Last autumn, I finally read a book I’d put off reading for years because I suspected (rightly, it turns out) that it would be uniquely harrowing. Jonathan Littell’s notorious, extremely long novel of the Second World War, The Kindly Ones, was a tremendous success on its first publication in French in 2006 (as Les Bienveillantes). It won its previously unknown author the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française, and was a bestseller in France and several other European countries.

The book’s Wikipedia page contains this pleasing phrase: “Word of mouth and enthusiastic reviews soon catapulted sales to such an extent that Gallimard had to stop publishing the latest Harry Potter novel in order to meet the demand for The Kindly Ones.” Littell was reportedly paid around $1 million for its English translation rights, but when it was published by Harper Collins in 2009 in a translation by Charlotte Mandell, The Kindly Ones met with critical derision and sold a fraction of what its publishers hoped it would. Littell has since faded in prominence from the Anglophone literary landscape (while some of his subsequent books have been translated, they have received little attention and certainly earned no seven-figure advances). Articles by Littell on war and geopolitics occasionally appear in the likes of the Guardian and New Statesman; in March 2022, Le Monde published an open letter in which he urged his “Russian friends” to overthrow Vladimir Putin.

The Kindly Ones is presented as the memoirs of a Nazi SS officer and Holocaust perpetrator who, looking back across decades on his activities during the war, recounts in extreme detail and without contrition his active role in mass murder. Put more succinctly still, it’s a 1,000-page novel about the Shoah told exclusively and exhaustively from a Nazi perspective. It takes in, among very much else, the massacre of almost 34,000 Jews at Babi Yar in Ukraine (described in a gruesome set-piece that might have sprung from the brain of the Marquis de Sade — an author Littell has translated into English), the Battle of Stalingrad, Hitler’s hrerbunker Götterdämmerung, and, inevitably, the death camps. There are cameos or more significant roles for virtually every prominent Nazi, from Höss to Himmler, Mengele to Eichmann, Heydrich to Hitler, along with writers and other cultural figures from the era. The novel’s narrator, Dr Maximilian Aue, begins his account of the war on the Eastern Front, where he served as a member of an Einsatzgruppe (the mobile paramilitary units who carried out the extermination prior to the establishment of the concentration camp network), before rising through the SS ranks to a central administrative role in the bureaucracy of genocide.

Part of what makes The Kindly Ones so extraordinary and erratic a war novel is its very Frenchness. We are accustomed to such thick novels tackling the vast subject of war from within a humanist, Tolstoyan tradition, but Littell is rooted in a contrary, largely Francophone tradition of extreme literature. His forebears are Sade, Bataille, Genet, Céline, and Baudelaire, along with renegade non-Frenchmen such as William Burroughs and Bret Easton Ellis (Littell was, in fact, born in the United States — his father was a successful spy novelist — but grew up in France). His infernal narrator is both a committed National Socialist and a severely troubled pervert: page after page describe Aue’s depraved sexual acts and fantasies as the strain of committing atrocities, compounded by his closeted homosexuality and memories of childhood incest with his sister Una, brings on a nightmarish psychic deterioration. Rivers of shit flow through the book, amid corpses and gore, vomit and stench, torture and abjection.

Surprisingly, in light of his penchant for the transgressive, Littell’s professional background prior to publishing The Kindly Ones in his late 30s was in humanitarian work. Before quitting his job to spend a year and a half researching the Holocaust and travelling in the Eastern Front, he lived in multiple conflict zones as an aid worker for Action Against Hunger — work which provided the insight into bureaucracies and conflict that gave texture to his densely realised novel. Some critics suggested that The Kindly Ones — whose perverse level of detail regarding the minutiae of Nazi extermination mirrors the perversity of the Final Solution itself — reads less as a novel than a work of dramatised documentation.

But Littell, with his arsenal of rogue literary influences, animates his vast knowledge of his subject with the added metaphysical, moral, and psychic dimensions of fiction. As he has somewhat grandly put it in an interview: “You can do things with literature that you’re not allowed to do in other regimes of discourse.” And so we’re presented with such phantasmic images as that of a thundering Adolf Hitler, at a rally Aue attends while his sanity is collapsing, transforming before our eyes… into a rabbi.

Reading Littell’s book last autumn, I found myself having one of those overwhelming literary experiences we’re lucky if we enjoy (though in the present case that may not be the right word) every few years, the kind that had me cancelling social engagements. So absorbed was I that, over the weeks it took me to read the novel, I failed to notice myself sink into a black and choking depression. More accurately, I realised I had become intensely hopeless in my outlook, but somehow (this seems incredible to me now) I failed to connect my reading material to this state of dejection.

Meanwhile, I talked fervently to whoever was around about the amazing novel I was reading, which, I assured them, was both a towering work of literature and as black and punishing a document as I’d ever encountered (strangely, I couldn’t quite convince anyone to read it). When I was 200 pages from the end, a friend and I happened to eat some psilocybin mushrooms. As the effects took hold I felt myself being submerged in the hellish, quicksand imagery and suffocating nihilism of Littell’s novel. The universe was evil — life itself was an infinite gas chamber. When the trip was over I’d made the connection that had previously eluded me, and the following morning the gloom had lifted — I finished the novel in sunlight.

A survey of contemporary Anglophone reviews shows (with some exceptions) an array of critics failing, in various ways, to get it. The most sizeable party dismissed The Kindly Ones for what they decried as its prurient sensationalism that passed itself off as seriousness. Perhaps they were reacting against the hype, their faculties muddied by talk of million-dollar publishing deals and Francophone adulation. At any rate, for me their assessment lands at a neat antipode to the truth — I don’t think I could handle a more serious novel.

The repugnance it induces is, as they say, a feature, not a bug. There’s no way to achieve what Littell is going for here while deferring to delicacy, tact, understatedness. The coprophilia and incest are one thing (there really is too much of that stuff, especially in a chapter towards the end in which Aue masturbates in his own shit for 100 pages), but regarding the gruelling depictions of genocide and atrocity, if Littell ever felt the need to defend himself, he need only remind us: that’s what happened. By committing to a first-person narration, he goes where few if any serious novelists had ever gone and sinks us deep into the psyche of a highly intelligent, cultivated National Socialist — not a fervent antisemite, but an energetic, ambitious, sensitive young man who believes in the necessity of the bloody work his cause demands. Reading the novel is like wading through a dense fog wherein all certainties and moral coordinates vanish.

“What I did,” we read in the first pages, “I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method.” The Kindly Ones is perhaps best understood as a philosophical virtual reality device that enables us to experience exactly what it’s like to think, feel and act as a committed National Socialist in the inferno of the Second World War.

Crucially, in depicting the Shoah from the perspective of the perpetrators, Littell — an atheist of Jewish background — cleaves to the truth of the majority, the normal, rather than the exception. Schindler’s List (a film Littell incidentally claims to despise) is beautifully made, heart-wrenching, and deceptive, in that it takes as its subject the moral anomaly: the Nazi who responded to the evils around him by resisting. Most people, of course, did not resist, and even within the SS the overt psychopaths and sadists were in the minority (indeed they were sometimes punished for their excesses). Most Nazi murderers killed without enthusiasm, after finding themselves at the end of a long chain of duties and commands in service to a catastrophic state ideology.

Ventriloquising through Maximilian Aue, Littell wants us to understand that it’s extremely difficult, even arbitrary, to meaningfully separate the culpable from the innocent — in the Nazi genocide and in others. The Kindly Ones’s sinister opening section is addressed to a universal second-person: “If you ever managed to make me cry, my tears would sear your face.” These prefatory pages, in which Dr Aue introduces himself decades after the war while living under an assumed identity — he runs a lace factory in northern France, with a wife and children who are ignorant both of his homosexuality and his wartime deeds — are a warning and a rite of initiation: the hundreds of airlessly intense pages that follow will lock us into the sensorium of a man who was present, lucid, and active in “the heart of the slaughterhouse”.

During this opening address — a précis of the philosophical core that elevates The Kindly Ones above mere atrocity porn or middlebrow historical fiction — Aue makes a further, rarely acknowledged point concerning the nature of war:

“Political philosophers have often pointed out that in wartime, the citizen, the male citizen at least, loses one of his most basic rights, the right to life; and this has been true ever since the French Revolution and the invention of conscription, now an almost universally accepted principle. But these same philosophers have rarely noted that the citizen in question simultaneously loses another right, one just as basic and perhaps even more vital for his conception of himself as a civilised human being: the right not to kill. No one asks you for your opinion. In most cases the man standing above the mass grave no more asked to be there than the one lying, dead or dying, at the bottom of the pit.”

Once these unnerving philosophical preliminaries conclude, Littell’s narrator plunges us into the carnage of the Eastern Front in 1941. We are in Ukraine, where the Wehrmacht has driven out the Soviet forces, leaving the native population free to conduct a brutal pogrom against the Jews. The effect achieved here, and over the rest of the novel, is of total immediacy and total visibility — less “show, don’t tell” than “show and tell absolutely everything”. The style is torrential, with sentences typically long and packed with detail, yet remarkably readable (Céline isn’t just an influence — he also makes an appearance).

Concerns around visibility dog such art that seeks to reckon with the Shoah. Theodor Adorno argued, in a 1962 essay titled “Commitment” (the one with the line about lyric poetry after Auschwitz being barbaric), that: “The aesthetic principle of stylisation… makes an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror is removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims.” Several decades on, the late German novelist W.G. Sebald, whose oeuvre is a sustained exercise in talking about the Holocaust without talking about the Holocaust, remarked in an interview concerning his 1995 novel The Rings of Saturn: “I think it is sufficient to remind people because we’ve all seen images, but these images militate against our capacity for discursive thinking, for reflecting upon these things, and also paralyse our moral capacity. So the only way one can approach these things in my view is obliquely, tangentially, by reference rather than by direct confrontation.”

Jonathan Glazer’s film The Zone of Interest has won two Academy Awards and much breathless praise for its depiction of the simulacrum of bourgeois normalcy enjoyed by SS commandant Rudolf Höss and his family in a pleasant house on the perimeter of Auschwitz. The horrors of extermination occur entirely off-screen, the ominous sound design intensifying the family’s schizoid reality. My feelings towards Glazer’s film were mixed. I left the cinema curiously unmoved, and although the film’s nightmarish juxtapositions stayed with me, so too did the feeling that there’s something precious, snobbish even, at any rate unsatisfactory and philosophically banal, in this principled refusal to show. By contrast, The Kindly Ones’s opposite strategy of total visibility — total obscenity — challenged and affected me more than an oblique and therefore ostensibly tasteful work probably ever could. Void of redemption and fanatically committed to its subject’s suffocating blackness, the novel terrifyingly describes the world evoked in Nietzsche’s parable of the madman: unchained from its sun, perpetually falling as through an infinite nothing, with more and more night coming on all the time.

In J.M. Coetzee’s essayistic 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, as the titular figure — an elderly and much-garlanded writer — meditates on a novel of Nazi horrors she has read that has left her badly rattled, she considers the word “’obscene’: a word of contested etymology, that she must hold onto as talisman. She chooses to believe that obscene means off-stage. To save our humanity, certain things that we may want to see (may want to see because we are human!) must remain off-stage.” Costello repeatedly describes having felt, while reading this novel of atrocities, the brush of the devil’s “leathery wing”. The crux of her theologically-inflected argument is that, notwithstanding the Romantic celebration of art’s “heroic right to venture into forbidden or tabooed zones”, no writer can go where the novel’s author has gone and return unscathed — and nor can his readers. The literary encounter with obscene evil, Costello insists, invades, diminishes, and demoralises us. It’s better to look away.

Little wonder that The Kindly Ones was a Francophone sensation and an Anglophone flop — unlike the character Elizabeth Costello, the French have always appreciated being roughed up by their artists and writers. So have I — I need at least some art to assault me like this. But is such a novel — a work that “leaves nothing out”, depicting “scenes that do not belong in the light of day” — ultimately bad for us? Can a book that provoked, at least in me, a dejection so total I hardly even recognised it, really be one that people ought to read?

“I need at least some art to assault me like this.”

There’s an oft-quoted remark by Sebald concerning the Holocaust: no serious person ever thinks about anything else. I used to find the line a touch absurd, but as time passes and history’s meat-grinder churns on, it seems to make ever more sense. I finished reading The Kindly Ones shortly before the massacre and torture of some 1,200 Israeli Jews by Hamas on October 7. Together, the novel, that massacre, and the retributive, genocidal crimes against humanity we’ve watched take place in Gaza these past five months (not to mention the atrocities in Ukraine, and other conflict zones I don’t even keep up with), have left me with a sense of the Nazi genocide as being, in some vertiginous sense, the central fact of human history, a catastrophe that stains and alters the meaning of all that came before it and all that follows.

The intoxicating ordeal of reading Littell’s novel left in its wake the feeling that a universe in which extermination took place is, in some ultimate and crushing way, one in which it will always be taking place, where innocence is just guilt that hasn’t yet had a chance to thrive. And this would be true even without the eerie impression that arises from photographs of Palestinian men in their underwear, blindfolded and crammed in the backs of trucks, or of skeletal children being starved to death in real time, of time and space folding in on themselves, of symbols merging, of the victim’s face becoming that of the perpetrator.

Among the questions we may be left asking by both The Kindly Ones and the daily news is how, knowing that such things have happened, and continue to happen, and are happening right now, and knowing too that the good life we enjoy is made possible by the suffering of others, we are able, without recourse to what Maximilian Aue calls “soothing fictions” or the distracting anomalies of righteousness, to live with ourselves. I don’t really have answers. The answer, Jonathan Littell’s novel implies, through the ghoulish image of Aue living his post-war shadow life in France, is simple and dreadful: we live with it by living with it, knowing we’re all guilty and we’re all in hell.

view comments


Some of the posts we share are controversial and we do not necessarily agree with them in the whole extend. Sometimes we agree with the content or part of it but we do not agree with the narration or language. Nevertheless we find them somehow interesting, valuable and/or informative or we share them, because we strongly believe in freedom of speech, free press and journalism. We strongly encourage you to have a critical approach to all the content, do your own research and analysis to build your own opinion.

We would be glad to have your feedback.

Buy Me A Coffee

Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: