Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

[This is the first of two posts on this novel; I feel compelled to address other responses to the novel, and I cannot find a way to bring that into some kind of coherent whole with the reading I want to create. Think of this as "The Part about the Critics." Update: Here is the second, fuller post.]

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?'")

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.
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.

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.

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 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.)

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.


Garth Risk Hallberg said...

Andrew- I'm really interested in your response, and I do think readers of good faith can disagree. I elected to elide from my review a lot of piling-up of examples, because they've been covered so thoroughly elsewhere - and because they seem to address those who have read the book, which at this point can't be a very large number. Indeed, there are so many reviews out there now that I was hoping to do something a bit different.

Still, the central problem I had with the book (aggravated by the grandeur of the conception and the gravity of the subject) was that, basically, I found the narrative persona not merely "idiosyncratic" or "ugly," but clumsy, incoherent, and increasingly silly, as the book lurched toward its conclusion. After Stalingrad, a space seems to open up - a space for Mandelbrodt and Clemens and Weser and "transgression" - even as a space opens up in Aue's quite curiously described skull. (Did you notice the difficulty of picturing the head-wound? It's as if he's been literally hollowed out.) Yet, I hoped to argue, that space is poorly written, both at the surface level of syntax, diction, figurative language, and at the deeper level of conception. The prose cliched, predictable, and irritatingly assured of its own transgressiveness, even as, at some level, it seems increasingly quietist and increasingly palliative to the reader. It creates the comforting distance of television, and indeed reads like television. Is there anything actually disturbing in this second space? To my way of thinking, there is not, particularly when it's weighed against what's disturbing in the first space (of the first 500 pages). Aue's excursions to Poland and Hungary offer some relief, whenever he can peel himself away from the famous names of history. And yet, by the end of the book, the harrowing Ukraine sequence is barely a memory, while "Air" burns as brightly as a cheap neon sign.

By the finale, I was quite literally laughing at those zoo animals; I almost wondered if the ending was supposed to be not a departure from Iowa orthodoxy, but a parody of it. The sad giraffes, the ponderous tears of the hippopotomi, etc. I'm exaggerating, but barely. It's less Genet than "Setting Free the Bears."

In my reading, as in Mendelsohn's, what I'm calling bad writing was an outgrowth of one of two major impulses in the novel; he calls them the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian; I wanted to call them the historical and the moral/psychological. I was amazed, given the collapse of the prose, that Mendelsohn thought this second space, in workshop parlance, "worked." I felt the book's moral/psychological space was an aesthetic sinkhole - that it not only undermined whatever trust and suspension of disbelief Littell had earned in "Allemandes I and II," but made me feel that the book's strengths were merely an elaborate set of excuses for its weaknesses. That The Kindly Ones, which has so much promise, and is so weirdly powerful in certain ways, ended up borrowing value from its subject the way a country house borrows value from a majestic view.

I'm intrigued by the counterarguments, but I'm still waiting for someone to address or rebut the assertion that the writing - the basic medium through by which a novel depicts and evokes - is often embarrassingly bad. I can't count the number of times I wrote "Ugh!" in the margins; in the end, they outnumbered the not inconsiderable number of exclamation points that denoted something surprising, powerful or true.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

I think Hallberg reads the "clumsy, incoherent, and increasingly silly" as a failure on the author's part rather than necessary to the logic of the novel i.e. the kindly ones' vengeance as it acts upon the power of coherent narrative.

I tend to think "Ugh" when I read snooty review from people who should know better.

And yes, it is "like television" in that there is a horrfifying distance. This too is necessary to Aue's experience or non-experience, and thereby the logic of the novel.

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

"Hallberg reads the "clumsy, incoherent, and increasingly silly" as a failure on the author's part rather than necessary to the logic of the novel"

Indeed. That seems to be the source of our disagreement.

Andrew Seal said...

"I'm still waiting for someone to address or rebut the assertion that the writing - the basic medium through by which a novel depicts and evokes - is often embarrassingly bad."

Come on, this is an awfully loaded request--you're saying, "I define this set of attributes to be bad. Now, within my aesthetic system, tell me that it's actually good." If I don't do that but instead say "but there is a reason the prose is the way it is," you'll say I'm not really addressing your critique, that I haven't told you why whatever it is the prose is supposed to be doing necessitates its badness, its purplishness or whatever you want to call it. You want me to tell you why the "Ughs" should have appeared to you to be exclamation marks. I won't be able to do that, because I didn't mark ughs or exclamation marks, and it didn't occur to me to read that way, so I'll have to retreat to a claim of mutually incompatible value systems or something like that. But I'll feel good about saying something clever on the way out about how, although your comment that "literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension" is absolutely correct, drawing a bright red pencil through purple prose isn't aesthetics at all, but verbal gourmanderie or freshman comp grading.

Then Stephen will say something dismissive and caustic about you and other reviewers that implies that Littell exists in a Nietzschean realm of transvalued values, and fools like you just can't take it. (I'm freely paraphrasing here, Stephen.)

Now, that might be a nice exchange, mutually satisfying to everyone--we all go home Internet Winners in Our Own Heads.

But I do have a few arguments as to why Littell wrote the way he did, and why what he does "works"—maybe not in terms of convincing you that he's a "good" writer (one who doesn't write "bad" prose) but that he has succeeded in doing something worthwhile as a novelist and even as a witness to human misery, and that the elements you cite are a separate but related project and do not interfere but rather buttress the critical point he's making. Whether you think all this explains or justifies the text's Tyrian hue is up to you.

First of all, check out my post that has an excerpt (translated very poorly by Google and me) of a letter Littell wrote to his translator, particularly the section regarding the creation of different voices (Eichmann's being the example). I'm sure you'll say that it wasn't Eichmann's voice that bothered you, but the things that Aue is actually writing himself, but I'll say that Aue's voice becomes more like those of his fellow bureaucrats in the second half of the novel, simply because he's describing their world more than he did in the Stalingrad or even the Caucasus. I have no idea if you'll accept that, though.

The rest of what I have to say is better left for a full post, standing on its own.

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

Andrew, I look forward to that full post. I would suggest, though, that you've mischaracterized my request (or that I've maladroitly communicated it) which is precisely that someone articulate to me this "reason the prose is the way it is," rather than merely asserting that that reason must exist.

For the purposes of reviewing, it seems useful (to me at least) to ignore the intentional fallacy and to imagine that some works may have deeper or better reasons for their aesthetic effects than others. Indeed, the review is often an attempt to ascertain, from the evidence available, the quantity and quality of those reasons. That said, a good reader obviously works hard to find the aesthetic unity (or unified disjunction, or whatever) of a work, and I do think that The Kindly Ones is, in the terms of the old David Letterman segment, a something, rather than a nothing. I'm willing to consider the possibility that I haven't been as good a reader as The Kindly Ones deserves (clearly, as I continue to try to have this conversation with readers who've had other experiences with the book), provided that someone can explain to me what it is I'm missing. Again, rather than merely asserting it must have been missed.

I think This Space (Stephen Mitchelmore's blog) was starting to get there, but I can't quite (yet) follow this argument about "The Kindly Ones" exacting their vengeance on the narrative. This may well be my fault. The Mendelsohn started to get there for me, but again (like you) I couldn't quite follow him when he started talking about the book's Oresteian architecture. The kitsch, he says, is essential to the novel's moralizing project, but I don't think he answered the question of "how" at all persuasively. Which doesn't mean it can't be answered (pace your comment above, which in the severity with which it rejects the reviewer's evaluative duties, seems in some ways to suggest exactly the opposite of what it says). But it is to me suggestive either of greatness or its opposite that very, very good readers are wrestling to articulate the logic of this layer of the book.

If someone could oblige - as I'm hoping you'll do in your full post - I'd happily entertain the notion that it The Kindly Ones' prose is, despite appearances - e.g., again, Hitler's spittle in the penultimate scene - "good." "Good" being, for me, merely a synonym for something like "purposeful" or "effective" (that is, achieving purposeful effects) rather than, say, "stale" or "unimaginative." Despite the assertions from two quarters that there is such a "reason," I'm still waiting to be told what it is. I look forward to learning more about your reading.

Yours in good faith, Garth.

Andrew Seal said...

Garth, the post is here. I wasn't trying to imply that you were acting in bad faith, just that, ultimately, you still want that prose to be redeemed in some way, either by the intellectual purpose of the larger behind it or by the sheer creativity of the strategy that produces it. You want some extenuating circumstances for overlooking its "badness," some factor that will make you overcome your "aesthetic" gag reflex.

I just don't read that way: my primary role as a reader isn't about grading the prose for its quality (your "ughs" and "!s") and then trying to figure out if something about the novel makes that palatable, but of trying to figure out what the meaning of the novel is and then checking myself to see if the texture of the prose (among other things) supports it. As you'll see in the next post, I focus on work, and I think that it's pretty clear that the majority of the prose is workmanlike, not in a blue-collar way of course, but written in a utilitarian, bureaucratic or legalistic tone. The patches of what you call "stale" prose would be natural to a voice like that, and if you read Littell's letter to his translators, you'll notice that the consistency of the voice is one of Littell's primary concerns. It's funny, because many people criticized Netherland for endowing an oil trader with the most lavishly lyrical voice, and they thought this was unbelievable, unnatural in such a position. I didn't think this (and neither did you, if I remember correctly), but here we certainly have a character who obeys the classical command to pitch the level of the character's speech at his social level, not higher or lower.

But I guess this is furnishing an extenuating circumstance for the prose, which isn't what I wanted to do; I hope I did better in the other post.

Andrew Seal said...

Also, I want to note (because it isn't apparent in what I wrote and I did mean for it to be) that I'm not trying to say that your method of reading is wrong or anything like that. I just don't think it serves this particular book well. I really enjoy your work on The Millions and am always glad to see that you've posted.

Garth Risk Hallberg said...

Yeah, sorry, Andrew, I had missed the fact that your long post was already up. Interesting stuff, and I think it does call useful attention to an aspect of the novel Mendelsohn caught, and I moved past rather quickly, which is the quite deliberately quotidian work/food/starvation material.

I also agree somewhat about the "workmanlike" prose - I felt that it worked pretty well when Aue was what I thought of as "in the field." Objective, cold, at work. And yet, when the point-of-view became more subjective (which I thought I'd been craving), I felt the "workmanlikeness" give way to something else entirely...something partaking of the tones and temperament of genre fiction. Almost like science fiction, but without the science, if that makes sense.

One thing I admired about your review is that you picked out the three peripheral characters I found to be most satisfying and well-drawn. All belong to the "workmanlike" plane of the novel you identify. Over against them (and others like them), I'd put Thomas, Mandelwhosit and Leland, Clemens and Weser, Una, Hitler, the Amazons, and some others, who seem to belong to a quite different plane. I felt almost as if I was having trouble with the ontology of what I was reading. At first I tried to imagine some of this away as an epistemological issue - the product of unreliable narration - but as I tried to suggest in my essay, this seemed plausible only up to a point. And, far from being actually shocking or disturbing, it was the psychosexual stuff that I found most consistently entangled with this second register of the book, and so it's what I walked away arguing with myself about, which I don't think was what Littell intended.

As you mentioned in your original post, I had a massively hard time reconciling the two planes of the novel (as I perceived them); my exclamation point/ugh rhetoric may sound reductive, but I just found myself being exiled from the reality of the novel whenever I entered this second realm or register of the book. It's a register I found to take up more and more of the page as the novel went on. Perhaps I struggled with this because, as a reader, I personally tend to be unable to apprehend "meaning" and "prose" as distinct entities (my maladroit reviewing schema aside.) I tend to read them as of a piece with each other. I thought there must have been some purpose behind Littell's counterpoising of the "workmanlike" and the "fantastic," but figuring out what it was defeated me. Anyway, the most interesting and challenging part of your reading for me was your suggestion that, in fact, the "why" of Aue's actions is exactly what the book's ethical system is trying to tell us is irrelevant. It certainly caused me to re-examine some of my expectations for the book. Thanks for the productive conversation.

Al Grand said...

Jonathan Littell's grandfather was my chemistry teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York Brooklyn.

I wish to share some nostalgic reminiscences with Jonathan. I would be supremely grateful if you can put us in touch with one another.

Faithfully yours,

Al Grand

James Balano said...

I read Gravity's Rainbow three times before I became curious about what reviewers said. When I finally read some of them it seemed that they were reviewing a very different book than the one I had read. With few exceptions it met with the same lack of understanding as The Kindly Ones. I have read that Moby Dick was received with the same dismissiveness. It almost seems as if most critics don't bother to read the works they're criticizing. Or, at least, they don't read them very well. They do however, seem to read each others' criticisms in great detail. Littell, on the other hand, has read his Melville, Pynchon and Nabokov with love and understanding and salutes them. I suspect that the subject matter of literary criticism is literary criticism and not art.

maldoror said...

This discussion made me think of the following:

1 The section on the crimes in 2666, with its remorseless and charmless prose. And the absolute necessity of that remorselessness in order that the reader might have some idea of what was being talked about.

2 What it must have been like for Littell to have read or perhaps even written reports on things like this:

I worked in Chechnya during the two wars, first in 1996 and then for about 15 months at the beginning of the second war in autumn 1999, and I have always kept close contacts there. Thus, like the Chechens themselves, I remember very well those years when the life of a Chechen wasn’t worth a kopek; when a man could disappear, be tortured and then murdered because he had met the gaze of a drunk soldier at a checkpoint; when girls were raped then killed, the way you throw away a broken object; when you found the corpses of young men rounded up in the great zachistki – the ‘cleansing’ operations of the federal troops – tied up in barbed wire and burned alive; when panicking families scurried desperately to collect a few thousand dollars to ransom their arrested men before it was too late, and when it was too late still had to spend the money to buy back the corpses; when children grew up in filthy camps with almost no education, if they weren’t killed or mutilated by a bomb, a mine, an idle sniper; when the shakhidki, the ‘black widows’ who blew themselves up to take a few Russians with them, did it not out of religious belief but out of pure despair, because they had no men left, not a single one, and not a single child either. For most Chechens, who have forgotten none of all that, it is obvious that things are ‘better’.

3 The heirachical/ cultural determinants that generate the notion of "good" writing (or taste) run the risk of fetishising the very idea of "good" (in which all societies echo fascist or totalitarian societies); Littell's appreciation of this created the apparent need to rupture any semblance of 'good' writing/ taste in the penultimate section. (Any critic who fails to realise that Air has been created by a writer who is refusing to play their games is a critic that has become so subservient to their determinants they wouldn't notice if their dog was biting their leg off).

4. This might be overly Nietzschean, but you cannot say anything new through pandering to what your society deems estimable. And in this, The Kindly Ones is embarking on that most ambitious of premises: a critique of the nature of modern societies (of which Nazi Germany was but one garish, hideous example). It is hard to imagine that the writer of the Kindly Ones would have been satisfied had he not provoked from some of the literary critics the kind of reaction he has received. Had he not had this kind of negative reaction, he would not, on the most of profound of levels, have been doing his job.