Monday, May 24, 2010

The Kindly Ones: Crime and Controversy

It was complicated how I stumbled (back) onto The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell. This novel -- narrated by an educated, articulate, gay Nazi SS officer -- was all the talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years ago, and Littell won the two big literary prizes in France in 2006 (the book is written in French; Littell is American by birth, lives in Europe, raised and educated in France (and then Yale)). I forgot about the book, but then someone mentioned it to me; I had just read another WWII epic, The Naked and The Dead (discussed here), so I thought I'd have a look.

First, I'll pat myself on the back: The Naked and The Dead seemed long and harrowing (which it was), but The Kindly Ones is longer and more harrowing -- or at least more transgressive. It is basically a thousand pages (984, to be precise) of death squads, concentration camps, slave labor, urban warfare, Nazi bureaucracy, camaraderie, onanism, and incest. Great stuff, really. The book documents -- deposits readers vividly at -- the worst places and events: Our protagonist, Max Aue, wades among the bodies in the ravine of Babi Yar (where I imagine I had some distant relatives, my grandfather having come from near Kiev); he visits Auschwitz; serves in Stalingrad; survives the destruction of Berlin; confronts (sort of, strangely, laughably) the Fuhrer in the final bunker, etc. The book's greatest strengths are its representations of these nightmarish places. Some critics have called this a "pornography of violence," but that seems unfair. We can estimate the dead at Babi Yar, but that is very different from the experience of herding or being herded. Littell also has Aue describe in pages and pages of detail the Nazi bureaucracy and in-fighting, which belies the mythology of Nazi order and efficiency.

Like other readers, I found the Aue family/personal/psychological story less compelling. This story includes reveries, masturbation, and murder, and Aue is pursued by two Kripo (Reich police) detectives. Thus The Kindly Ones also includes a crime story, though this is a weak narrative thread and relies on fantastical (or action-adventure) coincidence. This weakness -- the artificiality of the crime and pursuit -- arguably ties into Littell's ambitious examination of crime, culpability, guilt, and so on. More important than the crime novel structure is the framework provided by the Oresteia (The Kindly Ones is another name for the Furies (or Erinyes), who pursued Orestes for killing his mother). The most detailed review and the best explanation for the connection to the Oresteia and for the book's transgressive and graphic sex is Daniel Mendelsohn's piece in the New York Review of Books. (Also of note: an interview with the translator, Charlotte Mandell.)

It is easy to be critical of this novel on various counts: it is tedious at times; long-winded here and there; it either falls apart or never quite coheres. And true, the subject matter might have limited appeal for gentle readers. Still, this is a serious, ambitious, complex, detailed historic novel that deserves admiration (even if grudging, which my admiration is not) and notice. It is therefore dispiriting to me (as a reader and writer in the U.S.) to see how terribly panned and dismissed the novel was in major American publications. Kakutani savaged the book in the New York Times; David Gates also reviewed it unfavorably in the Times, as did Melvin Jules Bukiet in The Washington Post.

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