A Bloody Mess
The Kindly Ones is an ugly book, but that comes with the turf.
Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (originally published in French in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes) features Nazis, incest, and tons of human excrement — literally, tons. It is a novel thus difficult to ignore. Also, it is huge. When you plop it down on a bar in the East Village, for instance, people stop and take notice. Everything about it says serious novel, important novel. People have stopped me on the subway just to ask what I'm reading. It is a novel that calls out for attention. Sometimes I carry it around for that purpose alone. It is heavy, potentially dangerous, and dripping in European (particularly French) sensibility.
That is also why Americans have, so far, largely ignored it. The ultimate arbiter of American, educated middlebrow taste, The New Yorker could only bring itself to mention the book in its “Books Briefly Noted” section. They dispatch it in a terse paragraph:
Michiko Kakutani — the other most powerful arbiter of American, educated middlebrow taste — was even more blunt in The New York Times, summing up the novel as "willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent."
Littell opens his Second World War novel, told through the recollections of a German officer named Max Aue, with a breakdown of how many Germans, Soviets, and Jews died, minute by minute, in the conflict. As Aue travels to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and Hungary to report on morale and efficiency, long sections of bureaucratic analysis alternate with moments of mind-numbing sadism. Aue, a caricature of moral failure (he fantasizes at length about sodomizing his twin sister), encounters a cast of unintentionally comic characters, such as an obese and flatulent proponent of the Final Solution, who surrounds himself with Teutonic beauties. The Holocaust is recast as an extended bout of office politics, with German officials’ quarrelling over who is responsible for prisoners’ hygiene. As the novel draws to a violent close, its story seems nearly as senseless as the horrors it depicts.
- The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell (translated by Charlotte Mandell). Harper. 992 pages. $29.99.
In 1993, we got Spielberg's Schindler's List, a tale of courage and hope about Oskar Schindler and how he saved over 1,000 Polish Jews by employing them in his factories. Just last year, we saw the release of Defiance with Daniel Craig. It tells a story of courage and hope about the Bielski partisans and the group of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust as an armed unit in the woods.
And always we read Eli Wiesel, whose Night trilogy is probably second to Anne Frank's Diary as the piece of Holocaust literature most read by Americans. It is a survivor's tale of courage and hope. Wiesel says, "Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another." It would be hard to blame a young American reader or moviegoer from believing that World War II was the historical event in which, through courage and hope, the Jews triumphed over the Nazis.
The actual history of WWII and the Holocaust is decidedly less cheery. Reflection upon it does not easily lead to concepts like courage and hope, but to a more fundamental unease about the specific beast that is the human being. Jean Améry, an Auschwitz survivor, wrote the following in his At the Mind’s Limit:
Whoever attempts to be a Jew in my way and under the conditions imposed on me, whoever hopes, by clarifying his own Holocaust-determined existence, to draw together and shape within himself the reality of the so-called Jewish Question, is wholly devoid of naïveté. Honey-sweet human pronouncements do not flow from his lips. He is not good at gestures of magnanimity.
The Kindly Ones is more in the Améry tradition than the American one. It is a pitiless attempt to enter into the mind of a (fictional) man who believed in National Socialism and who played various administrative roles in the extermination of millions of human beings. It is not a book for the fainthearted. The fact that much of the book consists of long disquisitions on the bureaucratic snafus created by the complexity of the Final Solution is part of the point. These are the matters with which such a man would have concerned himself; these are the mental processes he would have gone through. The fact that Aue sometimes exhibits reasonably deep and complicated feelings about his participation in mass murder only further compounds our intellectual distress. Understandably, we don't want to understand him.
This is something that Daniel Mendelsohn picks up on in his largely positive review of The Kindly Ones in The New York Review of Books.
The singular achievement of Littell's novel is the way in which he brings us uncomfortably close to the thinking of people whose careers took them from police work to euthanasia, and worse… [Aue] is a well-educated and indeed sensitive person, musical, literate, cultured, who far from being monstrously indifferent to the crimes he sees perpetrated and which he is called on to commit himself, spends a good deal of time reflecting on the questions of guilt and responsibility that a self-aware person could be expected to entertain.
It is hard enough to think about how human beings can become monstrous, how much inhumanity there is in humanity. Harder still is the recognition that there were men like Aue throughout the Third Reich who weren't inhuman at all and who actively deplored the activities of the sadists amongst them. Explaining the Holocaust as the work of monsters takes the rest of us off the hook. Littell is interested in putting us back up on that hook.
Why, then, the matricide, the constant anal play with the sister, the sexual perversity in general? Why take away Aue's status as a genocidal Everyman by finally making him into a monster? It blunts Aue's chilling claim that, "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you." This is the central mystery of the book and one that Littell is little interested in clearing up. His standard answer to questions about these aspects of the novel is, "I have no clear explanation for that."
Maybe it is all because of the Greeks. The title of the book, The Kindly Ones, is actually a translation, via of the French, of The Eumenides, the third play in Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. In the Oresteia, for those whose classics are a touch rusty, we get the blood-soaked story of the House of Atreus. In the opening play, Clytemnestra kills her husband Agamemnon (just returned from his famous exploits at Troy) in revenge for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Her son Orestes and his sister Electra then plot together and kill Clytemnestra and her new husband. The play culminates with the Furies hard on the trail of Orestes, intending to punish him for his act of matricide. This punishment is forestalled at the end of the third play, The Eumenides, in which Athena and a jury of Athenians acquit Orestes and convince the Furies to transform themselves into the Kindly Ones (Eumenides).
Littell is, quite consciously, directly referencing the Oresteia with his novel. Mendelsohn's theory, in the aforementioned New York Review of Books essay, is that Littell is bringing us back to the more severe moral universe of ancient Greece. He notes that, "Littell, both in interviews and in the text of his novel, has dwelt on the differences between Judeo-Christian morality (with its emphasis on intent and mental attitude, on sin and the possibility of redemption) and the sterner, less sentimental, 'forthright' morality he finds in Greek tragedy." For Mendelsohn, the sections of The Kindly Ones that center on Aue's moral depravity are meant to heighten this contrast. Further, he thinks that the heightening is successful, if too much so. Both sides of the novel end up working so well that they can never be put back together. It is a novel operating at cross purposes.
It's a fair point and does much to explain the seeming non-sequitur between the two sides of Littell's novel. But I think there is a further aspect to the Greek references that brings the two sides of the novel together even further. The Oresteia is all about cycles of retribution and counter-retribution. These cycles are driven by oaths and blood ties. Broken oaths must result in punishment, blood must be paid in blood. In the Homeric era during which the events are supposed to have taken place, there was no such thing, really, as Greece. Instead, there were groups of families, tribes, clans, some of who owed various oaths of allegiance to others. Half the action of The Iliad revolves around the Greeks fighting amongst themselves. Even the Trojans are really just a more distant clan of Greeks. Agamemnon's murder of his own daughter occurs within the context of these oaths and allegiances. He feels a responsibility to the army he has assembled and is told via prophecy that the only way to get the proper winds for the sail to Troy is through the sacrifice of Iphigenia. But by this act he has damned himself according to his own family ties. Atreus has spilled the blood of Atreus. This sets off a cycle of cleansing that requires one murder after another. The Furies are the divine agents of this process. They hound the individuals who become, in a sense, nothing but the agents of the greater process. To avenge his father, Orestes must murder his mother. Murdering his mother, he becomes the next to be murdered.
The final play in the trilogy, The Eumenides, marks an end to the cycle. The endless bloodletting is brought to a close. A new cycle of civilization begins, one in which the laws are indifferent to the claims of family, blood, and clan. The transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides marks the taming of these primal fires. But are we really to believe in this transformation? How successfully can civilization dampen down the passions of blood and tribe? Are the Kindly Ones trustworthy in their new role, or are they ready to transform back into the ruthless Furies at a moment's notice?
There is a passage in The Kindly Ones where Aue remembers that he once played the part of Electra in a school performance of that play. At the end, he "was sobbing, and the butchery in the House of Atreus was the blood in my own house." This sense of identification has a broader significance given Aue's identification with National Socialist ideology overall. It is as if the Nazi demands for purification, for a renewal of the race, “Blut und Boden” (blood and soil), is but the unleashing of the Kindly Ones in their role as Furies for the modern age. Himmler never tired of preaching about an "understanding of the value of blood, and the entire ideology that results from it."
It is not surprising that Littell — who, when not writing novels, worked for NGOs in areas of ethnic conflict like Bosnia and Chechnya — would be interested in the ongoing struggle between the Erinyes (Furies) and the Eumenides (Kindly Ones). It is a dynamic first put into play by the ancient Greeks. But damn if the 20th century didn't bring back the old battle. And that, I think, is what Littell has done by grafting the Oresteia onto a narrative of the Final Solution. He is bringing back the old demons, which never seem to go away. • 20 May 2009
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.