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The Kindly Onesby Jonathan Littell
"Literature has given us many unsympathetic protagonists yet relatively few genuine monsters: Lolita's Humbert Humbert, Shakespeare's Richard III and American Psycho's Patrick Bateman come to mind. In each case, the writer was successful because the reader was 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. In The Kindly Ones, the Prix Goncourt-winning novel that has created a cultural sensation in France and is now being published in the United States, Jonathan Littell has done none of this, with the result that his novel reads like a pornographic catalog of horrors." Laila Lalami, Los Angeles Times (read the entire Los Angeles Times review)
"[I]n the end, no matter how absorbing, Littell's thousand pages are hardly an easy or obvious substitute for historical scholarship or narrative history. The chronicle Aue presents is told from his idiosyncratic and self-interested point of view; more important, it is entangled with his wholly fictional — and perhaps even more gripping — personal story. There is too much else going on for 'real' history to be the main event." Samuel Moyn, The Nation (read the entire Nation review)
Synopses & Reviews
"Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." So begins the chilling fictional memoir of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi officer who has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France.
Max is an intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music. He is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man, we experience in disturbingly precise detail the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. During the period from June 1941 through April 1945, Max is posted to Poland, the Ukraine, and the Caucasus; he is present at the Battle of Stalingrad and at Auschwitz; and he lives through the chaos of the final days of the Nazi regime in Berlin. Although Max is a totally imagined character, his world is peopled by real historical figures, such as Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer, Heyrich, Höss, and Hitler himself.
A supreme historical epic and a haunting work of fiction, Jonathan Littell's masterpiece is intense, hallucinatory, and utterly original. Published to impressive critical acclaim in France in 2006, it went on to win the Prix Goncourt, that country's most prestigious literary award, and sparked a broad range of responses and questions from readers: How does fiction deal with the nature of human evil? How should a novel encompass the Holocaust? At what point do history and fiction come together and where do they separate?
A provocative and controversial work of literature, The Kindly Ones is a morally challenging read; it holds up a mirror to humanity — and the reader cannot look away.
"Written in French by an American, this was the hot book of Frankfurt in 2006 and won two of France's major literary awards. A couple of years and a reported million-dollar advance later, here it is in English. Is it worth the hype and money? In a word, no. Dr. Max Aue, the petulant narrator of this overlong exercise in piling-on, is a rising star in the SS. His career helped along by a slick SS benefactor, Aue watches the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine, survives getting shot through the head in Stalingrad, researches and writes dozens of reports, tours Auschwitz and Birkenau, and finds himself in Hitler's bunker in the Reich's final days. He kills people, too, and is secretly gay — a catcher — and tormented by his love for his twin sister, Una, who now rebuffs his lusty advances. He also hates his mother and stepfather. As he claims, 'If you ever managed to make me cry, my tears would sear your face.' But after nearly 1,000 pages, Herr Doktor Aue, for all his alleged coldness and self-hatred and self-indulgent ruminations, amounts to nothing more than a bloodless conduit for boasting the breadth of Littell's research (i.e., a nine-page digression on the history of Caucasian linguistics). The text itself is notable for its towering, imposing paragraphs that often run on for pages. Unfortunately, these paragraphs are loaded with dream sequences marked by various unpleasant bodily functions, a 14-page hallucination where a very Cline-like crackpot cameos as 'Dr. Sardine' and dozens of numbing passages in which SS functionaries debate logistical aspects of the Jewish Question. Also, nary an anus goes by that isn't lovingly described (among the best is one 'surrounded by a pink halo, gaped open like a sea anemone between two white globes'). Most crippling, however, is Aue's inability to narrate outside his one bulldozing, breathless register, and while it may work marvelously early on as he relates the troubles of trying to fit the maximum number of bodies into a pit, the monotone voice quickly loses its luster. In the final 200 or so pages, Berlin is burning, the Russians and Americans are making rapid advances, Hitler is nearly assassinated and SS brass are formulating their personal endgames. But, alas, this massive endeavor grinds to its conclusion on a pulp conceit: two German cops, against all odds, are in hot pursuit of Aue for a crime he may or may not have committed.Littell's strung together many tens of thousands of words, but many tens of thousands of words does not necessarily a novel make. As the French say, tant pis.Jonathan Segura is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of Occupational Hazards." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Hire some nice young people. Tell them to copulate. Take a picture and you're a pornographer. But add a caption and you're a documentarian. Better yet, frame the picture and voila! You're an artist. Best of all, turn that picture into half a million words, slap on a cover and you're a writer. Jonathan Littell's expansive and repulsive first novel — an award-winning best-seller in France, where it... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) was originally published — is part literature, predominantly documentary and most memorably pornography. "The Kindly Ones" begins in the present, when Maximilien Aue, a former Nazi bureaucrat who has adopted a modest new identity as the manager of a lace factory in France, decides to write his memoirs. In the opening pages, Aue sets the terms for the book. He is unapologetic about his role in the Holocaust, but neither is he rabidly anti-Semitic. Instead, he insists, perhaps correctly, that his atrocities were a function of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of course, the 6 million Jews murdered by the likes of Aue during the 1940s were in a worse place, yet who can say whether, if circumstances were reversed, many of them wouldn't have bowed to authority as he did? On the other hand, the Jews didn't have that choice, and there's a difference between an active, if reluctant, participant in genocide and a victim who might have been a perpetrator in an alternative universe. Littell sees through the specious arguments of the good doctor (of jurisprudence, not medicine) Aue and then allows the man to hang himself, figuratively. Aue enters the intelligence branch of the SS because it offers career opportunities. This allows him to travel and drink fine wine while observing and organizing mass murder, if never quite pulling the trigger himself. Initially, Aue is assigned to one of the mobile killing units that executed hundreds of thousands of Jews in shtetls throughout the Ukraine. Sure, he feels compunctions; it's a messy business. He disdains some of his sadistic co-workers and absurdly claims, in "all honesty ... I had doubts about our methods." Still, he completes his tasks, rising consistently in the ranks. The pressure does, however, wreak havoc with Aue's digestive system. He vomits before he has half-digested his food, and he seems to have diarrhea for the entire second half of the war. But it's likely that some of his problems precede his stressful labors because we also hear a tale of obsession dating from childhood with his twin sister. This unresolved personal history leads, near the end of the book, to an explicit sexual fantasy before a feverish, Boschian climax in which Aue finally kills several people he actually knows. Until that finale, his work puts him in contact with nearly every major figure in the Nazi party hierarchy. He reports to Heydrich and Himmler. He negotiates with Speer for slave labor and attends musical evenings at the Eichmann household. Ultimately, he meets Hitler. "The Kindly Ones" eagerly displays vast amounts of research. We are treated to several pages on the languages of the Caucasus as well as a remarkable description of Jawizowitz, a subcamp of Auschwitz about which virtually no one who didn't survive its lethal mines would know. All of this documentation may be impressive, but the research begins to feel like an excuse for a giddy "If this is Tuesday, it must be Madjanek" itinerary as Aue hopscotches from the mass execution of Kiev's Jews in the pit at Babi Yar to the destruction of the German army at Stalingrad to several major extermination camps to the underground V-2 missile factory at Mittlebau-Dora. I couldn't help but wonder, "Will he make it to the Fuhrer's bunker?" and, sure enough, he does. Aue is a Zelig of the Holocaust. Throughout Aue's morbidly picaresque travels, the tone is leering. A phenomenon that can only be called death porn saturates "The Kindly Ones." Despite its many, potent set pieces that vividly render the misery and insanity of war, the effect is voyeuristic as Aue, Littell and the unfortunate reader rubberneck at the innumerable bodies — gassed, shot, hanged, strangled, burnt, bombed, eyes gouged, intestines unwound, limbs severed, brains spattered — heaped in piles by history's roadside. Two years ago when it won France's Goncourt and Grand Prix de Litterature, "The Kindly Ones" was compared to Tolstoy's "War and Peace," presumably because of its length and scope. But it more aptly sits beside — rather, beneath — Christopher Browning's nonfictional examination of the Einsatzgruppen, "Ordinary Men," and William T. Vollmann's novel "Europe Central." Without a hint of the prurience of "The Kindly Ones," "Ordinary Men" makes many of the same points through hard evidence and sober restraint. In fact, Browning notes that few of the killers were as tormented as Aue claims to be. This makes one wonder whether Littell's intent is to create a mundane functionary or a monster, or both. Yet after nearly 1,000 pages, we can't quite tell because Littell fails to explore any of the moral dilemmas that compose Vollmann's multifaceted vision of real people at pivotal moments in Germany and Russia during the 1940s. Not that a reader necessarily seeks a lesson, but fiction and nonfiction ought to approach the subject as more than an opportunity to wallow in the worst humankind has to offer. In "The Kindly Ones," event follows event without any sense of individual character or dramatic motion except for that of the war itself. The book is narratively empty and intellectually incoherent. It leaves us feeling like tourists, gawking. Reviewed by Melvin Jules Bukiet. Bukiet is the author of seven books of fiction and the editor of three anthologies. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"That such a novel should win two of France's top literary prizes is not only an example of the occasional perversity of French taste, but also a measure of how drastically literary attitudes toward the Holocaust have changed in the last few decades." Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
Massive in scope, horrific in subject matter, and shocking in its protagonist, Littell's prize-winning fictional memoir of a former Nazi officer who survived the war is intense and utterly original.
About the Author
Jonathan Littell was born in New York to American parents, and grew up in the United States and France. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.
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