A book that creates enormous divisions not only of opinion and judgment but also of experience is not necessarily a tremendously complex book, harboring chthonic rivers of underground meaning and moment. More likely, it is a work that draws on deeply disjointed cultural categories which will have variable resonance for varied readers: one element will rise to dominate the reader's experience, but its lack of common or ordinary connection to the other elements of the novel means that they will not necessarily rise with it, and will be either ignored or quickly forgotten.
Reading reviews of The Kindly Ones during and after my reading of the novel was a deeply estranging experience for me. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but I try very hard not to assume bad faith on the part of any reviewer—I assume that, absent a direct claim not to have read the entire book, they have at least given every page a decent glance. It was astounding to me, however, to find that even an ordinarily good reader can come away from this book with the unshakable belief that its "readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies." I am not trying to accuse anyone of not having read the book; I believe that Garth Risk Hallberg and the others who have foregrounded either the sex or the brutality which Littell depicts were being completely honest—this is what they "walked away" with. (I have other problems with GRH's review—he seems to have been expecting The Holocaust, by Richard Yates, and is generally aggravated to come into contact with a voice that belongs to something less than a potential student at the Iowa Writing Workshop.)
But these sicknesses are not what I walked away with, though I do not believe I was predisposed to ignore them nor immured against them by prior reading. The discourse of "transgressive fiction" is one I am perhaps half-familiar with: I've tried it, but I generally can't stand it. I have been repelled a number of times by Kathy Acker, I can't really read Bataille, I find reading Genet unpleasant and Burroughs repugnant—I didn't even like Portnoy's Complaint for G-d's sake! I am a perfect square when it comes to literature. Yet I did not find the various sexual fantasies and interludes overbearing in this novel, and the scenes of intense violence are usually so brief that by the time your lungs have received the breath from your gasp, your eyes have moved past the sharpest words. My experience of reading the novel was not, I would say, determined by the inclusion of these supposedly transgressive elements, and I believe that I will mostly remember these only because so much fuss has been made about them. So Aue uses a tree to fuck himself—have you really read nothing more surprising than that?
I mostly tend to wonder what the outrage is about: I refuse to believe that no one remembers the scene in Portnoy's Complaint that Aue's infamous self-violation-via-sausage act is so obviously cribbing from, and I'm surprised no one has mentioned that there is a scene of coprophagy in another beast of a WWII novel, Gravity's Rainbow (I'm not misremembering that, am I?). Littell's "transgressions" haven't really broken new ground simply in terms of what they depict, and I would even argue that the context of these depictions—the Holocaust—has been for some time a less than pure space in literature. (Doesn't Nathan Zuckerman have a sexual fantasy about Anne Frank in The Ghost Writer?) And as for violence, as non-transgressive a work as Spielberg's Schindler's List seems to me to be far more dependent on the threat and pervasiveness of violence than Littell's novel; that movie relies immensely more on the suspenseful presentiments of violence than does The Kindly Ones. Every new frame in that film seems to promise wholesale murder; I turned relatively few pages in The Kindly Ones expecting to read a Holocaust-related death. War and war-related deaths do saturate the book, but no one considers that transgression, do they?
Reading Daniel Mendelsohn's review in the NYRB, I found that someone else at least noticed what I took to be the dominant mode of the novel: the meticulous mundane.
Indeed, the large success of the book, the way in which Littell draws us into Aue's mental world, has much to do with a striking technique he employs throughout, which is to integrate, with more and more insistence as the novel progresses, scenes of high horror (or scenes in which characters coolly discuss horrific acts or plans) with quotidian, even tedious stretches, conversations about petty military intrigues and official squabbling and so forth that go on and on, thereby weaving together the dreadful and the mundane in an unsettlingly persuasive way—the tedious somehow normalizing the dreadful, and the dreadful seeming to infect the tedious. (There is a remarkable and entirely characteristic passage, fairly early on, in which the topic of conversation among a group of officers yo-yos between extermination policy and the quality of the roast duck with apples and mashed potatoes that they're eating. "'Yes, excellent,' Oberländer approved. 'Is this a specialty of the region?'")I think this is right in impulse but wrong in diction. "Juxtaposition" has become almost overuseful for describing just about any act of combination, opposition, integration, amalgamation, or comparison. Mendelsohn starts talking about Littell's "integration" of brutality or references to brutality with petty talk and pettier intrigues, and goes on to use an even better word, "infect," and provides an excellent example of this technique in action. But then he backs off to the more generic "juxtaposition" which can mean as little as "placing things next to one another," leaving the dynamics and character of the relationship limp and unspecified. He tries to explain its nature after that, but the critical term "integration" has dropped out, and we are left imagining that violence and tedium simply sit beside one another like jars on a shelf, and that all Littell wants from his readers is to get used to (or numb to) the arrangement. I have more to say about what Littell does want to do with this "infection," but that will come in the second post.
At first these juxtapositions horrify, and you may resent what feels like a striving for shocking effects; but then you get used to them—the sheer length and banality of the "everyday" stretches (of which there are far too many: some readers will give up) numbs you after a while. But this is, of course, the point: Littell has written a Holocaust novel that renders evil just as banal as we have been told it is—which is to say, not "banal" in the sense of boring or ordinary, but banalisé : rendered quotidian, everyday, normal.
Mendelsohn ultimately does get back to the novel's sexual vulgarities, though he tries to account for them not as an exercise in authorial indulgence, but as part of a questionable decision to create a mythical substructure for the novel's historical narrative. Mendelsohn says this doesn't work. "Littell's insistence on developing the fantastical, the grotesque, and the motif of extreme sexual excess that grow out of his Orestes theme is clearly the result of a choice; and he himself has carefully planted clues about the meaning, and the justification, of that choice, one that has little to do with the Holocaust per se, or with novelizing history, and everything to do with something very French and very literary." Mendelsohn at this moment isn't very different from the Francophobia of Michiko Kakutani's review—"Look, you went all French and ruined it!"
He then proceeds down a reading of Blanchot which I'm not going to question: I've read the essay, and I don't think his interpretation is terrible, just kind of beside the point. I don't think that what attracted Littell to this particular Blanchot essay was its emphasis on transgression and freedom—there is a serious disconnect between what Blanchot refers to as Orestes's "innocence inside evil" and the character of Max Aue. Regardless, Mendelsohn wants to believe Littell found his particular image of his Orestes in Blanchot's interpretation of Sartre's appropriation—this seems far too constrained, too thirdhand for an author to draw the whole of his "large intellectual aim," it seems to me. Rather, I found the following quote to be particularly relevant:
If at certain moments one perceives a dissonance between the work and the myth inside which it resounds, this rupture, which was in any case probably desired by the writer, does not stem from an absence of initial unity, of some superficial imposition of new themes on the legendary story, but on the contrary from the extraordinary coincidence that allowed a completely new way of thinking to align with ancient truth with only a minimum of changes; thus the contradictions and differences of expression are made more obvious. (60 in the Mandell translation)Could this not describe The Kindly Ones itself better?
Mendelsohn is trying to read The Kindly Ones as if it is Ulysses and The Oresteia its Odyssey, as if we are supposed to be constantly monitoring the text for departures from its mythical foundation, as if we could find occult "clues" to recreate The Oresteia within The Kindly Ones. The nature of justice, the unfortunately human desire for domesticating the ghosts of the past—these are the truths locked in The Oresteia which Littell believes are coincidental to the truths about the Third Reich and about the conditions for genocide and mass death more generally. But they are not Aue's truths. In fact, there is a great deal in Blanchot's essay that I feel attaches much better to Aue than to Littell, but more on that later.
Mendelsohn is more right than he knows when he says "the overlaying of the Oresteia parallel, with its high intellectual allure and literary allusiveness [is] just the kind of thing that Max himself would appreciate." I absolutely loathe the type of criticism that treats every narrator as Nabokovian-level unreliable until proven otherwise, but we have to remember that the text we hold is Aue's creation, and, while he is nearly actuarial in his accounting for (most of) his actions as an SS officer, he was and remains absolutely bewildered by the possibility that he killed his mother and stepfather. I would never go so far as to say that we are to believe Aue invents elements (the spookily artificial Clemens and Weser, for instance) to create an Oresteian parallel to solace his guilty conscience, but I think we should see his hand in some of what gets told and how.
At any rate, Mendelsohn's argument grows incoherent: he thinks the depictions of sex and violence exist "not to somehow defend Aue because he is outside of morality, but to show us, horribly, what a life outside of morality looks, feels, sounds, and smells like"—if Aue is still "inside" morality, how does showing his life at its most graphic illustrate what a life outside of morality looks like? Doesn't it rather show how far a life still inside morality can be stretched from what we consider the norm or the average? And then Mendelsohn argues that what Littell really wants to do is "complet[e] Sartre's unfinished task, 'pushing the abjection far enough,' struggling to show 'impiety against real piety'—the 'piety,' in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like." When Mendelsohn does not repeat "real" as the adjective for "piety," he has lost the whole argument: Blanchot's point is that the gods of Les Mouches are not godly enough: surely, Mendelsohn can't be suggesting that our "pruderies" are an improvement, that our "expectations" constitute "real piety." There must be some other way of accounting for the presence of these ugly elements in the novel; ravishing our petit-bourgeois expectations and pruderies would not take nearly 1,000 pages, nor would it be well-served by forests of pages devoted to the minutiae of Nazi bureaucracy.
The Nation had the shocking intuition that having a historian read the book might be a good idea, and not just any historian, but Samuel Moyn, a professor at Columbia who has published a book titled A Holocaust Controversy, and whose "research interests are in modern European intellectual history, with special interests in France and Germany, political and legal thought, historical and critical theory, and sometimes Jewish studies" (his Wikipedia page). So, in other words, a guy who should be able to call bullshit on Littell pretty effectively, if that is indeed the case.
Moyn suggests that it isn't the case, but that like Aue's complaint about Eichmann's violin playing, "he didn't make any mistakes, but didn't seem to understand that that wasn't enough." In this case, though, Moyn is faulting Littell not for a lack of imagination but a profusion of it; he argues that Littell's accuracy doesn't counterbalance the extreme idiosyncrasy of the narrator's persona:
The details are assured throughout, and--despite the irritation of some European historians--Littell is rather impressively up to date; at times the novel reads like a fictional précis of the most recent scholarly research on the Third Reich. To take just one example, Aue's scattered reflections on the Soviet invasion as a colonial project, and how it might compare with its American, British and French precedents, comport with my colleague Mark Mazower's masterful Hitler's Empire, published last year.I think that Moyn is actually downplaying the importance of the historical facts for the effect of the narrative, but perhaps his familiarity with the facts has dulled the feeling of slight surprise and piqued interest that I had in reading the sections, for example, about Germany's colonial aspirations for the Ostministerium. Littell's inclusion of up-to-date scholarly interpretations of the relevant history, I feel, greatly enriches the novel and deepens its relevance, particularly on the question of colonialism and its relation to violence. (Speaking of which, I'd like to point out that Moyn too finds the shock reactions to the novel's violence overstated: "Actually, almost no violence is depicted in the novel, at least outside Aue's family"—I wouldn't go that far, but I'm relieved to see someone else didn't think they had the script to Hostel 4 in their hands.)
But in 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.
I don't find Moyn's conclusion that Littell's book is valuable insofar as it re-energizes the "mystery of [the] connection" between the personal and the political to be compelling or necessary. Aue's frequent invocations of the concept of "total war" bring that point home loud and clear, but not in such a way that this theme could become the moral pearl we are meant to extract from the scaly jaws of the narrative.
Moyn also insists upon an interpretation that Aue "stands for Nazism as a whole. Indeed, at several critical points, Aue tries to link his family story with the larger saga of his nation." This claim splits along an interesting line: Aue does try to shape his family narrative into a parallel for Germany's history, but he also is challenged on a number of occasions with not being sufficiently German—his mother is French (Alsatian, he protests). Indeed, his mixed heritage provides him with unique perspectives and abilities; it is his mother's heritage that allows him to hide after the war, passing as a Frenchman. And I do not believe it is for nothing that Littell insists on sending Aue back to Paris to reacquaint himself with Maurras and other members of the right-wing press. Aue is no perfect Adrian Leverkuhn or Oskar Matzerath, an exact metaphor for the Faustian bargain and horrifying deformation of National Socialism. If Aue is a symbol or a figure for some abstract category, it is either buried deeper or spread over more than Mitteleuropa. He is less a German than a European, and I do not imagine Littell wants us to stop there. Moyn's eagerness to contain Aue in German history writes off the many ways The Kindly Ones makes clear that the "World" in World War II was not just a victor's boast.
Moyn is, however, one of the only reviewers to point out what was to me a fairly crucial fact for the reading of The Kindly Ones, a point that is foregrounded with almost exclusive attention in the author biography on the book's dust jacket: prior to beginning a career as a writer, Littell spent seven years working for the NGO Action Against Hunger (or Action Contre la Faim), working in (according to his Wikipedia page), Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chechnya, the Congo, Sierra Leone, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Moscow.
I do not understand how one can simply neglect to talk about this aspect of Littell's personal history—is it not the most basic background and most likely impulse for the writing of a novel about mass murder, a great deal of which was the result or the corollary of starvation? To ignore or pass over the novel's overwhelming prevalence of malnutrition, hunger, and starvation in favor of some relatively isolated scenes of (nonetheless intense) violence is to miss an enormous part of the novel's substance, meaning, intention, and effect. I cannot imagine that Littell did not fail to note that the first word of his group's name—Action, in French or English—is the very term used by the SS to designate the project of extermination. To miss the reason this single word could be used for such horrifyingly different ends is to have missed the novel, whole and entire.