This book is definitely going to be one of the most talked-about this year, as Nazi Maximilian Aue narrates his own story. "Fellow human beings, let me tell you how it all happened," he begins. "If you aren't in too much of a hurry, with a bit of luck you'll have time. Because it concerns you."
The voice is direct and the reader immediately wants to know more. This directness means that it's never a difficult book to read, despite its great length. Aue describes his own experience of World War two, beginning as a member of death squads in the Ukraine, as a soldier at Stalingrad, as a bureaucrat in Berlin helping to organise concentration camps more "rationally", and in the end even in the bunker with Hitler himself.
But the book takes you to places where you ask yourself constantly "did I want to know about this?" Mass executions and burials; incest fantasies and brutal concentration camp scenes. The historical detail is extraordinary, and the five years research by the author has been highly commended by military experts. But all the time you ask yourself "what is this book for? What did Littell write it for? And what am I reading it for, when some of it is so incredibly disgusting?"
This is particularly true of the graphic sexual content which has done the most to inflame reviewers, leading some to label it nazi porn.
In the end, I think that the book is so thought-provoking that it is a great novel. It poses so many questions. And it is certainly great in terms of conjuring up this odd, awful man. I am looking forward to reading reviews by other people because maybe they will have more answers than me; I ended up with only strange, uncomfortable questions.
It is very difficult to write about this much-reviewed book, The Kindly Ones, which won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Perhaps my difficulty arises because as I attempt to write it, I keep finding myself moving too rapidly into superlatives while also conscious that these need almost to be qualified with mental health warnings, such is the impact of this massive work on the unsuspecting reader.
I think I need to say that if you travel with Maximillian Aue through these 970 pages, you will be in the company of a senior SS officer, totally imbued with Nazi philosophy and convinced of his mission to further the aims of his Fuhrer in every possible way. Max Aue is a monster, but also an immensely cultured monster. He is a Greek scholar and a student of Plato, and sees no dichotomy in aligning Nazi philosophy with the highest values of the ancients.
The book is a first-person account, in which Max Aue addresses the reader throughout, and his opening sentence, "O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened" tells his readers from the start that in his view he is no different to anyone else. He tries to carry his readers along with him, taking as a "given" in his audience what would in fact be evidence of the worst possible corruption. He tries to show us that what he does is inevitable if the world is to be put to rights. The murders and massacres are a correction to a world order which has been allowed to become askew. The Nazis are just carrying out a necessary correction, a realignment which will put things back on course.
As you read this book, you will walk with Dr Max Aue as he leads an "Aktion" in the Ukraine in which 50,000 people will be massacred (the infamous Babi Yar massacre). You will hear his inner thoughts as thousands upon thousands of innocent Jewish families are transported to concentration camps in the most vile conditions possible. You will read of his efforts in setting up the final death marches as the camps were emptied for fear that the advancing Russian armies would discover the full extent of the appalling atrocities that were carried out in them.
And this is just a fraction of Max Aue's deeds during the war. I could write of the magnificent accounts of the German defeat at Stalingrad, or the flight back to Berlin as the Russians advance in a final rout of rape and mass killings. Apart from these "external events", we also have to deal with Max himself, who is not an easy character, being in his own right a murderer and a man deeply damaged in his sexuality.
This is not an easy read, and its sheer scale increases its impact, and left me feeling that this is not a book to be trifled with. Indeed, having written the above summary, I now find myself with that list of superlatives which I have been trying to avoid: magnificent, a tour de force, a novel of immense significance, a new War and Peace, a writer of equivalent stature to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann. The book is audacious: we have read many accounts of the victims of the Nazi regime. Now we hear the viewpoint of a totally committed officer, committed to the will of Adolf Hitler and forwarding his goals with determination and utter ruthlessness.
And yes, Max Aue was primarily an administrator, a trouble-shooter, sent to review existing arrangement and suggest ways of making them better. We read not of the sufferings of the people being shot, but the effects on the soldiers who do the shooting, and how these can be mitigated by using different shooting techniques. Max Aue deals with the internal politics of the Nazi regime, where the discussion of whether to feed or clothe prisoners in the camps depends solely on their usefulness in the factories. If you were weak you died; if you had some residual strength you may be given some rags to wrap around your feet to save you from frost-bite as you stood for long hours awaiting your name to be called.
One can only admire Jonathan Littell for his ability to get inside the head of a senior Nazi officer and I can think of nothing in literature which equals the conviction of this characterisation. It is an almost hideous achievement, but also totally successful in getting inside the mind of someone who's soul has been corrupted beyond he possibility of redemption.
on 29 December 2009
I am amazed how wrong some top reviewers have got this book. It is a truly brilliant work of European literature, but some of the top people UK newspapers have got to review it have just not got it. First and foremost, the reader should understand that the book is presented as being the work of the narrator - a Nazi. Therefore, his ideas are not to be confused with those of the author. I know it is a basic point, but the review in The Independent just lost the plot, going so far as to say that the claims on page one - self-justifying Nazi drivel were wrong and would hardly be accepted by survivors of the Holocaust! Well, du-uh! The Lermontov motif picked up in the Caucasus phase of the novel is important in this respect - he used the same technique to explore the personality of Pechorin, the 'lichniy chelovek,' in A Hero of our Time. Precisely what resonance Littell hears when exploring this Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the context of the German conquest I am not quite sure, and I will have to re-read Lermontov.
The fact that this novel purports to be the work of the re-invented Nazi should be the clue which explains the aspects which some British reviewers failed to get. The narrator's hang-ups about his parents, his sister, and his gay pick-ups are not some cack-handed attempt to 'explain' fascism via psychoanalysis. They do, however, allow the reader to see how the war and the holocaust were not necessarily the only - or even the main - things in the forefront of protagonists' minds. Aue's mind flits easily from the shooting at hand to an intense reflection on his mother's betrayal. This is not presented as explaining his Nazism, but it shows how the (historically massively important) murder of Jews was actually just one more task he got on with, which was not in fact all that hugely important to him. Revealing his near indifference to something we now understand to be huge, a crime overarching our century, whilst also participating in it up close, is Littell's great achievement.
Well now. I had to take the mental equivalent of a deep breath to prepare myself before diving in to the anticipated quagmire of depravity and evil that made up the contents of this book, at least that was my expectation based on the reviews that it elicited on publication in the UK and here on Amazon.
Of course, given the subject matter, there are many passages that describe gruesome and appalling scenes. However this is not really what is unsettling about the book. Anyone who has read about the Holocaust, whether it's Martin Gilbert's history or the memoirs of Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel among many others - or has seen films like Night and Fog or Shoah - will know of the atrocities that Littell has his first person narrator observe. No, the disquiet derives from the fact that it is written - beautifully written in a lucid, direct style - from the perspective of an SS officer, Max Aue, who endeavours to persuade and convince the reader that they too would have behaved no differently if they had found themselves in the same circumstances.
Aue records everything with a scrupulous eye for detail. His narrative covers, among other things, the Reich's deliberate corruption of language, the conscious attempts to ensure that everyone of rank is implicated in the genocide, the Machievellian manouevres of the various Ministries and departments, the idea that Hitler's hatred of the jews was simply self hatred, the many conversations he has with various individuals who discourse at great length on language, racial characteristics, post war projects, the apparent self destructiveness of the policy of genocide (this last matter prompts one of Aue's more intemperate outbursts as it goes against his professed detached rational attitude). But he also turns his unblinking gaze in on himself, recording his physical, psychological, medical and sexual travails in equally unflinching detail.
Aue pre-emptively tries to overcome our anticipated repugnance in the opening chapter where he insists that his readers understand that they too, possibly as cultured and well read, steeped in knowledge of the classics and music as Aue, would have acted no differently. Echoing a famous quote of Jean Renoir, Aue states "There were always reasons for what I did - Good reasons or bad reasons, I don't know, in any case human reasons." By such arguments but also by his disarming and self implicating frankness we are supposed to infer his trustworthiness. He is dismissive of the brutes and sadists who flourished in the Nazi regime, those who behaved with evident pleasure in inflicting cruelty and suffering, believing himself superior by dint of the detatched professional manner in which he undertakes his duties.
However, in the course of this self scrutiny Aue's methods are revealed to be self-interested dissembling and the reader becomes aware of suggestive gaps and omissions in his otherwise clear recall. Aue is shown to be a monster among beasts, terrifyingly urbane he may be but he is also blind to how monstrously at odds he is from the high-minded values he professes to hold. His conscience is clear because he is bound by his oath to Hitler, and to the `higher ideas of law and social duty'. That these laws and duties may go against civilised virtues like mercy and tolerance is unfortunate but irrelevant. It is a more sophisticated version of the "we were only following orders" argument.
Some reviewers take issue with Aue's claim that he stands for everyman. The argument seems to be that Littell should have made Aue more bland, more upright, more mediocre the better to represent the idea that given the right (or wrong) circumstances then everybody would have done the same thing. By being so extreme and perverse, Aue undermines his claims to represent anyone other than himself (and by extension Littell undermines his own thesis).
However I think we need to remember that this is a novel, not a thesis. In fact one of the novel's ideas is that the `banality of evil' formula is too simplistic. Hannah Arendt who coined the phrase latterly believed that it was often used inappropriately or was just generally misunderstood. Littell is perhaps also questioning the very idea of of banality or normality (usually taken to mean pedantic, bourgeois, provincial, mediocre, unspectacular, inhibited). The book instead suggests that even in the hearts and minds of the supposedly banal, dull or upright strange desires, impulses and fantasies may lurk and that given the right circumstances these can erupt or seep out with uncomfortable consequences. Littell shows that normality is a continuum rather than a fixed state, and that it bears a relation to the wider context in which the individual finds him or herself in. Morality is a different matter, of course. The book forces us to address whether we are we reassured of the impregnability of our own moral values and the certainty that we would be immune to the political, social and economic pressures to conform to a code that we find personally unacceptable.
This is a phenomenal feat of imagination, and while daunting and lengthy, precise and hallucinatory (and even despite Littell's flouting of the formula "tell a dream, lose a reader"), it is thoroughly gripping and compelling. Grim and harrowing it may be, there are also moments of black humour, not the least in Aue's bizarre reaction when he finally meets Hitler in the flesh; "Trevor-Roper never breathed a word about this episode nor has Bullock". Littell is mining the same literary seam as the likes of William Burrroughs, Jean Genet, De Sade, in other words the literature of transgression (I am thinking of Aue's erotic encounter with a tree in particular). In The Kindly Ones, Littell shows that the Third Reich allowed the imaginary excesses of De Sade to be enacted in reality.
Final point (I know, I do go on, don't I), Clive James in the introduction to his book Cultural Amnesia writes:
"The ideologists thought they understood history.They thought history had a shape, a predictable outcome, a direction that could be joined. They were wrong. Some of them were intellectuals who shamed themselves and their calling by bringing superior mental powers to the defence of misbegotten political systems that were already known to be dispensing agony to the helpless. Young readers will find some of that story here [in James's book], and try to convince themselves that they would have behaved differently. But the way to avoid the same error now is not through understanding less. It can only be through understanding more."
Despite the warning of Primo Levi (who suggested that such a project could lead to justifying the unjustifiable), I think that The Kindly Ones is a brave and disturbing attempt at understanding more.
on 4 July 2009
Wiiner of the Prix Goncourt and one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die ("international edition").
This is a very long account of the second world war from the perspective of a member of the German Security Services.
The narrative is not for the faint-hearted. Graphic and memorable descriptions of the horrors of war and also the killing of Jews. The cumulative effect is enormous. The images will stay with me. Particularly the sense of the natural world going on its way while human beings are engaged in this slaughter. Though zoo animals are also killed here (as in one of Murakami's novels).
The "ideas" content of the novel is also profound. There's not attempt to suggest that the narrator is a regular human being or a typical German of the idea - rather he is highly educated, and from a disturbed background. But the sense that this was a system, that people did what they thought they had to do even when they found it repugnant - after all this was war and the narrator believes in National Socialist ideals - makes for uncomfortable reflections.
The style - this is 983 large paces of long paragraphs with long sentences mostly punctuated by commas - is also highly distinctive. Once you become accustomed to it, not hard to read.
And while I suspect much research has gone into this and the narrative is contrived so that the narrator sees a lot of the most memorable episodes of the war for Germans, it does not look and feel that way as you read it.
So the book is a tour de force - and certainly deserves to be read.
But ultimately, of course, NOT "all human life is here". This is NOT all that makes human beings tick. It's not all there was to the second world war. For that, try reading the one-volume Library of America book of reportage on the second world war (a truly wonderful read).
But do read it!
on 21 June 2009
If you thought the film The Reader was extraordinary I don't see how you won't feel the same about THE KINDLY ONES. Yes, it's long, but so are a lot of others with less to think about. That means this book asks you to think, a somewhat frowned upon idea in the dumbed down times around us.
Others have given you an idea of the subject, but let me suggest that the subject, while Nazi Germany viewed by an SS officer is the obvious, is only half of why Littell wrote this book. The other half is us, the U.S. (& allies.) It is about some man who is barely a cog in the wheel, becomes a monster. It's about how ordinary citizens, normally employed get so involved in "doing their job well" that they lose sight of what they are asking, then demanding others to do. How one goes from being a nice (but driven) attorney to recommending torture to the highest authority in the land. It's about going along with the pack. The initial pack of puppies has somehow transformed into a pack of wolves (like the nice men in banker's suits, etc.)
Somewhere in the back of the main character's mind there is a distant bell that gives him moments of alarm, but he marches on to the call of Duty and Ambition. He is blinded by the importance of those around him as he rises through the ranks. And then he is ground into the machine.
To say " I don't want to read a book about how some Nazi pervert killed a lot of Jews!" as I've heard, is totally missing the point. It's not about the Jews. It is about how a Mr. Youandme got to that horrific place. Yes, it's an action-packed book. Yes, there are moments of slogging on to the next scene, but if you fail to see the metaphors, if you miss seeing America in the mirror, if neither Vietnam nor Iraq are there you've not paid attention. Before we go any further down this officer's path, this book is vital reading for any of us who are not too numbed to read AND think.
on 18 March 2009
This was a very disturbing read not only for the events described but in how it makes the reader think deeply how he would have reacted in similar circumstances. While the central character, the narrator, is amoral who claims to have moral standards, many of his colleagues were "ordinary" people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. The novel illustrates clearly the inefficiency of the Hitlerian bureaucracy, the conflict of interests between Speer who wanted healthy Jews able to contribute to the war effort and others like Himmler who simply wanted to kill Jews and other "unacceptable" groups . The book is more effective than many non-fiction books covering the same period in describing the extraordinary lengths the Nazis went to in deciding who were and were not Jews -- conferences involving a range of experts on language, theological backgrounds etc. Many Civil Servants would recognize the process if not the substance of such deliberations.
The unflinching descriptions of the battles for Stalingrad and Berlin show the reality of war.
The most striking sentence in the book is that in war people lose two basic rights -- the right to life and the right not to kill. A disturbing provocative but a wonderful novel.
This is a novel which has split not just individual readers but also reading and cultural communities: in France it has been awarded the highest literary honours, in America it has sold badly – and this says something significant, if generalising, about what kind of a book this is. Rather than focusing on the personal or the individual, it’s interested in the bureaucratisation of death in the Nazi state; rather than examining the Holocaust from the point of view of its victims, it turns more usual narratives on their head and gives us an insider view from the German bureaucrats who participated in and organised systematic genocide. Above all, it is a book which refuses to simplify.
Told through the voice of Dr Maximilien Aue, an educated man (he has a doctorate in law), and cultured (he’s read the classical poets and philosophers), this refuses to sideline atrocities as ‘inhuman’ and instead stares our human capacity for pitiless cruelty, brutality and evil directly in the face.
The book itself poses interesting questions about guilt, blame and justice but frames them not through Christian concepts of morality and sin, or even legal ideas which distinguish between an act and its intention (manslaughter vs. murder, for example) but instead through the ancient Greek belief in judging the act only in itself, regardless of intention. Aue reiterates that he has no sense of remorse, that he did what any man in his situation would have done – and yet his own body betrays him as he has not been able to keep his food down since certain war-time events.
The ‘kindly ones’ of the title, the Eumenides or Furies of ancient Greek culture, serve to position the text itself against Aeschylus’ Oresteia: but where Aeschylus’ trilogy moves from the chthonic blood justice of the Furies to the rational rule of the Athenian polis, Aue’s Germany is itself a state which is set up on, organised around, and galvanised through war and state-sponsored genocide.
This novel is a stunning achievement on Littell’s part, and one can only imagine what it must have cost to have created and inhabited a character like Aue. It’s the sort of book which can barely be taken in at a first reading and, yet, I’m not sure I could handle reading it again. At the risk of sounding pompous, this is the kind of novel which reminds us what literature is for.
I am a little concerned that a lot of readers of this outstanding novel abroad and here, are upset by its strong, pervert, shocking content. Is it not about the nazi era Littlel is talking about after all, one of the worst in human history ever ? Should he have made it more palatable, pleasant to read about for our sensitive nature not to be pertubed ? I personnally absolutely admire Littell's novel because he is putting the shit (often literally ! )right in our face and depicts the facts of these time exactly as they were, horrendous, gruesome, horrifying, and yes I often had to stop reading, especially in the first half of the book when the narrator is on the eastern front, observing the mass graves killing going on, indeed it is unbearable but is it meant to be anything else ? no.
Far from 'nazi porn' as I have read comments saying here and there, the nazi regime was one of the most pervert and most depraved ever existing, and it is absolutely right that Aue should have that slant to his character. Strangely, while we are obviously not sympathising with him, he is still engaging and fascinating enough for the reader to be captivated by his doings all through. The detailed research also gives the novel its background of thruth, and you guess Littell did not just make it all up of course.
I believe this novel will remain a great classic of our time, because it is deeply original, brave, provoking and will hopefully raise debates for years to come on this one question : How could it happened ?
Littell tries in his own extremely valuable way to answer that, but in the end, this is a question without answer.
on 16 July 2009
It is hard to know where to begin. But if you are going to invest the time to read a 975 page book of this nature I will try to make this objective. It is absolutely obvious to anyone who has read Anthony Beevors accounts of the destruction of both Stalingrad and Berlin, or to anyone who has seen the movies Downfall and Schindlers List, or has seen the remarkable documentary series "The World at War" that this is a book whose subject matter has been meticulously researched. Through the eyes of a high ranking SS officer it tells the story of his war, his motivations, his responses to the increasingly barbaric orders he must carry out as the horrific race to eliminate the Jewish Race from Europe reaches fever pitch. We are allowed to see how the hate machine that Hitler created evolved into a self perpetuating system of unimaginable and pitiless cruelty, and how it not only destroyed the victims, but completely eliminated the humanity of the perpetrators to such a point that their own lives were utterly obliterated. In illustrating this in such incredible depth, and from the protagonists point of view, the author has created a masterpiece of perspective that to my knowledge has not previously been accomplished.
The book deals with how the ordinary soldiers with their own families, wives and children dealt with the order to kill other families, to shoot innocent children the same age as their own children. And it conveys the realisation that these soldiers belatedy had, that having committed the act, they could not simply go home and resume normal family lives. They may as well have taken the bullet themselves.
It also shows how the system of the "Holocaust" became a subject of Teutonoc administrative pride. The bureaucrats beavering away in the background, constantly improving and refining the efficiency of the murder machine and boasting to each other as if they were weapons factory owners describing record increases in production. What the author also manages to do, and I'm not sure that this has been done in a work of fiction before (certainly it has been explored in academic texts) is show how the Camps formed such an important part of the economic existence of the Reich, and as the Nazis fortunes on the battlefield began to wain how much importance they attached to camp labour to keep their production levels up.
This economic necessity, more than anything else displays the unbelievable depths of the atrocity. Humans, reduced to units of production are kept alive if they are useful and callously disposed of if they are too weak, too young or infirm to be of use. And the merciless statistics of their destruction form part of the casual banter and dining room converstaion in the fashionable restaurants and salons of Berlin.
Finally to the character with whom we take this journey.Dr. Maximillien Aue. Intellectual, scholar, hedonist, sexual deviant, murderer, lunatic, soldier, bureaucrat, administrator. One of the reasons that this book is so large is that the character of Dr. Aue is so incredibly complex, that his own peculiarities and pecadillo's had to be painstakingly stitched into the rich historical text in such a way as not to get in the way of the facts, dare I say it and not meant in a derogatory fashion, but a little like Forrest Gump, was superimposed on a certain era of American history. There the similarities end. I feel that a previous reviewer was right when she pointed out that perhaps a more normal and limited character might have illustrated the point a little better than such a complex and unusual personality as Aue.
Cutting to the chase. When dealing with the Holocaust, all right minded people ask themselves the question in the privacy of their own conscience. If I was there, would I have actively persecuted, would I have stayed silent,would I have risked my life to help? Would I have allowed myself to be brainwashed into believing the most hideous of lies? The Kindly Ones will lead you closer than any other work of fiction has ever done to understanding what your own response would have been.
For that, and many other reasons, it is a worthwhile read and I do think on balance, it must be considered a masterpiece of modern literature.