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.)
"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
"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
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.
“Simply astounding. . . . The Kindly Ones
is unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer.” — Time
A literary prize-winner that has been an explosive bestseller all over the world, Jonathan Littells The Kindly Ones has been called “a brilliant Holocaust novel… a world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and force,” and “relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope,” by Michael Korda (Ike, With Wings Like Eagles). Destined to join the pantheon of classic epics of war such as Tolstoys War and Peace and Vasily Grossmans Life and Fate, The Kindly Ones offers a profound and gripping experience of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.
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.