-winning mammoth novel, The Kindly Ones, which publishers are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for the rights to publish (and market), tells the fictive story of a “former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.” It’s a novel about atrocity featuring a sociopathic psychopath conveniently far removed from the sociopathic atrocities being perpetrated today by the respectable, by the more or less normal individuals and officials of the sociopathic corporate-state.”
Where’s the great novel with the title about the official Respectable Ones - The George Bushes, the Condi Rices, the Donald Rumsfelds, the Colin Powells, the Dick Cheneys, the CNNs, NBCs, NYTs, etc? Of course, the Obama administration is continuing the central elements of their policies. Obama has made some limited liberal change in domestic budgeting but in his Republican-lite handling of the financial implosion he is (as with foreign policy) setting himself up for continued ridicule and extensive outrage. The brilliance of the Republicans for the existence of the overall system is to be even worse than the Democrats. Littell and Bolano seem to have a somewhat similar or analogous relationship. They come across as pre 9/11 works in a post invasion of Oila and economically challenged world. The current stars of the literary world.
LML, thanks for the ref to the review—it wasn’t a bad review. But for me it confirms a good deal of what I’d suspected about the book. I’ll quote a bit of it:
“The conflict between civilization and the ugly energies that civilized institutions seek, and often fail, to contain is a tension that stands at the center of any discussion of the moral implications of the Holocaust—a tension that can be seen reflected at the level of individual psychology, too. For the question of how it could have been possible for a country with Germany’s superior cultural achievements to have also created Auschwitz inevitably raises, as well, the related question of how individual Germans (or Poles, or Ukrainians, or Latvians, or Lithuanians, or Frenchmen, and so forth)—who, for the most part, saw themselves as reasonable, normal people, and indeed led normal-looking lives throughout the war, apart from their participation in the crimes—could have perpetrated horrors to which, perhaps naively, perhaps self-servingly, we like to refer as “inhuman."”
But that really seems to me to be nonsense. Nonsense on very many levels. I’ll explain one: the holocaust was not so hard to explain, from the Jewish point of view. Europeans had always hated and killed Jews. Massacres were part of European civilization. People are only shocked at the individual committing the acts because they aren’t willing to admit that their entire civilization is complicit. Therefore this whole, tired, how-could-people-do-this paragraph functions as an excuse.
Much more useful, if anything at this point is to be of use, were the recent books examining how ordinary Germans, not freakish intellectuals, had no problem in carrying out these crimes. Of course, they weren’t fiction.
The second element of the book that Mendelsohn identifies is its lineage, through Blanchot and Sartre, within the “literature of transgression”:
“The “pornographic” material is not a shallow symbol of Max’s evil (a puritanical reading, if anything): it is, rather, Littell completing Sartre’s unfinished task, “pushing the abjection far enough,” struggling to show “impiety against real piety"—the “piety,” in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like.”
But here again this is a familiar role for Jews. Just as the purpose of a black person in an American drama is often to provide patient wisdom that helps the white protagonist turn their life around, the role of a Jew in the European imagination was often to be the object of this kind of sadistic freedom-through-transgression.
Philip Zimbardo on evil:
From the blurb: “Philip Zimbardo was the leader of the notorious 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment—and an expert witness at Abu Ghraib.”
The first line alludes to a French poem:
Interesting link, Samuel: but are you sure there’s an allusion there?
The allusion to Villon was suggested by Charlotte Mandell in an interview about translating the book.
The link was a commonplace of the French discussion (eg, http://livres.lexpress.fr/critique.asp?idC=11881&idR=9&idTC=3&idG=3), and has already been repeated by numerous Anglophone reviewers; I was just reporting it given your post.
OK: fair enough. Interesting ... I can certainly see the relevance of Villon to the ‘disreputability’ aspect of the novel.
Fort what it’s worth I started both this, the Roberto Bolano and The Gone-Away World by Nicks Harkaway in the same week and put both the first two aside for some other time, which doesn’t qualify me to comment on other, obviously. BUT, Jonathan Littell is the son of Robert Littell, the American spy novelist, ‘the American LeCarre,’ as the blurb has it. Harkaway is the son of John LeCarre, ‘the British LeCarre,’ as the blurb doesn’t put it. I started The Gone-Away World, and finished it. It was a lot more fun than the other two.
Oh, God. I would kill for an edit function right now.