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"The butchers never speak, and if they do, their words are hollow."
March 11, 2009 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Shockingly, a novel about a Nazi officer who abets murder squads, transports Jews to Auschwitz, has sex with his twin sister, possibly kills his parents and then dies rich, old and reflective has caused a trans-Atlantic controversy among literary critics. Published in the original French three years ago, the English translation of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones hit American bookstores this week.

Though French reviewers unanimously praised Jewish-American author Littell for his unscrupulously bare depiction of a pathological mass murderer, the British press is straddling the fence, and most American critics are just plain outraged. Kakutani brands the novel as "deliberately repellent," while Washington Post accuses Kindly Ones of shilling glorified "death porn." And for anyone jetting off to the bookstore this week to get their latest fix of controversial Holocaust renderings, be warned: the print in this gruesome 900-page brick is teeny.
posted by zoomorphic (86 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Drat, of course I find the perfect cheat-sheet for this debacle 10 seconds after I post.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2009


I guess it wasn't here before you posted it.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:58 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The NYRB review is excellent-- it evaluates and unpacks the book's influences and gestures to the classical (the Orestiea) and nails even the most obscure (but important) references. It's one of the most well informed reviews I've ever read, and explains the book fantastically well. It also left me with no desire whatsoever to read it.
posted by jokeefe at 10:00 AM on March 11, 2009 [11 favorites]


Clearly Lucas and Spielberg had a hand in the backstory for this character.
posted by Artw at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2009


Is the Nazi the narrator? If so, I'm tearing out my hair that this wasn't published before I asked this question...
posted by Beardman at 10:02 AM on March 11, 2009


"takes the form of a memoir of an SS officer" (NYRB).

Question answered. Hair torn out.
posted by Beardman at 10:03 AM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?
posted by billysumday at 10:04 AM on March 11, 2009


Beardman, I'm shocked no one told you the most obvious book in that thread: Lolita!
posted by zoomorphic at 10:04 AM on March 11, 2009


BTW for a non-fiction look at the psychology of the Third Reich I thoroughly recommend the work of Gitta Sereny. The collection The German Trauma in particular is excellent.
posted by Artw at 10:05 AM on March 11, 2009


I think Kakutani is off base with her dismissal of the book as "pornography", and I'm afraid that more critics will follow suit. Compare that to Mendelsohn's respectful unpacking:

The second element is the mythic/sexual: that is, the entirety of the Oresteia story, superimposed on the primary narrative and consisting both of flashbacks to Max's earlier life and events transpiring in the wartime present, which establishes him as a latter-day Orestes. He is obsessed with his soldier father's disappearance at the end of the Great War, and with what he sees as the unforgivable betrayal of his father by his "odious bitch" mother ("It's as if they had murdered him.... What a disgrace! For their shameful desires!"). He has an unnatural closeness to his Electra-like twin sister, Una (which turns out to be incestuous—a nod to Chateaubriand, one of the many French novelists who preside over Littell's text; the sibling incest theme is, too, a notorious element in the work of the 12th century German bard Hartmann von Aue, whose name Littell has borrowed for his hero). He kills his mother and her second husband (in a scene closely modeled on Greek myth, including the mother's desperate baring of her breast to her axe-wielding son). He is pursued relentlessly by agents of punishment—in this case, a pair of rather noirish detectives given the suggestive names of Weser and Clemens ("Be-er" and "Merciful"). All this is overlaid with increasingly elaborately narrated sexual fantasies and activities, culminating in an onanistic orgy at his sister's abandoned house as the Russians enter Pomerania.

The surprise—and also a key to understanding the outrage Littell's book has provoked, and the reasons for its successes and its failures—is the way in which these structures are meant to tackle the large themes suggested by his Aeschylean title. For it is, in fact, the historical structure that is meant to shed light on the problem of human nature; while it is the mythic-fantasy element—and above all, if I am reading Littell's complex allusion to a much more recent revision of the Orestes myth correctly, those explicit and even pornographic sexual scenes—which are meant to explore the nature of crime, atrocity, and justice.

posted by jokeefe at 10:07 AM on March 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


Les Bienveillantes is hitting American bookstores only now?! Astounding, it is now completely passé in France and well past its peak in the German-speaking market. You know, when that Nobel Committee member criticised English-language literature as becoming increasingly insular due to lack or lateness of translations, he may have had a point.
posted by Skeptic at 10:09 AM on March 11, 2009


The "recent revision" of Orestes that Mendelsohn refers to is Sartre's Les Mouches. Whatever you think of this book, it claims the highest of intellectual pedigrees, and its aim, in large part, is to explore the abject-- life outside morality.

I haven't read it yet, and may well not, as I hate the sensationalism that it seems impossible to avoid when writing about violence in such a self-consciously theatrical way.
posted by jokeefe at 10:10 AM on March 11, 2009


The graphic novel has been out for ages...
posted by Artw at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Les Bienveillantes is hitting American bookstores only now?!

It's a thousand pages long, give the translator some credit...
posted by jokeefe at 10:11 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Beardman, I'm shocked no one told you the most obvious book in that thread: Lolita!

Aye, but it was alluded to in the question.
posted by Beardman at 10:15 AM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

He grew up in France, apparently. The Sunday Times hated the book, calling it "so bloatedly inept that its reverential reception across the Channel seems barely comprehensible."
posted by MuffinMan at 10:16 AM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

For the same reason that an Irish and a Romanian playwriter also wrote in French, or a Pole and a Russian in English. Because.
posted by Skeptic at 10:19 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

He grew up in France, apparently.


Hmmm. Seems like a low hurdle to jump to be "Jewish-American."
posted by billysumday at 10:19 AM on March 11, 2009


We stay silent when the evil are rewarded in life, but shout shrilly if the evil prosper in fiction.

Anyone screaming about a novel that tells it like it is a canting hypocrite who'd do more calling out Scott Krienke.
posted by orthogonality at 10:20 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Without actually reading the book, it sounds like nazi death porn to me
posted by Restless Day at 10:22 AM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

For the same reason that an Irish and a Romanian playwriter also wrote in French, or a Pole and a Russian in English. Because.


Okay, then, more to the point: is there a reason why a bi-lingual author would write in French and not English? Is a book's sales in France going to eclipse sales in English-speaking countries? Further, if there is a common complaint that foreign-language books take too long to be translated to English, but not vice-versa, it seems like it would be in the author's best interest to write in English and have it immediately translated to Spanish, French, German, etc. immediately for the biggest possible audience. But perhaps he knew that the French would either love his book, or find it contentious, and therefore wrote it in French knowing he had a better chance at getting it published there. Or maybe he just wrote it that way "because," because "because" is always the answer to everything, ultimately. Why? Because.
posted by billysumday at 10:23 AM on March 11, 2009


I can't recommend that Mendelsohn review enough. I had read the Kakutani (and a few other critics) and was ready to dismiss the book out of hand until I picked up his piece. I may still not read The Kindly Ones, but it's clear to me now that the novel isn't abject garbage.

It seems like the NYRB is the only place left these days where you can find thoughtful, in depth examinations of new books.
posted by Bromius at 10:25 AM on March 11, 2009


I'm on the fence about committing the necessary time to this book, especially considering how mixed the reviews are. To me, the reviews imply to me that it's thematically similar to William Gass's novel The Tunnel, and as excellent as that book is (especially if you can get your hands on the hardcover edition with the color illustrations), one only needs to read a novel of that nature once in life.

The only reason I finished The Tunnel is because I felt that if I put the book down without completing it, then its narrator (the most disturbing first-person voice I've come across in modern fiction) would have won.
posted by Prospero at 10:28 AM on March 11, 2009


The French/American thing is a bit of a red herring. He's been educated in both countries, lived in both. Perhaps he writes in French because it suits him, the way Mavis Gallant, also perfectly bilingual, and a resident of Paris since 1950, only writes in English.

More to the point, I think, is this:

From 1994 to 2001, he worked for the international humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger, working mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Chechnya, Congo, Afghanistan and Moscow. In January 2001 he was victim of an ambush in Chechnya, during which he was slightly wounded.

The novel should perhaps be regarded as part of the literature of trauma-- I mean Littel's own trauma.
posted by jokeefe at 10:30 AM on March 11, 2009


Littell claims that he undertook the creation of his main character, Aue, by imagining what he himself would have done had he been born in pre-war Germany and had become a Nazi. (wikipedia, taken from a Haaretz article)

Not knowing the man (or the book), is he into the same sort of weird .. kink that the character seems to be?
posted by filthy light thief at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2009


from Daniel Mendelsohn's NYRB review:

The Kindly Ones places itself squarely within the tradition of a "literature of transgression," especially the French lineage that descends from the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautréamont to Octave Mirbeau and Georges Bataille. Particularly in the elaborate sexual fantasies, the teenage sex between siblings, the coprophilia and incest themes, it is hard not to feel the influence, above all, of Bataille, to whose signature work, Histoire de l'Oeil, in which a violently detached eye becomes a sexual fetish used with great inventiveness, Littell seems to allude more than once in scenes of eyes popping out of crushed or exploded heads. I think that Littell might say that precisely because we are by now inured to representations of Nazi evil in literature and especially in film, he needs to break new taboos in order to make us think about evil, about a life lived in evil and a mind unsentimentally willing, even eager, to accept the ramifications of that choice.

I would include in Mendelsohn's list of French literary transgression the novel Là-Bas by Huysmans, and even the recent work of Michel Houellebecq.

Literature that centers around an evil protagonist and features violent, sadomasochistic imagery is not all that unusual, and certainly the gothic imagination of Poe, Hawthorne, and others was not that far from it:

consider also Cormac McCarthy's novel Child of God, the poetic sequence The Fuhrer Bunker by poet W.D. Snodgrass, or the novel The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Those are just off the top of my head.
posted by ornate insect at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Okay, then, more to the point: is there a reason why a bi-lingual author would write in French and not English?

No idea. But the French have some form in loving lengthy novels with sexually bizarre Nazi protagonists: Le Roi Des Aulnes.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:36 AM on March 11, 2009


I must have completely deleted Mendelsohn's review in my endless tweakings, because it was supposed to be centerpiece of the [MI] body. Thanks, jokeefe! While I don't think Kakutani and Mendelsohn have an outright feud, I think Mendelsohn strives to temper Kakutani's acerbity and vitriolic, F- pans, since lots of new books won't survive a Kakutani lashing. His new collection of essays is really interesting and thoughtful.

I'm only halfway through Kindly Ones, and while I think I side more with Mendelsohn than with Kakutani, it's still unattractively ponderous and gruesome. I do think Littell reached some sort of emotional catharsis by embodying such a morally depraved character who slaughtered Jewish people, but I've had to put the book down several time and smoke away my anxieties in its aftermath. Also, the prose is a bit disappointing after all the hype.
posted by zoomorphic at 10:38 AM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I remember reading an ancient cyberpunk novel called Bad Voltage, which was all about 21st century Parisian rollerblading street punks who pretty much spend 200 pages doing drugs, having crazy monkey sex and then blowing up a corporate arcology with a cache of circa 1989 weaponry ... all while listening to Bauhaus and Einsturzende Neubauten.

It was, when you're sixteen, the most awesome book in the world. At 26, not so much.

This was Jonathan Littell's first book, and given how much tightly focused it was on Parisian street culture, and how indulgent its prose was, it doesn't surprise me at all that the author would choose to write his novel in French.

I don't think the writer takes his economic best interest to heart when choosing what language to use when writing. He writes with the language that he loves.
posted by bl1nk at 10:39 AM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Another name to consider here would be that of Elfriede Jelinek, previously on Mefi here.
posted by jokeefe at 10:41 AM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

Because he wanted to. And: Joseph Conrad, anyone?
posted by ornate insect at 10:42 AM on March 11, 2009


Literature that centers around an evil protagonist and features violent, sadomasochistic imagery is not all that unusual, and certainly the gothic imagination of Poe, Hawthorne, and others was not that far from it:

consider also Cormac McCarthy's novel Child of God, the poetic sequence The Fuhrer Bunker by poet W.D. Snodgrass, or the novel The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Those are just off the top of my head.


'''A Song of Stone''' might be a good fit from Banks there as well (though I'm not sure i'd exactly call the guy evil exactly).

The White Tiger might be a fit there as well.
posted by Artw at 10:43 AM on March 11, 2009


I'd also add to that list Yoko Ogawa's The Diving Pool, especially the title story. Profoundly disturbing but achingly beautiful.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:50 AM on March 11, 2009


It sounds like an interesting read in a Forrest Gump, but with Nazis, kind of way.
posted by chillmost at 10:53 AM on March 11, 2009


Forrest Gump, but with Nazis

Ah, you're thinking of Enemy at the Gates.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 10:55 AM on March 11, 2009


it seems like it would be in the author's best interest to write in English

If by best interest you mean 'marketability/sales' then yeah, probably. Being bilingual doesn't simply mean you are able to express the same thought in exactly the same way in two languages though. Most languages can be wielded in entirely different ways. I'm not author, but would seriously consider whether I would write something in Finnish or in English depending on what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it...
posted by slimepuppy at 11:03 AM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


"I'm no author..."

That much is apparent. Sigh.
posted by slimepuppy at 11:04 AM on March 11, 2009


billysumday : Okay, then, more to the point: is there a reason why a bi-lingual author would write in French and not English?

I'm just speculating, but perhaps it has nothing to do with marketing or anticipated sales, maybe he just felt better able to articulate himself and tell the story in one language rather than the other.

I know a lot of multi-lingual people who get frustrated when I ask them what something means and they invariably say things like "well, there isn't a good direct translation, but..."

Or it could simply be that he just liked the way it read better in one language rather than the other.
posted by quin at 11:07 AM on March 11, 2009


"SS Death Battalion Go to Monte Casino for the Massacre"
posted by Artw at 11:11 AM on March 11, 2009


Would it be possible to declare a moratorium on excerpts from both Kakutani and Mendelsohn reviews?
posted by blucevalo at 11:14 AM on March 11, 2009


is there a reason why a bi-lingual author would write in French and not English?

Some people believe that writing in your second-language (or not first) is easier than writing in your first. David Milch has talked about this in some detail. One of the story editors for Deadwood wrote preferred to write in English (her second language) for this very reason. Milch cites other examples--I think Becket is one of them.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 11:24 AM on March 11, 2009


The graphic novel has been out for ages...

The one review I read quoted a passage that (evidently unknown to the reviewer) includes a pretty well-known bit of dialogue from Gaiman (the one about life being a disease, sexually transmitted, invariably, etc.; I know you know the one I mean, Artw), so I kinda don't think the title's a coincedence.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:26 AM on March 11, 2009


Asking why a bilingual person who writes in French doesn't write in English is like asking why Picasso didn't paint The Old Man With A Guitar in oranges instead of blues, or why Bach composed the Well-Tempered Clavier for the keyboard and not the tuba, or why Tim Burton keeps casting Johnny Depp and not, say, Carrot Top.
posted by Shepherd at 11:28 AM on March 11, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'll be the first to admit I know nothing about French literature. But if this novel taps into such a long tradition in French writing — and if, sure enough, it's gotten a much better reception in France than in England — then it sounds like writing it in French was pretty much a no-brainer.

An author's gotta know his audience. And it sounds like this guy's audience — most of it, anyway — speaks French.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:28 AM on March 11, 2009


or why Tim Burton keeps casting Johnny Depp and not, say, Carrot Top.

Actually, that last one's a real shame, now that you mention it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:29 AM on March 11, 2009


Is boinking one's sister that common a fantasy? It seems to come up a lot - i.e. The Final Opus of Leon Solomon.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:34 AM on March 11, 2009


Kakutani in typical form: "The Kindly Ones" instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.

So it's probably a damn fine book.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 11:35 AM on March 11, 2009


so I kinda don't think the title's a coincedence.

Really? that's utterly bizarre.
posted by Artw at 11:38 AM on March 11, 2009


Asking why a bilingual person who writes in French doesn't write in English is like asking why Picasso didn't paint The Old Man With A Guitar in oranges instead of blues, or why Bach composed the Well-Tempered Clavier for the keyboard and not the tuba, or why Tim Burton keeps casting Johnny Depp and not, say, Carrot Top.

Especially if orange, tubas and Johnny Depp were all the lingua franca of a globalized literature market increasingly cowed by an anglocentric powerhouse. The future of world literature quails at the ramifications that the all-colonizing English-speaking publishing companies have wrought on non-English speaking writers. Any translator will tell you that all languages have their inescapable flourishes, tics, idioms and nuances, and we're losing that diversity with each passing year when more and more international writers are pressured to write for American audiences and critics who often misunderstand their work.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:44 AM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


The reviews are clearly divided between those who claim the book is really porn masking as important revelations of the horrors of the camps; and the (fewer) reviews that see the book as very important--the French esp. believe it to be among the "great works."
A rereading of The New York Rev of Bks might point out that the author of the article is himself a prof of classics (at Bard), and the author or a much-admired book on the Holocaust himself (The Lost: the search for 6 of six million), a search he personally made to discover all he could about relatives lost during the Holocaust.

Mendelsohn, it seems to me, is so caught up with classical parallels in the novel to the Orestian trilogy (and Sartre use of it too) that he does not deal at any great length with the charge that the novel is "porn."

As for an American writing in French and then getting translated into English: of no importance.

Not sure if I should buy the book and read it, I resolved the issue by ordering it inter-library loan from my local library and reserve the right to make my very own judgement after I have read it.
posted by Postroad at 11:45 AM on March 11, 2009


the French esp. believe it to be among the "great works."

The French are easily impressed by porn.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:48 AM on March 11, 2009


"The Kindly Ones" instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.

Besides using the word pointless twice, Kakutani seems convinced that art has to have a point. Why? Points are for the op-ed pages. Novels should reflect more than just what we believe and find comfortable. Maybe the novel's graphic content is gratuitous, and maybe the novel is no good, but is the take-away that bad=no point? Sometimes bad literature is equally enamored with having a point as it is with being pointless.
posted by ornate insect at 11:49 AM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


that New York Books review is incredible.
posted by shmegegge at 11:51 AM on March 11, 2009


The future of world literature quails at the ramifications that the all-colonizing English-speaking publishing companies have wrought on non-English speaking writers.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:44 PM on March 11 [+] [!]

Apologies. I get really melodramatic and pompous when I consider a world in which Bolano would die out because he didn't write in English.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:58 AM on March 11, 2009


so I kinda don't think the title's a coincedence.

it might not be, but I'm inclined to think it is. Greek mythology being one of the most, if not THE most, referenced literature in all of human history, I find it more likely that they both independently referenced the greek characters rather than this book having been in some way inspired by or referencing Gaiman's work. although, on the other hand, if you would mention which review you were talking about I might see whatever it is that makes you think the title isn't a coincidence.

not that I'm making any characterizations of you, kfb, but this reminds me of how rabid Gaiman fans will tend to take any mythological reference made after the publication of Sandman and claim it's a reference to Gaiman, which always amuses me.
posted by shmegegge at 12:00 PM on March 11, 2009


Any translator will tell you that all languages have their inescapable flourishes, tics, idioms and nuances, and we're losing that diversity with each passing year when more and more international writers are pressured to write for American audiences and critics who often misunderstand their work.

This implies, to me, that American (or at least, English-speaking) audiences read more than any other language or country. Is this true? I have no idea, but I'd be surprised. We always seem so damn illiterate and ignorant over here I'd be shocked to find out that we still consumed more books than other countries.
posted by shmegegge at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2009


I read 2666 and had my fill of long dark violent novels for the moment.

Currently reading the just published Every Man Dies Alone written in 1947 by German author Hans Fallada and translated for the first time into English. It should be getting more attention than it is. Fallada was a German, lived in Germany during the war, had a wicked meth and coke habit, was in and out of insane asylums and prisons. Fallada is the real deal, one can trust his depiction of Nazis, they aren't metaphors or cartoon images of invincible evil.
posted by stbalbach at 12:03 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The French are easily impressed by porn.

I'm guessing you weren't being serious in saying this, but it does remind me of a big difference between American and French attitudes without regards to literature. Compare how the works of Jean Genet were received in France as opposed to the US, or the way Burrough's Naked Lunch got a publisher and favorable reviews in France, and an obscenity trial in the US.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:05 PM on March 11, 2009


or the way Burrough's Naked Lunch got a publisher and favorable reviews in France, and an obscenity trial in the US.

also true of Joyce's Ulysses.
posted by shmegegge at 12:26 PM on March 11, 2009


I wonder if part of the reason for the different opinions of the work from Francophone & Anglophone critics, apart from the differences between cultures, could be because the book reads differently in French than in English.

I think some Mefite that is fluent in both languages and has a lot of time on his/her hands should read both versions and then give a review. Ok... go!
posted by Saxon Kane at 12:32 PM on March 11, 2009


I'm guessing you weren't being serious in saying this

Well, not entirely serious - to be sure. But for every Genet, there's a Story of O or Sexual Life of Catherine M. too.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:38 PM on March 11, 2009


Re: French "literature of transgression", don't forget Alain Robbe-Grillet.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:41 PM on March 11, 2009


that New York Books review is incredible.

The NYRB is always great, always richly informative and diversely interesting, and always hard to recycle because it contains so much in every issue on so many topics. I mention this here only to encourage people to subscribe in this day of failing print publications - I would be more upset by them going under than any newspaper, I think. They provide something that is increasingly hard to find anywhere else, and they have immeasurably enriched the lives of both my mother and myself for literally almost both of our entire lives.

Give them some money - they really deserve it and the physical copy is a joy.
posted by freebird at 12:44 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


not that I'm making any characterizations of you, kfb, but this reminds me of how rabid Gaiman fans will tend to take any mythological reference made after the publication of Sandman and claim it's a reference to Gaiman, which always amuses me.

Oh, dude, that is SO not me. No, it's the same line. I think it's in the NYT review. Now, I don't know that the line in question originated with Gaiman, but that's where I heard it. Given that Littell's only other book is an sf novel, I don't think the idea that he was a Sandman reader is all that mad crazy far-fetched.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:04 PM on March 11, 2009


kittens for breakfast: that quote is commonly attributed to R. D. Laing.
posted by daniel_charms at 1:10 PM on March 11, 2009


Why did a Jewish-American author originally write the book in French?

Because he wanted to.


There've been interesting answers to the original question, but I'd like to say to everyone who chimed in with some variant of "because": thanks for wasting bits to pad your post count. The question is obviously seeking a substantive answer, if one exists. Are we not supposed to ask such questions? Does asking them offend somehow? Are the artist's prerogatives so sacred that merely inquiring after them is an act of philistinism unworthy of the blue?
posted by fatbird at 1:14 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


This, from the Kakutani review:

“Doctor, I suffer from only one disease, sexually transmissible and irremediably fatal: life”

Which, amusingly, she characterizes as "insufferably pompous," which some might say just confirms the line's true authorship. (But, of course, not me!) At any rate, I know this line appeared someplace in Sandman (don't ask me where), and while it sounds like it could be sufficiently cutesy/cliche/faux-Wildean to have come from some third source altogether, I can tell you for damn sure it does not originate with Littell.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:15 PM on March 11, 2009


... and then dies rich, old and reflective ...

Thanks for giving away the ending without a spoiler alert! Now I'm definitely not gonna read it!

Yeah, I know ... 900 pages? I was never gonna read it anyway...

Wake me up when they release the movie.
posted by sour cream at 1:16 PM on March 11, 2009


kittens for breakfast: that quote is commonly attributed to R. D. Laing.

Better read than myself and Michiko Kakutani! Well played, sir! Nevertheless, I'm not convinced Littell and I didn't see it in the same place...not like I really care or anything, I'm just sayin'.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:18 PM on March 11, 2009


Given the crazy angry criticism among American reviews, I assumed halfway through the book that Kakutani and her ilk didn't get the pat, "and he died a sorry, shunned man" finale that every American critic demands of Shoah fiction. Also basically every review complains about how Aue keeps eluding his captors all the way to the end. But apologies to anyone who was going to heft this tome home without catching wind of the brewing controversy posted above: you're far more diligent readers than I.
posted by zoomorphic at 1:22 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


kfb - never mind, the Joss Whedon fans will be over in a bit to tell us how it's a reference to Buffy.
posted by Artw at 1:37 PM on March 11, 2009


kfb - never mind, the Joss Whedon fans will be over in a bit to tell us how it's a reference to Buffy.

And how if you stick with this book until page 675 -- when Fox finally stepped back and let Littell be Littell -- his true vision comes through and it's really great!
posted by kittens for breakfast at 1:39 PM on March 11, 2009


This sounds reminiscent of the massive flap over American Psycho, only multiplied by 50 because of a) Nazis and b) French approbation.
posted by FelliniBlank at 1:48 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Or maybe he just wrote it that way "because," because "because" is always the answer to everything, ultimately. Why? Because. Becaauuuuuse! Because of the wonderful things he does! Oh, we're off to see the wizard...

Did anyone not read the wikipedia article? Guy grew up there (in France) from three! Pretty much lived there his whole life! What the hell.

And I guess I'll have to pick The Tunnel back up, don't think I got through 100 pages.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:50 PM on March 11, 2009


stbalbach: I read 2666 and had my fill of long dark violent novels for the moment.

That's roughly where I'm at too, though the Mendelsohn's review made me consider getting it, but a quick look my ever-growing stacks of to-read books warns me against getting a 900 page behemoth.

When reading reviews by Kakutani of books I have read I often get the feeling that she gets her review copies mailed to her from some parallel universe.
posted by Kattullus at 4:49 PM on March 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Did anyone not read the wikipedia article? Guy grew up there (in France) from three! Pretty much lived there his whole life! What the hell.

Agreed. I have a feeling that his American publishers are trying to play up his American connections in order to raise interest over this side of the Atlantic, and try to frame him as a kind of David Forster Wallace crossed with the Marquis de Sade rather than a French writer per se.
posted by jokeefe at 5:19 PM on March 11, 2009


Okay, then, more to the point: is there a reason why a bi-lingual author would write in French and not English?

Perhaps he thought that the French-speaking world would contain fewer hysterical ninnies whose main interest in his novel would be to rush to condemn it more stridently then the next person?
posted by rodgerd at 6:04 PM on March 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well. I ran Jonathan Littell, and his brother Jesse, through my D&D campaign one summer in the mid-80's, so he did not grow up entirely in France. I think it was before he was 13, which conftradicts the Wiki, but it migt have been that very year. They were serious readers. Jonathan's character was named for the hero of Dune and Jess's for a minor player in LOTR.

Geek moment over.

Their father, Robert Littel, wrote some fine lefty spy novels. One of them, The Amateur, even got turned into a half-decent movie with John Savage.
posted by Topkid at 6:19 PM on March 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


The day Kakutani jumped the shark, quite possibly the most embarrassing thing I've ever read in the NYTimes and the precise moment I stopped thinking of Kakutani as any kind of 'real' critic. (link is to her review of Indecision which she wrote in the 'voice' of Holden Caufield.)
posted by From Bklyn at 1:02 AM on March 12, 2009


He wrote _The Lost_? Gods, that book was rough to get through. Very, very important, one of the best books on the Holocaust I've read, but it made me want to claw my skin off for being human.

Which makes me likely to read this book.
posted by QIbHom at 8:06 AM on March 12, 2009


My google-fu is strong today:

"Life — and I don't suppose I'm the first to make this comparison — is a disease: sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal."
- "Death Talks About Life" (8 page comic where Gaiman's Death character talks about AIDS)
posted by Sparx at 8:59 AM on March 12, 2009



Re: French "literature of transgression", don't forget Alain Robbe-Grillet.


And Antonin Artaud. Certainly the Theatre of Cruelty has a place in the literature of transgression,

Daniel Mendelsohn's review in the NYRB was outstanding. And as a side note, Mendelsohn's book about his own family and the Holocaust is one of the better pieces of non-fiction I've read in a while.
posted by thivaia at 3:10 PM on March 12, 2009


Re: French "literature of transgression"

Bataille is the king and it would only make sense that Littel would write this in French. Good literature is about a dialogue and it helps if it's in the same language.

Also fun see Blaise Cendrars' Moravagine.

The title pretty much sums it up more or less, but it's better than just that.

(Beardman, also look into Klaus Kinski's Autobiography: Kinski Uncut. Wherein Kinski unapologetically and gleefully tells of having sex not only with his sister, but his mother and pretty much every woman he ever met, gets into vicious fights with Werner Herzog and every other man he ever met. spits on throws in the trash every acting award ever given to him, because how dare anyone presume to tell him what makes a true actor.

I don't know how much of it is true, but the hyperbolic megalomania, plain spoken sociopathic ranting and non-stop violent sexing- up of every hot European starlet he came across in the 60s, 70s and 80s, department store babes, women he runs into on the street, old ladies, cripples etc... make it an insanely fun read. If even 10% of it is true Kinski was nothing short of demonically possessed.
posted by Skygazer at 8:34 PM on March 12, 2009


Kakutani in typical form: "The Kindly Ones" instead reads like a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies.

So it's probably a damn fine book.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 2:35 PM on March 11 [+] [!]


I'm wondering if the person(s) like Kakutani who came to this conclusion bothered to read past the first hundred pages.

The first few pages made me think I was getting into a Nazi version of "the 120 Days of Sodom" or a German rendition of "American Psycho" but the narrator, from what I can tell, isn't anywhere near as bad a person as he makes himself out to be in those pages.

Yeah, he's a Nazi, and he is obligated to do a few despicable things in the name of National Socialism, but he goes to great lengths to describe how disgusted and repulsed he is with what he's doing. He takes no joy in what he does and just wants to work as a lawyer.

Curiously he seems to have a lot more sympathy for the Jews when he's out there actually watching them suffer. As he spends more time away from the front lines, he becomes increasingly anti-Semitic.

(I'm currently 2/3 of the way through it.)
posted by Ziggy Zaga at 7:18 PM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Okay - I'm finished. This book was by turns maddening, pointless, boring, thrilling, repulsive, and beautiful. I'm not sure what I think of its accomplishments, in the end. I agree that the scenes of extreme depravity are not prevalent as I had believed from reading the Kakutani review - partly this is a simple function of the book's great length, but it seems odd to me to call them out as the book's primary contribution.

Maybe this is a work of great literature, but to be honest, it's going to take some years and maybe another rereading before I could know that. I will say this, though - it is absolutely insane that this book could have been the subject of a heated bidding war by American publishers. This is way beyond even Tolstoy, say, in the demands it makes of its readers - and I just mean that in a neutral objective sense, not as praise.

Anyway, it gave me much to think about, so I am grateful for that.

the narrator, from what I can tell, isn't anywhere near as bad a person as he makes himself out to be in those pages.

Yeah, he's a Nazi, and he is obligated to do a few despicable things in the name of National Socialism, but he goes to great lengths to describe how disgusted and repulsed he is with what he's doing.


I feel like he's responsible for doing more than a few despicable things...
posted by chinston at 8:19 AM on April 2, 2009 [2 favorites]


I've read about 150 pages up to now.

I haven't felt so strongly conflicted about a novel for a long time.

The second world war and the holocaust were the prime calibration points for Good and Evil in the Netherlands when I grew up. F.i. when I was little there'd be a few minutes of national silence every year. We had to stop playing and come inside and we'd be watching very solemnly the last post and the toling of the giant bell on the Waalsdorper Vlakte in the dunes where the execution field was. And they'd show images of the liberation of the camps, the emasciated bodies of the dead and the survivors.
In the Netherlands, like in France and unlike in GB or the US, the holocaust happened amongst us. The deported and murdered people were our neighbours, the collaborators were our neighbours or even us. There was some resistance but at the end of the war the Netherlands had the highest percentage of jews who perished in the camps. The Evil was them but also us.
In Hollywood movies the evil is always them. It's the Germans or it's evil doers with foreign acccents.

I grew up with a lot of stories about the second world war; about V2s being launched from The Hague where my father lived at that time, about the battle for Arnhem where I grew up myself. Being instructed not to touch and take with us the grenades, mines and projectiles us kids would find. Seeing a lot of exciting movies about the second world war. To a small boy it seemed an exciting time for military heroism.

When I started reading the book and I hit the first descriptions of atrocities from the point of view of a perpetrator it disgusted me. I stopped reading and put the book away. The book makes it very real how a cultured nuanced person, a person like me, can take part in these atrocities. And that goes against the prime cultural directive and taboo I grew up with. And that triggered the disgust I felt. Also I found it frightening; could going on reading this desensitise me to this prime cultural taboo? Make me more susceptible to Evil? Make me more susceptible to social opprobrium?

I find Les Bienveillantes very well written as a classical novel, very convincing in the details about the battles on the eastern front, nuanced in the depiction of characters, indeed like War and Peace. An enjoyable read for the parts where it does not describe atrocities. It shows great skill on the part of Jonathan Littell. In that sense it's hard to dismiss it as a trash effort that goes for the perverted thrill, to dismiss it as Death Porn.

The novel gets uncomfortably close. Is the Evil me, is it you? Do we need a novel that is so realistic about this Evil? I don't know. Society and communities, like metafilter, need their taboos. Will I continue reading it? And if I did for what reasons would that be? I don't know either.
posted by jouke at 2:55 AM on April 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


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