The Kindly Ones (French: Les Bienveillantes) is a historical fiction novel written in French by American-born author Jonathan Littell. The book is narrated by its fictional protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helped to carry out the Holocaust and was present during several major events of World War II.
The 983-page book became a bestseller in France and was widely discussed in newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books and seminars. It was also awarded two of the most prestigious French literary awards, the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie françaiseand the Prix Goncourt in 2006, and has been translated into several languages.
I borrowed The Kindly Ones from Wollongong Library on Wednesday and am now well into it. I am finding it horrific but fascinating. Littell, born in New York, is a bi-lingual (English / French) writer living in Barcelona. He is a dual citizen of the United States and France and is of Jewish background. One reviewer on Goodreads wrote: “This is a hard book to review. It is like walking out of a David Lynch movie and feeling brain raped by the artist. How exactly to you attempt to explore the depths of Nazi Germany without feeling dark, abused, and sick afterwards?” I note there also that more recently Littell has written Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising. One reader says:
Must read, must read, everything’s a must read these days. But this is a ‘must read’ that it seems like nobody has read. To his credit, Littell mostly contains his righteous anger on that account, in the prologue and epilogue he added in 2012, when it was already too late. Now it’s even later than too late, and Assadist propaganda has thoroughly overtaken the discourse, leaving firsthand accounts such as this and those of revolutionaries and refugees for all intents and purposes useless…
So divided are readers! On Goodreads reviews of The Kindly Ones range from five stars to one! I am rather of the 4-5 star persuasion. See also opinions gathered at this dedicated blog, a review by Andrew Hussey, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of London Institute in Paris, another by David Gates in the New York Times, and another by historian Samuel Moyn in The Nation.
Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones took France by storm in the fall of 2006, when it won the Prix Goncourt–the nation’s most prestigious literary prize–and sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. Commercial success fed the heat of scandal, which followed the book to Germany in 2008, vaulting it to the top of the bestseller list. The furor revolved around nothing less than the governing conceit of Littell’s thousand-page roman-fleuve: the novel pretends to be the memoir of a Nazi SS officer who witnessed the different stages of the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated. The dispute over the book was another round in the cycle of Holocaust controversies that have marked time since the end of World War II with the regularity of a metronome. Tempestuous quarrels may have raised public consciousness about the Holocaust; but even so, subsequent battles over its representation can feel no less unseemly. “Silence over the murder, scandal over the books,” George Steiner worried in response to one of the first such imbroglios, forty years before Littell’s intentionally sickening but unquestionably brilliant success.
Finally, from Haaretz, The Executioner’s Song.
Littell smiled. The discussion that ensued, in which Littell spoke in French – he does not speak German – was held with a panel of two historians and a researcher of anti-Semitism. Littell rejected comparisons with Dostoevsky or Joyce. He shrugged his shoulders at questions about why his book concentrates so heavily on sex and homosexual fantasies, choosing to speak instead about historical theories and the work of Holocaust scholars. Clearly, Littell does not like to have interpretations foisted on his book or to talk about the personal motives that led him to write it over the course of a Moscow winter, by hand, in a single draft.