Sunday, March 22, 2009
Littell’s Kindly Ones: 5
Onward. Kindly Ones fifth section ‘Menuet (en Rondeaux)’ is the longest of all: pp.535-863, and now that I’ve polished it off (or now that I’ve trudged, with increasing sense of weariness, through its snow wastes) only two brief sections stand between me and finishing this big book. I don’t feel I need to apologise for my exhaustion; Littell’s narrator concedes the point, more than once.
On April 9 … ah but what’s the point of relating all these details, day by day? It’s exhausting me, and also it’s boring me, and you too, no doubt. How many pages have I already stacked up on these uninteresting bureaucratic epidoes? No, I can’t go on like this anymore. 
But he lies. He does go on. And then he goes on some more.
There’s a good deal more of the novel’s studiedly surfacing and over-surfacing of detail, Aue’s day to day routines and experiences, layered as thickly on here as ever. He becomes closer to Himmler, and becomes almost friends with Eichmann, who’s a major character in this section. I say major character, although as with most of the players in this text, and I’m sure by careful authorial strategy, I should glue on inverted commas to the small-backed c and the hanging penile r whenever I break that word out. None of these guys are characters. All of them are ‘characters’. That, I suppose, is part of Littell’s larger point.
Aue’s irresistible rise continues: he is promoted and given his own department, to supply Speer with slave labour for war production. This means butting heads with other departments, who are keen to pursue the Final Solution to its final, uh, dissolution. So Aue visits Auschwitz, and other camps, attempting to pry out workers for the German war effort. Mostly he fails.
What else? He is strangely drawn (strangely for him, I mean) to a kind if rather distant beautiful young German widow, and goes so far as to fantasise about settling down with her, living an ordinary life, having kids and so on. She—Helene is her name—seems to reciprocate his attraction, and for a while they have what amounts almost to a romantic idyll, though a chaste one, as the RAF’s daytime raids on Berlin start smashing the place up. Then Aue suffers a prolonged fever, and as she nurses him through it he tells her (hoping to drive her away, or just wound her) all the horrible things the Germans have been getting up to in the East and in the camps. This has the effect, naturally, of shocking her. He apologises after he recovers, but it puts a distance between them.
We also learn, in this section, more about Aue’s matricide. Littell comes at this from two flanks. On the one hand he introduces two rather clumsily drawn pursuant policemen who are convinced of Aue’s guilt and who refuse to let the case go: Weser and Clemens (‘Laurel and Hardy’, Aue calls them). They dog Aue. He uses his influence to have the charges dropped. They carry on hounding him. The judge dies and the case is reopened, so they come after him again. With Himmler’s help it’s shelved once more, but still they hound him. (It’s almost as if they are, like, furies, or something). On the other Aue discovers some news about what his long-lost father got up to (agitating on behalf of the Right in the 1920s and early 30s) after he abandoned his family. This affects Aue deeply. Oddly, he is reticent, in narratorial terms, about his dad’s Christian name. Here he is in conversation with a Judge called Baumann:
“Excuse me, but did you father fight with the Freikorps Rossbach, in Courland? I remember an officer called Aue.” He said the Christian name. My heart began beating violently. “That is my father’s name …” 
What is his name, though? Agamemnon, presumably.
This emphasis on the faceless, nameless father (Aue is given a photo of his Dad, but the face is just a blur) speaks, I’m thinking, to a broader attempt by the novel to torpedo too-pat or facilely explanatory models of psychological explanation (the most obvious question the novel sets out to address: why did these people do these terrible things?). Neither depth, nor depthlessness, but a partial corrosion of psychological meaning, or orientation, to do with the shaping culure, or family, of volk of a person. Or something.
The SF angle isn’t neglected either. As he convalesces from his fever, and because his mind is too shattered to read ‘serious’ books, Aue reads ‘the Martian adventures of E. R. Burroughs’ . When he first encountered these Plup SF-romances as a lad, we’ve already been told, they inspired him to masturbatory excesses. Now, though, they have a different effect:
I sent for a typewriter and wrote a brief memo to the Reichsführer, quoting Burroughs as a model for the profound social reforms that the SS should envisage after the war. Thus, to increase the birthrate after the war and force men to marry young, I took as an example the red Martians, who recruited their forced labour not just from criminals and prisoners of war, but also from confirmed bachelors who were too poor to pay the high celibacy tax which all red-Martian governments impose; and I devoted an entire chapter to this celibacy tax that, if it were ever imposed, would put a heavy strain on my own finances. But I reserved even more radical suggestions for the SS elite, which should follow the example of the green Martians, those three-metre-tall monsters with four arms and fangs: All property among the green Martians is owned in common by the community, except the personal weapons, ornaments … their mating is a matter of community interest solely …
And so on. We can take this as rather one-tone satire (‘Nazi philosophy was no more than Pulp SF nonsense magnified into world tragedy by being put into practice on such a huge scale…’) or as a sign that Aue has lost his mind (or if that is long gone, then his sense of political self-preservation); or perhaps even as something a little more sincere. But something’s up, here. My hunch is that SF is much more important to this whole novel than I previously thought.
Only two short sections to go. To avoid turning this blog into Greater Littelstan, I’ll fold them together into a single post when I’ve read them both.
The E.R. Burroughs passage is the first thing I’ve seen in your reviews that makes me think better of the book. It’s the first non-typical thing, anyways.
I don’t think that such a letter would have been derailed by a sense of political self-preservation, though. Nazi high society was full of crank-SF theories of all kinds. The World Ice Theory, say.
A lot of this does seem to be a partial repeat of Michael Moorcock’s Pyat books, though. Although of course no one outside SF bothers to think of them as literary. Have you read them?
I read the first Pyat book, and glanced through a library copy of the last without feeling much of a pull to read it properly. Not my favourite Moorcock, and too rumbustuous, too much sour-Romance adventuring, to stand comparison with Kindly Ones.
That World Ice Theory link is something else. I particularly like Hörbiger’s cavalier (or snappish) approach evidence that contradicted his theory.