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the complete review - fiction
The Kindly Ones
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- French title: Les Bienveillantes
- Translated by Charlotte Mandell
- Awarded the Prix Goncourt, 2006
- Awarded the Prix du roman de l'Académie française, 2006
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C- : a mess
See our review for fuller assessment.
No consensus whatsoever
From the Reviews:
- "The Kindly Ones is perhaps the first novel I have read where I yearned for footnotes. (...) It is one of Littell's paradoxical strengths as a novelist that he is seemingly unembarrassable. (...) It is clear from the introductory opening of the novel that in post-war France Aue has recovered from his madness but not from the wartime moral apathy and indifference that has settled on his soul. He tells us he has written to try to make sense of his experiences. Because of this, philosophic musings on personal responsibility and the Final Solution appear throughout the memoir. They represent the novel's weakest and most troubling dimension." - Robert Manne, The Australian
- "The totalitarian state is engrossing the way certain books, The Kindly Ones among them, are engrossing: it offers a complete world that masks the readerís incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination." - Paul La Farge, The Believer
- "The reader faces a powerful if implicit question: What if those we condemn did not select evil at one particular moment but, instead, found themselves in a situation where all options seemed bad, where a compromising choice was made, followed by another and another as the slope became too slippery for them to climb their way back ? (...) The Kindly Ones is indeed about cruelty and evil in the way that morality plays are, but it is also about evil in history, the weaving together of hundreds of objectives, millions of people, into an ensemble so vast, diverse, and ever-changing that even a well-placed and sharp-sighted observer cannot fully grasp it. (...) While the meticulously realistic main plot of The Kindly Ones is brilliantly organized and written, the same is not true of its subplot of familial crime and punishment." - Leland de la Durantaye, Bookforum
- "The important questions, I believe, are what kind of point of view and what kind of voice does Littell's Maximilien Aue represent, and how are we to respond to him as readers ? Littell's achievement is that the answers to this question are complicated. (...) If Littell wanted to leave the reader with unresolved questions that will continue to haunt us, he has succeeded brilliantly." - Susan Rubin Suleiman, Boston Globe
- "Here is a hopeless Holocaust narrative of nearly a thousand pages executed by a sadist with a tin ear instead of a tin drum. One slogs through this doorstopper begging for a thoughtful morsel and hoping to stumble onto the final page, only to be commanded forward by the blunt muzzle of Littell's remorseless rifle. Littell mistakenly believes that a perspective emerges when you pad out a meandering tale with facile philosophical discussions and endless acts of barbarism. But Littell lacks the guts to tell us the truth about Hitler's willing executioners. He's a sensationalist, not a novelist." - Edward Champion, Chicago Sun-Times
- "Mr Littell's research is meticulous. Aue mixes with the leading historical figures of the time, and the intricacies of Nazi bureaucracy are depressingly real. But the novel founders under the weight of its own detail. (Ö) As the Third Reich crumbles, so Les Bienveillantes falls apart. (Ö) At the Frankfurt book fair last month, publishers made frenzied bids for the foreign rights. They may be in for a pasting." - The Economist
- "It's like Dante's Inferno written by Reich historian William Shirer." - Jeff Labrecque, Entertainment Weekly
- "Dans ses Bienveillantes, l'auteur a mis beaucoup de choses qu'il connaît : de la philosophie, de l'histoire, de l'économie politique, de la sémiologie, du pamphlet, du polar ; de la poésie aussi, quand le soldat exténué contemple le paysage ukrainien étrangement calme, au soir d'une bataille. Son gai savoir sollicite la santé du lecteur. Mais comment se fait-il que l'on dévore allégrement ces neuf cents pages comme jadis on croqua dans la pomme ?" - Étienne de Montety, Le Figaro
- "Is it worth the fuss ? That depends on your patience. The Kindly Ones, as it is now titled for English readers, is revolting, overlong and far from lucid. But it is also erudite, pitiless and mesmerising. (...) The marvel is that Littell packs so many furies into one book. He leaves no dead horse unbeaten, no atrocity undescribed, no depth of depravity unplumbed. Little wonder The Kindly Ones is so exasperating. Its scope is impossibly vast, its flaws inevitably visible. (...) A book that tries to ask the big questions. And fails magnificently." - Donald Morrison, Financial Times
- "Still, if Les Bienveillantes is a work of genius -- and it is -- it is not due to the hammer blows of horror repeatedly delivered. It is due to the methodical exploration of one of the Third Reichís most idealistic servantsí intricate descent into madness. (Ö) He makes you forget Jonathan Littell entirely, and instead lose yourself for dozens of hours in the mind of his bookís apparent creator -- in all his layered thinking, self-delusion, and erudition. (Ö) Thanks to the gifts of his young creator, Maximilian Aue lives: He belabors his points, bedazzles his superiors, bedevils his adversaries, and in his untoward but moving moments of innocence and naïveté (false and real), he beguiles his readers even as he numbs and repels them. But withal he lives. That is Littellís accomplishment; it is a masterpiece." - Steven Englund, Foreign Policy
- "The Kindly Ones stands out in stark contrast to other contemporary Holocaust novels in the lack of solace it offers for anyone. In contrast to the pat answers and redemptive endings of novels and Hollywood stories, Littell raises questions about the impossibility of finding any easy salvation for humanity after the Holocaust. (...) The Kindly Ones reads as the antithesis of Schindlerís List, where one good man makes a difference, and of Anne Frankís declaration that "people are really good at heart": This is a novel that argues there is no such thing as a good man; pure chance makes us either good or evil. (...) In a sea of recent Holocaust novels and films offering stories of hope and salvation, The Kindly Ones is refreshing in the very lack of redemption it offers not only for its narrator, but also for humanity." - Laura Hodes, Forward
- "Das Böse ist auch hier banal. Dennoch folgt aus Littells Die Wohlgesinnten eine wenig beruhigende Lehre: Wer zum Mörder wird, entwickelt die Begabung, es nicht zu merken." - Julia Voss, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "I don't think it is great, not in its execution. In this English translation, the language is not particularly memorable. There is little humour, though much wit. At times, it's as if Littell were trying to shoehorn absolutely everyone of significance in: Himmler, Eichmann, Speer, etc. Also, unlike War and Peace, The Kindly Ones is not, in its characterizations, morally complex (.....) All of that said, The Kindly Ones is a work of art in its conception, admirable in what it sets out to do and in how much it accomplishes. Jonathan Littell has said that he wished to write a work that asked fundamental questions in compelling ways. In this, he has succeeded completely." - André Alexis, Globe & Mail
- "If you have an interest in feeling your way into the administrative manoeuvring, the pseudo-scientific argumentation about language and race, and the mass of period-specific social and sensory minutiae that comprised the human reality out of which arose, say, the massacre at Babi Yar, or the final death march from Auschwitz; if you care to revive, in your own psyche, the finer points of cannibalism in Stalingrad or the emotional impact on the war-weary Gauleiters of Himmler's call, at Posen, for total genocide, then this is undoubtedly a book you should read. It does, however, have some large flaws." - James Lasdun, The Guardian
- "Tout cela est rapporté avec une élégance de langage qui contribue à la clarté des faits mais leur donne une réalité quelque peu étrange, les privant de la part díopacité propre à tout événement traumatique." - François Eychart, L'Humanité
- "(T)his is also a deeply flawed work. This is mainly because although the author is good, and even occasionally brilliant, on describing on inhumane atrocities, he is altogether less convincing when it comes to giving a convincing account of humanity and the intricate and ambiguous details of human behaviour. Max Aue is a failed human being, a monster in fact, and it is unsurprising that he performs monstrous acts. Thus the book fails in its central argument (.....) (W)hatever its shortcomings, it is a serious attempt to explain the terrors of the Nazi regime. But few reviewers have pointed out that it is also an entertaining read. This of course brings its own dangers: it may not be "Holocaust porn" but it is "Holocaust kitsch" -- a genre which, like the tourist museums scattered across contemporary Berlin, risks wiping out real memories, real history." - Andrew Hussey, The Independent
- "Littell's portrait of Aue is an intriguing one. (...) Aue as an everyman in extraordinary circumstances is an interesting conceit, but it is one that is fatally undermined by a concurrently evolving psychological profile, a portrait that presents a man with a significantly disturbed emotional hinterland. (...) It's all a bit annoying, and at times it seems as if Littell was hedging his bets with respect to his leading Nazi." - Akin Ajayi, The Jerusalem Post
- "Those who admire The Kindly Ones are right, but those who loathe it are not completely wrong. It is half a work of genius and half a work of gratuitous perversion. (...) (L)ast but not least the book is too bloody long. Who will read it ? And what is the point of a book -- even a half-masterpiece -- that no one will read ? And yet the French are still right. Even -- or especially - on the private story side, Littell leaves profound mysteries." - Carole Angier, Literary Review
- "(F)rom the first pages of this gigantic novel, Littell reproduces the Barbie tone: the phoney veneer of learning, the might-is-right fatalism, the assumption that all are equally guilty but only the defeated have to take the blame. Cheap nihilism, flea-market shreds of philosophy abound. (...) This novelís size allows it to carry an enormous assorted cargo of themes and allusions. It is grand in ambition and sweep, the tale of a man and a family living through one of the greatest wars in history. (...) Its account of Nazi cruelty, chaos and callousness has never been surpassed in fiction. Its insight into the mindsets of SS bureaucrats is unforgettable, as is the almost documentary narrative of the evolution of the theory and practice of the Holocaust. Littellís war landscapes are often magnificent, above in all in the triumphant first months of the German drive across the Russian steppe. But still, it has to be said, this is a novel that doesnít work. (...) The weakness is Aue himself. He is a monster, but a dreary monster, monotonous, one-dimensional, even boring." - Neal Ascherson, London Review of Books
- "Unfortunately, Littell's execution does not match his ambition. As a character, Aue is neither plausible nor realistic. (...) Jonathan Littell has undertaken a very ambitious project in The Kindly Ones, and I think his boldness deserves to be commended. In the end, however, his highly problematic characterization and awkward handling of point of view make this book far more successful as a dramatized historical document than as a novel." - Laila Lalami, The Los Angeles Times
- "No, the novel stands -- or falls -- on its portrayal of Max Aue, reflecting on European history from the vantage of his private National Socialism while hiding in a redoubt in provincial France. (...) The real aim of the book, which is as fascinating as it is dubious, is to present a theory of Aue's depravity as a miniature of the wickedness of the regime he served. (...) Contrary to most foreign critics (and perhaps Littell's self-defense), the novel's true premise is not that Aue is like other perpetrators. It is that he stands for Nazism as a whole. (...) Though its success so far has been nourished by high-profile scandal, The Kindly Ones is really a rather earnest attempt to offer a lesson about how the most profound causes of potential crime lurk in the breasts of all "human brothers" " - Samuel Moyn, The Nation
- "(E)in grossartiges Buch, mag es auch zu den grausamsten der Weltliteratur gehören. (...) Es gehört zur Grösse dieses Buches, dass sein moralischer Ernst nie in Frage steht. Und es tut seiner Grösse keinen Abbruch, dass es auf wesentliche Fragen, die es aufwirft, keine überzeugenden Antworten gibt, ja dass seine Hauptteile nicht recht zusammenpassen. Man wird das Buch wegen seiner Unerträglichkeiten manches Mal weglegen wollen und ihm doch bis zur letzten Seite in gebannter Ehrfurcht treu bleiben. Littell zwingt uns zur Konfrontation mit dem finsteren Herzen der europäischen Geschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts. Sein Buch steht würdig neben den Klassikern des Genres." - Andreas Isenschmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(D)ieser Max Aue hat als Kunstfigur so wenig Konsistenz wie die ganze Erzählung. (...) Wie im Kleinen, so im Grossen: Die ganze Struktur der Erzählung reicht, an keiner Stelle durchbrochen, nicht über die Techniken des Feuilletonromans aus dem 19. Jahrhundert hinaus. (...) Ein Wagnis ist dieses Buch in keiner Weise, und an Literatur haben wir eindeutig Besseres." - Jürgen Ritte, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Was man Littell nicht vorwerfen kann, ist mangelnde Recherchenarbeit. (...) (F)ür einen historischen Roman erscheint die obsessive Darstellung von Aues Trieb- und Verdauungsleben, seiner Homosexualität, der inzestuösen Beziehung zu seiner Schwester als zumindest überflüssig, weil keine Verbindung zu seinem Handeln als historischer Akteur plausibel gemacht wird. (...) Littell nimmt nun nicht nur die Perspektive eines Täters ein, er fordert seine Leser auch zur Identifikation mit ihm auf. Zugleich anthropologisiert er die Schuldfrage" - Christoph Jahr, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(I)t does create something new and, in its own way, remarkable. (...) Littell succeeds in recreating the tedium and excitement of war, moving with ease from a barrage of data to a thrilling account of Stalingrad to a final scene of weird and terrible beauty in a zoo where all the animals lie dying and the Furies finally catch up with Aue. This novel will not suit everyone, but Littell has asked some questions that will surely batter away at literature for some time to come." - Philip Womack, New Humanist
- "The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject, which is nothing less than the most perplexing question of modernity. (...) The accomplishment of Littell's book is its convincing depiction of the Nazi state as a gigantic machine, which sometimes worked well and sometimes poorly, but which was dependent at every stage on hundreds of thousands of people, from janitors to high-ranking functionaries, to keep it operational. (...) If Littell's novel were content merely to draw an exhaustive, moderately familiar, sometimes factually incorrect, but occasionally illuminating picture of the Nazi apparatus, it would be inconsequential. But in its attempt to impose its version of an ancient Greek framework on this modern system of destruction, it crosses the line from amorality to something worse. (...) Littell's attitude toward all this evil is neither Greek nor Judeo-Christian. It is pornographic. He is raptly, cravenly, fascinated. And fascination is a great impediment to thought. A review cannot convey how deeply unpleasant the experience of reading The Kindly Ones is. This is one of the most repugnant books I have ever read." - Ruth Franklin, The New Republic
- "It seems that it is easier for the French public to read about anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon in a blockbuster such as Les Bienveillantes than to face up to what is happening around them. This may well be what happens when you confront reality with the kind of bad fiction which, for all its claims of historical and philosophical authenticity, reveals nothing but the evil of banality." - Andrew Hussey, New Statesman
- "Everything in this gargantuan novel turns on the wager that Littell is making here -- that the reader will find Max a convincing witness to the defining moral catastrophe of the 20th century.(...) What is most daring about The Kindly Ones is, therefore, not the attempt to write a kind of history between the lines of the works of Trevor-Roper, Bullock and the rest. The novelís provocation lies not in the authorís choice of subject matter, but in his decision to put himself in Maxís shoes." - Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman
- "Some of these ambitions are brilliantly realized; others much less so. But all of them make Littell's book a serious one, deserving of serious treatment. (...) The singular achievement of Littell's novel is the way in which he brings us uncomfortably close to the thinking of people whose careers took them from police work to euthanasia and worse. (...) This novel invariably goes off the tracks when the author strives for writerly effects. (...) (T)he "kitsch" is in fact integral to the novel's moralizing projects. And yet, as I have said, its effectiveness works against the success of the other large element, the historical/documentary: either Aue is a human brother with whom we can sympathize (by which I mean, accept that he is not simply "inhuman"), or he is a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage; but you can't have your Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and eat it, too." - The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn
- "The novelís gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones (...) is an overstuffed suitcase of a book (.....) Mr. Littell simply gives us a monster talking at monstrous length about his monstrous deeds, encouraging us to write off Nazis as cartoonish madmen (.....) No doubt the author intends such remarks to convey the horrors of the Holocaust, but The Kindly Ones instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies. That such a novel should win two of Franceís 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, The New York Times
- "The Kindly Ones, for all its aspirations to profundity, is less a moral challenge than a sheer test of endurance. Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously. When he tries to give us the moral willies by arguing that "you might also have done what I did," visions of sausages dance in our heads. (...) It would take a writer of unimaginable genius to work these opposed tendencies into a coherent whole (.....) You canít blame Littell for failing an impossible self-assignment. Nor can you fault a young novelist with a world of information, erudition and ambition for taking it on. (...) But to doll up a novel about Nazism and the Holocaust with pop-fiction conventions on the one hand -- his narratorís Forrest Gump-likeubiquity, for instance -- and quirky postmodern touches on the other is to dance on the edge of impertinence." - David Gates, The New York Times Book Review
- "The Holocaust is recast as an extended bout of office politics, with German officials quarrelling over who is responsible for prisonersí hygiene. As the novel draws to a violent close, its story seems nearly as senseless as the horrors it depicts." - The New Yorker
- "The Kindly Ones also owes its success to its quality as a work of fiction. Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel that leads the stunned reader through extremes of both realism and surrealism on an exhausting journey through some of the darkest recesses of European history. (...) The Kindly Ones, unsurprisingly for such an ambitious novel, does have flaws. The copious scatological and sexual references may strike some readers as excessive. (...) Having read the novel in French on its publication, I also found the translation overly literal. Aue's words seem much more foreign, stilted and sententious than they did in the original. Littell chose to write in French because it best renders Aue's mix of viciousness, chilly irony and confidentiality. In that language, he is precise, ironic, almost intellectually playful and certainly provocative. In English, at least in this translation, he often comes across as precious." - Jason Burke, The Observer
- "Sangre y mierda: en pocas novelas se hacen tan fŪsicamente evidentes estas dos respuestas y signos de la vida humana. Y porque está muy familiarizado con ambas, Aue puede reducir su testimonio a un estremecedor, meticuloso e imparcial relato, tocado de finos detalles de paisaje." - José-Carlos Mainer, El País
- "It's not a free ride, reading this bloated novel all the way through. Aue ends up pursued by the avenging Furies -- "The Kindly Ones" out of classical mythology - and the reader ends up wanting to vomit. If there is anyone in your Facebook friends list who doesn't know about the crimes of the Nazis, give them this novel. The punishment fits the crime." - Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Indeed, the flatness of Aue is only reinforced by sensationalist attempts at characterisation (.....) The text often wears its research too obviously (.....) There is, in Littell's prose, a bombastic overreach. This is a pity. For a dogged reader will be rewarded by some excellent concluding pages where Littell displays a talent for vividly describing the horrors of the Nazi Götterdämmerung. But all in all, a reader would learn more about the Eastern Front from recent non-fiction such as Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire." - Gavin Bowd, Scotland On Sunday
- "(I)t is certainly a monumental achievement, even if to my mind a seriously flawed one.
(...) The sweep of the book is tremendous, and many of the individual scenes -- some near-idyllic moments in the Caucasus and the hell of Stalingrad -- are wonderfully done. Likewise, if Max is putting the devil's case, it has to be said that he does it powerfully. (...) Yet there are obvious weaknesses -- and not only in Max's world-view. (...) The Kindly Ones is a hugely ambitious work, but the comparison with Tolstoy is ridiculous, and actually highlights the chief weakness of the novel.
" - Allan Massie, The Scotsman
- "The novel is diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever. It is also impressive, not merely as an act of impersonation but perhaps above all for the fiendish diligence with which it is carried out. (...) This tour de force, which not everyone will welcome, outclasses all other fictions and will continue to do so for some time to come. No summary can do it justice." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator
- "The final scenes when Aue makes his escape through the bombed out zoo in the Tiergarten are a masterpiece of grotesque surreality. (...) Charlotte Mandellís strong English translation occasionally wanders off into eccentric dialogue, Brooklyn demotic or -- in one instance -- mock cockney. But the main problem lies elsewhere. The French text of The Kindly Ones made use of Nazi-era titles and acronyms, and these are retained (with a helpful glossary) in the present edition. Inevitably, in an English text, they fail to evoke the fear and helplessness that they originally conveyed. (...) One reaches the last pages of this very long novel absorbed and exhausted, but not exhilarated or even clean. The book evokes corruption so successfully that it becomes corrupting. Perhaps this is a necessary condition of understanding at this level the events that it describes. The question remains as to whether it is a legitimate exercise for a novelist to intervene in recent history in this way. The answer must be yes, if it is done this well." - Patrick Marnham, The Spectator
- "Jonathan Littell's 984-page book is so bloatedly inept that its reverential reception across the Channel seems barely comprehensible. (...) A melodramatic figment that James Bond might have encountered, this creepy cliché, accompanied by a villainous sidekick with a glass eye, epitomises the lurid unreality that leaves this Third Reich novel, for all its plethora of detail, carrying as much conviction as a plastic Iron Cross." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times
- "All this (and much more besides) makes it clear that Littell set out to provoke. The provocation is not only ideological but literary as well. (...) The Kindly Ones lacks subtlety; its prose (with one or two significant exceptions) is no more than workmanlike. Littell's favourite tool seems to be a sledgehammer. Yet, for all that, the novel is deeply and disturbingly ambiguous. Aue's painstakingly detailed recollections chart his moral and psychological disintegration, how an innate though suppressed moral sense finally triumphs, exacting its revenge. (...) Littell's obsessive exploration of the darkest corners of Aue's soul carries considerable though unsettling conviction." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald
- "Contrived ? You bet, but consistent, because everything here is manufactured. Vast chunks of the war lore have clearly been industrially researched (...) No amount of high-toned chatter about Kant or Darwin can disguise the fact that, with its sex 'n' fascism horror comic theme, at heart this is a low, conventionally minded novel. The only thing missing is a bit of moral equivalence between Hitler's Reich and contemporary America (.....) This is a work of high vulgarity and great cynicism, whose only attraction is its inadvertent humour." - George Walden, The Telegraph
- "The novel relies on jarring contrasts and improbable juxtapositions for its best effects. The passages of violence have a cold-burning, accretive barbarity that reminds less of Tolstoy (to whom Littell has been compared) than the sexualised battlescapes of the French writer Pierre Guyotat (.....) The Kindly Ones never sets out to be the tale of a Nazi Everyman, a story of the banality of evil: it leaves that to the wealth of documentary testimony and factual commentary on the war. Instead, it is a magnificently artificial project in character construction, a highly literary and provocative attempt to create a character various enough to match the many discontinuous realities of the apocalyptic Nazi world-view. The result is a sprawling, daring, loose-ended monster of a book, one that justifies its towering subject matter by its persistent and troubling refusal to offer easy answers and to make satisfying sense. It feels very important indeed." - Tim Martin, The Telegraph
- "The force and clarity with which Littell renders the physical realities of war and mass murder are simply astounding. (...) It's far from perfect (.....) Above all, there is the book's ludicrous, unnecessary length, which makes it practically unreadable. But The Kindly Ones is unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer, if not an especially disciplined one." - Lev Grossman, Time
- "Where Littell is particularly strong, both in historical terms and as an integral part of his novel, is in his depiction of the Nazi and SS bureaucracy, with their rival departments, each with its own viewpoint and ethos. (...) It is a great achievement to have made this horrific tale recounted by such a profoundly unsympathetic character so gripping. (...) The Kindly Ones never descends into the sort of faction that is the curse of contemporary history. The author rightly refuses all suggestions that it should be made into a film, despite its great cinematic potential. It will therefore remain what it is: a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come." - Anthony Beevor, The Times
- "(R)emarkable but flawed (...) a work that gets caught between a documentary-style fidelity to History and the aesthetic demands of literature. (Ö) The chief difficulty one encounters in Les Bienveillantes, however, is how far the particular aesthetic and formal concerns of literary writing can accommodate such subject matter. Max's family history, motifs of matricide and incest, and allusions to classical Greek drama are all integral elements of the work; and yet, leaving to one side the implications of using tragedy as a mode of recounting the rise of German National Socialism, ultimately the novel is condemned by the sheer historical weight of its subject to remain interpretive rather than creative." - Justin Beplate, Times Literary Supplement
- "Aue could not have been a historical figure, not because of the events he records, but because of the way he records them. If we can endure this literary conceit, it affords us something that little writing on mass murder can. (...) Having denied himself the comforting modern exits of annihilation and Bildung, Littell resorts, like his creation, to the classics, leaving us with tragedy rather than understanding. Aue's individual fate seems like a distraction from the novel's rendering of and meditations on mass killing and dying." - Timothy Snyder, Times Literary Supplement
- "Mystified most readers will be, but not in the manner required to punish themselves by following this grim journey. (...) Be warned: Every hour spent labouring through this tome is one of those proverbial hours you will never get back." - Nancy Wigston, Toronto Star
- "Jonathan Littell's expansive and repulsive first novel -- an award-winning bestseller in France, where it was originally published -- is part literature, predominantly documentary and most memorably pornography. (...) Throughout Aue's morbidly picaresque travels, the tone is leering. A phenomenon that can only be called death porn saturates The Kindly Ones. (...) The book is narratively empty and intellectually incoherent. It leaves us feeling like tourists, gawking." - Melvin Jules Bukiet, The Washington Post
- "Les Bienveillantes is absorbing for both the historical and the personal. Littell treats the Holocaust in a work of fiction by creating a believable, although despicable, individual whose personal problems are given as much attention as is his part in the extermination of the Jews." - Adele King, World Literature Today
- "Es liegt nicht an der homosexuell-inzestuösen Veranlagung des Muttermörders Aue, die den Roman in Teilen zum skandalösen Kitsch machen. Es ist die Poetik der Grausamkeit, mit der ein hochbegabter Gegenwartsautor zum Gewaltpornografen wird." - Michael Mönninger, Die Zeit
- "Warum gibt es so viel Aufregung Łber ein literarisch mittelmäßig bis dürftig geratenes, 1400 Seiten starkes Debüt eines bis vor Kurzem gänzlich unbekannten Autors ? Die Antwort liegt auf der Hand. Das Buch ist eine strategische Provokation. (...) Der Ton des Romans ist, die Interpunktion des 18. Jahrhunderts hin oder her, öde, hochtrabend und floskelhaft." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit
- "Littell nimmt die Quellen für das, was in ihnen steht, und kommt gar nicht auf die Idee, sie zum Beispiel auf das zu untersuchen, was sie nicht sagen -- weil etwas so selbstverständlich war, dass es nicht eigens erwähnt werden musste. Vermutlich in der Annahme, dass ein Buch desto besser ist, je mehr in ihm drinsteht, gibt Littell die Quellen eins zu eins wieder; das macht am Ende nahezu 1400 Seiten. (...) Littells Roman repräsentiert gerade in der erstaunlichen Spannung zwischen seiner durchaus fehlenden Qualität und dem Hype, den er ausgelöst hat, eine neue Eskalationsstufe der Nazi-Faszination, gerade in der Art, wie er historische Fakten, Gewaltpornografie und die Gediegenheit des Bildungsbürgers Aue zusammenrührt. Diese Mischung ergibt die pure Affirmation des Grauens, und interessant daran ist lediglich, dass Littell keinen Roman im klassischen Sinn vorlegt, sondern eine endlose Aufzählung von etwas, was er vermutlich für Fakten hält." - Harald Welzer, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Kindly Ones is narrated by Dr. Max Aue, a cultured and well-educated man, trained as a lawyer, raised in the Alsace but always fiercely pro-German (he joined the NSDAP in his youth, in 1932), who describes his experiences in the SS in World War II.
A brief opening 'Toccata' (the book's seven sections each have a musical theme) has Aue introducing his undertaking; it also serves to inform readers that Aue managed to leave his Nazi past behind him (at least as far as most of the outside world goes -- it certainly still bubbles within) and has led a comfortable bourgeois life in France since the war, complete with family and job (in the lace business).
However, the bulk of the book -- and there is quite some bulk to it, as it weighs in at nearly a thousand pages -- is devoted to Aue's experiences during World War II.
Littell sends his protagonist to quite a few of the hotspots of the German campaign; specifically, he manages to get Aue involved in many of the instances of ethnic cleansing and the like.
From an early tour of the Ukraine and Crimea to besieged Stalingrad and even to Auschwitz, Aue covers most of the worst of the German bases.
At nearly every stop he finds himself -- first rather unwillingly but eventually quite dutifully -- involved in aspects of the Endlösung.
So The Kindly Ones is the German side of (part of) the World War II story, told by a man who refuses to be an apologist.
Aue does not seek to excuse what happened or what he did, and he doesn't even always try to explain it.
For the most part, he -- or rather: Littell -- tries to present the facts -- albeit from the Nazi/German perspective.
It is an interesting idea and approach.
Littell clings closely to the historical record, and his detailed descriptions of Aue's various stations are what could be called accurate: these battles, these massacres, these meetings, these attacks and retreats -- most of them took place as Littell describes them.
But, of course, this fictional presentation also allows Littell to get much more up close and personal, as Aue describes the images and sensations and feelings in a way historians would never dare.
The basic concept of The Kindly Ones certainly has potential.
But Littell makes an odd choice in his protagonist, the man whose perspective is the only one presented here.
Dr. Maximilien Aue is no B-movie Nazi sadist or Dr. Mengele; he is, however, one sick puppy.
In an interview in Le Monde Littell acknowledges that: "He is not, indeed, a plausible character" -- going on to say: "I was aiming not for plausibility but for truth".
Leaving aside the question of that truth for a moment, Littell's cavalier attitude towards plausibility poses problems for the book.
This is a novel that revolves around the very real, that is filled with real-life historical figures, that tries to stick to the historical record with almost documentary zeal; to place an implausible figure at the centre of all that can easily threaten to undermine it all.
However, Aue is not so much implausible as problematic.
In many ways he stands at odds with what would seem to be Littell's intentions.
The roots of Aue's problems stem from his childhood family life.
His father abandoned him, for one, and certainly that search for a father-figure (and traces of his real father) consumes a part of him.
More traumatically, however, he was separated from the great love of his life
in his youth, sent off to boarding school and kept apart from her.
This passion, and its loss, have made him the man he is -- and also lead him to both sordid and unwise courses of action later in life.
Theirs was a childhood passion of unbearable intensity; more than anything Aue wanted them to be as one -- indeed to be one.
"Why couldn't we be the same ?" the adolescent complained when the physical differences between boy and girl became apparent, and when she starts to menstruate he asks: "why couldn't I bleed too ?"
So when he could no longer have her, the next best thing he could do was to imagine being her, as he engages in homosexual acts that allow him to imagine he is her .....
(Taking it up his ass: "I reasoned it, it brought me even closer to her; in that way, I would feel almost everything she felt, when she touched me, kissed me, licked me, then offered me her thin narrow buttocks.
It hurt me, it must have hurt her too, and then I waited, and when I came, I imagined it was she who was coming".)
As to the girl in question, yes, that would be his twin sister.
Her name ?
This Greek-tragedy family history obviously complicates matters, though Aue's homosexual proclivities -- deviant behaviour that was (at least officially) more than just frowned upon by the Nazi authorities -- do serve a variety of purposes in the narrative.
Unfortunately, Littell isn't nearly satisfied with merely this mutual obsession between siblings.
Aue also has some issues with his mother and step-father, and when at one point he goes to visit them in France ... well, they wind up dead.
The police aren't too efficient in looking into even double-murders during the war, but they eventually get around to it, and two Kripo men, Clemens and Weser, have some questions for Aue.
He doesn't really answer these to their satisfaction, but since he is an SS-man with good friends in high places they have trouble following up on the investigation.
They're pretty determined, however, and continue to haunt him right to the bitter end -- a silly police-procedural sub-plot that may be Littell's homage to his own dad (writer Robert) but that he handles fairly clumsily.
(The cat-and-mouse game Aue plays with Clemens and Weser goes right to the very end of the book, making for an astonishingly silly ending to the book; The Kindly Ones already devolves into farce shortly before the end (in a scene in the Führerbunker involving Aue and Hitler's nose, as the Russians pour into Berlin ...), but when Clemens and Weser pop up one last time ... well, it's straight out of a medoicre pulp novel.)
In some ways, of course, Aue is an interesting figure.
He is modestly intellectual -- well read, always happy to chat about philosophy (Kant's moral imperative crops up quite a few times ...) -- and if he tries to rationalize what he got himself involved in, he at least does so relatively thoughtfully.
And, as noted, he's not evil incarnate or even your proto-sadist.
No, as he mentions early on:
Like most people, I never asked to become a murderer.
If I could have, as I've already said, I would have gone into literature.
Written, if I'd had the talent, or else perhaps taught, at least lived in the midst of beautiful, calm things, the noblest creations of the human spirit.
Ah, yes, if he could have ... suggesting -- or rather: insisting -- that he had no choice.
He just did what he had to do.
And this is one of Aue's (and Littell's main points):
But the ordinary men that make up the State -- especially in unstable times -- now there's the real danger.
The real danger for mankind is me, is you.
Aue closes his introductory chapter by practically screaming:
I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.
I tell you I am just like you !
On page 24 (when he writes this) readers may still give him the benefit of the doubt; soon enough, however, it seems unlikely that there will be many readers left who haven't raised their hands in dismay (or flung the book aside in disgust), screaming: Not me, buddy.
Even making allowances for the fact that the 'ordinary man' often does questionable things, and engages in sexual activity that might well seem ... sordid to others, Aue is far beyond the pale.
Littell's greatest failure (and there are many in this book) is that it is impossible to identify with Aue.
And so when Aue claims: "The real danger for mankind is me, is you" the disconnect is too great for that argument even to come up for discussion.
The idea that any- and everyman is capable of the Nazi horrors documented here is surely not far-fetched (and at least worthy of being considered), but by endowing his protagonist with these very peculiar characteristics Littell takes it off the table.
Even a figure who revels in causing others pain and suffering would have been more plausible and hence also more compelling.
Aue is just a freak.
Aue's degeneracy does raise some interesting issues -- most notably in how it stands at odds with Nazi ideals.
Aue doesn't dwell on it nearly enough, but he is a living contradiction.
He is an idealist of sorts, and always was:
Ever since I was a child, I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute, for the overcoming of all limits
And if this radicalism was the radicalism of the abyss, and if the absolute turned out to be absolute evil, one still had to follow them to the end, with eyes wide open -- of that at least I was utterly convinced.
But the ideal he has embraced, the Nazi ideal, does not tolerate his deviancy; surely, the logical conclusion of his belief in absolutes would be to help make the fatherland more pure by putting a bullet through his head .....
(As is, Littell has someone else put a bullet through his head (though not for this specific reason) -- but give that in this Littell-land even that isn't good enough to get rid of him a bona fide suicide attempt probably wouldn't have made much of a difference either.)
Aue also has no difficulty in being untruthful to the authorities -- the State, which he is duty-bound to serve --, whether when confronted about his sexual activities or questioned about his mother's murder.
Making for a pretty pathetic and unconvincing standard-bearer of any ideals .....
The fact that Aue is a fraud makes him a bit more human but also undermines some of Littell's arguments.
Aue's selective idealism suggests he had considerably more freedom in what course to take in life than he insists he had.
Littell repeatedly shows how the Nazis are, in essence, fooling themselves -- most obviously when Himmler tells Aue:
I'm beginning to know you.
You have your faults: you are, excuse me for saying so, stubborn and sometimes pedantic.
But I don't see the slightest trace of a moral defect in you.
Aue is, of course, a walking moral defect -- specifically in the way Himmler means it (most notably -- but certainly not solely -- as a homosexual who has also slept with his sister !)
Occasionally, Littell does manage to present Aue slightly more convincingly -- as in the chilling observation when he finds himself growing indifferent, that he's happy just to lose himself in his work, glad: "simply to enjoy the satisfaction of a thing well done".
One presumably should expect Aue to be a unreliable narrator -- he admits to some very bad things, but it's still him that is telling the story, i.e. he can be very selective in what information he provides.
But what to make of a narrator who -- late in the game -- suddenly mentions:
It's not that my memories are confused, on the contrary, I have many of them and very precise ones, but many of them overlap and even contradict one another, and their status is uncertain.
Or when he asks:
How had I gotten there ?
I had no memory of it.
Or when he begs off:
One or two days must have gone by, don't ask me how I spent them.
(What ridiculous rhetorical game is this ? He knows no one can ask .....)
In a novel of such precision and detail, it feels very odd how Aue glosses over and muddles through some things.
(Aue is also a (semi-)intellectual (Littell means him to be an intellectual, but has little sense of how to depict him convincingly as such), most amusingly portrayed in his literary interests.
Littell has some name-dropping fun here -- Aue reads Blanchot and meets Céline and Brassilach, for example -- and he has Aue clutch a volume of Flaubert (and, for more of that 'common man'-touch, has him repeatedly turn to the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs), but this is all earnest but very unconvincing filler-material.
Littell has read up on the period and probably even read these authors, but his Aue is an unconvincing reader of them.
(It's not that Aue wouldn't have read them, but his reaction to them, given his background, would have been, at the very least, more ... nuanced than Littell allows for; indeed, for the most part Littell is unable to use them as anything more than cultural markers.))
The Kindly Ones is dominated by action and observation -- Aue at one point even describes his I-am-camera feeling ("I was always observing myself: it was as if a film camera were fixed just above me, and I was at once this camera, the man it was filming, and the man who was then studying the film") --, but there are also a few what-the-hell-are-we-doing discussions.
So, for example, one of the explanations for the Holocaust is put forth:
It has no economic or political usefulness, it has no finality of a practical order.
On the contrary, it's a break with the world of economics and politics.
It's a waste, pure loss.
That's all it is.
So it can have only one meaning: an irrevocable sacrifice, which binds us once and for all, prevents us from ever turning back.
You understand ?
With that, we leave the world of the gamble; there's no way back.
It's the Endsieg or death.
You, me, all of us, we're bound together now, bound to the outcome of this war by acts committed in common.
Of course, Aue, sitting pretty after the war, manages a third way involving neither Endsieg or death ... so much for that theory.
Another man suggests the mass-killing of the Jews is a mistake: "But a necessary mistake."
But, not surprisingly, these discussions don't go much beyond such propositions.
Still, while, as Aue reminds himself, "I hadn't come to Auschwitz to philosophize", he can't help but find himself thinking:
Wasn't the camp itself, with all the rigidity of its organization, its absurd violence, its meticulous hierarchy, just a metaphor, a reductio ad absurdum of everyday life ?
Unfortunately, neither Aue nor Littell are up to doing much more with a metaphor than suggesting it .....
Slightly more interesting are the broader absolutist questions.
if man is certainly not, as some poets and philsophers have made him out to be, naturally good, he is not naturally evil, either: good and evil are categories that can serve to qualify the effect of the actions of one man on another; but they are, in my opinion, fundamentally unsuitable, even unusable, to judge what goes on in the heart of that man.
But he doesn't explore why it should matter what goes on in a man's heart when his actions have such (or any) effect on another .....
As Aue sees it the Nazi construct has led to a situation where:
So for a German, to be a good German means to obey the laws and thus the Führer: there can be no other morality, since there would be nothing to support it.
Yet while Aue throws his lot in with the 'good Germans' -- indeed, seems to be a true believer, his morality, in several fundamental ways, is completely at odds with it -- something that is never reconciled in the book, as he's apparently blind to the fact that it's a (fundamental) issue.
Much of The Kindly Ones describes the worst of what the Germans did during the war, an eyewitness account of massacres and all sorts of killings, as well as much of the planning behind it.
Littell does a fine job of making clear the role of bureaucracy in the functioning (and malfunctioning) of the killing machine, and among the details that ring particularly true is all the shuffling of paperwork that goes on.
As to the blood and guts: Littell shies away from little of it, allowing his protagonist to get good and dirty, wading through blood and corpses.
Yes, it's vividly described but Littell also finds it hard to make it anything more than a catalogue of horror.
Aue's stations -- specifically the Ukraine, Stalingrad (where for once it is the Germans who do a lot of the suffering), and Auschwitz -- also come across as just a bit too convenient (especially his escape from Stalingrad).
Aue's reactions include quite a bit of stomach trouble, so he often finds himself more preoccupied with dropping his pants than what is going on around him -- an effective contrast, even as it quickly grows tiresome.
As to Aue's sex-life, that's equally difficult to stomach -- culminating in him whittling down a branch on an overturned tree and:
Then, soaking it copiously in saliva, I straddled the trunk and leaning on my hands, slowly buried this branch inside me, all the way.
It gave me an immense pleasure, and all this time, my eyes closed, my penis forgotten, I imagined my sister doing the same thing, making love in front of me like a lustful dryad with the trees of her forest, using her vagina as well as her anus to take an infinitely more terrifying pleasure than my own.
There are a few clever bits and observations in the book.
Littell gets a bit hung up in the Caucasus, but that at least allows for some interesting linguistic and historical digressions.
And occasionally mouthpiece and message -- even if everything feels terribly staged -- offer up a reasonably well-put idea, such as the captured Soviet officer who is allowed to have his say before they kill him:
We both believe that man doesn't freely choose his fate, but that it is imposed on him by nature or history.
And we both draw the conclusion that objective enemies exist, that certain categories of human beings can and must legitimately be eliminated not for what they've done or eventhought, but for what they are.
In that, we differ only in the definition of the categories: for you, the Jews, Gypsies, the Poles, and, even I believe, the mentally ill; for us, the Kulaks, the bourgeois, the Party deviationists.
At bottom, it's the same thing; we both reject the homo economicus of the capitalists, the egotistical, individualistic man trapped in his illusion of freedom, in favor of a homo faber: Not a self-made man but a made man, you might say in English, or a man yet to be made, since communist man must still be constructed, educated, just like your perfect National Socialist.
And this man-to-be-made justifies the pitiless liquidation of everything that is uneducable, and thus justifies the NKVD and the Gestapo
The Kindly Ones
is meant to be an unpleasant book, but the mere fact that Littell does not shy away from depicting the bottoms of men's souls and what they are capable of does not excuse the book's many faults.
In the text, the dialogue is incorporated into the paragraphs, rather than a new line marking each back and forth of conversation.
In a letter to his translators Littell was admant about this:
This must be respected even if it is similarly unusual in your own language.
The text must consist of great blocks, blocks that are suffocating to the reader, who must not be able to get through them too easily.
It is a revealing instruction and technique.
Readers surely will hardly be thrilled to learn the author wants to make things difficult for them, but given the subject-matter it seems it might be reasonable that one should not be able to get through the text easily.
Alas, Littell thinks bunching up the text is what should accomplish this, when, of course, it's the language and description that should be suffocating.
But Littell is anything but a stylist -- his writing, even in Charlotte Mandell's smooth translation, can only be described as workmanlike -- and, other than trying to shock with some of the sex- and killing-scenes, rarely manages to elicit more than a sense of wonder at how anyone could present such material so clumsily.
The Kindly Ones
is a bad book.
There is actually some power to its awfulness -- not the awfulness of what Littell describes, but the sincerity with which he is at work here, and his willingness to plow relentlessly on (over nearly a thousand pages !) to so little effect.
Little here feels revealing, and Aue remains a very peculiar cipher, even after he has vomited all this out.
Most baffling -- in a book that is full of baffling choices -- is the essentially comic (we certainly found it laugh-out-loud) ending, with Hitler's nose, the Nazi-Keystone-cops, and Aue's ridiculous escape.
The book is readable, though there seems little good reason to bother.
It is beyond comprehension why it has gotten as much attention as it has.
Certainly its subject matter has something to do with it -- but it is also in its treatment of its subject matter that it falls particularly short.
There are facts here -- many, many facts -- but little insightful truth.
This is poor commentary on Nazi (and human) evil, and a poor work of fiction as well.
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The Kindly Ones:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of French literature
- See Index of Contemporary American fiction
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About the Author:
Franco-American author Jonathan Littell was born in 1967.
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