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The Kindly Ones Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 3, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
SignatureReviewed by Jonathan SeguraWritten in French by an American, this was the hot book of Frankfurt in 2006 and won two of France's major literary awards. A couple of years and a reported million-dollar advance later, here it is in English. Is it worth the hype and money? In a word, no. Dr. Max Aue, the petulant narrator of this overlong exercise in piling-on, is a rising star in the SS. His career helped along by a slick SS benefactor, Aue watches the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine, survives getting shot through the head in Stalingrad, researches and writes dozens of reports, tours Auschwitz and Birkenau, and finds himself in Hitler's bunker in the Reich's final days. He kills people, too, and is secretly gay—a catcher—and tormented by his love for his twin sister, Una, who now rebuffs his lusty advances. He also hates his mother and stepfather. As he claims, If you ever managed to make me cry, my tears would sear your face. But after nearly 1,000 pages, Herr Doktor Aue, for all his alleged coldness and self-hatred and self-indulgent ruminations, amounts to nothing more than a bloodless conduit for boasting the breadth of Littell's research (i.e., a nine-page digression on the history of Caucasian linguistics). The text itself is notable for its towering, imposing paragraphs that often run on for pages. Unfortunately, these paragraphs are loaded with dream sequences marked by various unpleasant bodily functions, a 14-page hallucination where a very Céline-like crackpot cameos as Dr. Sardine and dozens of numbing passages in which SS functionaries debate logistical aspects of the Jewish Question. Also, nary an anus goes by that isn't lovingly described (among the best is one surrounded by a pink halo, gaped open like a sea anemone between two white globes). Most crippling, however, is Aue's inability to narrate outside his one bulldozing, breathless register, and while it may work marvelously early on as he relates the troubles of trying to fit the maximum number of bodies into a pit, the monotone voice quickly loses its luster. In the final 200 or so pages, Berlin is burning, the Russians and Americans are making rapid advances, Hitler is nearly assassinated and SS brass are formulating their personal endgames. But, alas, this massive endeavor grinds to its conclusion on a pulp conceit: two German cops, against all odds, are in hot pursuit of Aue for a crime he may or may not have committed.Littell's strung together many tens of thousands of words, but many tens of thousands of words does not necessarily a novel make. As the French say, tant pis.Jonathan Segura is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of Occupational Hazards.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
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.
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A friend of mine recommended this book to me, and asked me If I thought that the book attempts to answer that question of how a thing such as the holocaust could have happened, or basically views it as impossible to explain. I think Littell answers the question of "responsibility," but in an unusual way. That is to say, that the question the book is examining isn't the usual question one asks about how the holocaust happens. The "typical question" that is asked is how normal, "civilized" people could engage in such abnormal savage acts. I think this question is an important one, and is addressed at length in other works- the best treatments are probably non-fiction, namely Browning's Reserve Police Battalion 101 and Arendt's The Banality of Evil. Max Aue, the narrator, addresses this himself, early on, on page 20. "If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody came to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace...You might be a luckier person than I, but you're not a better person." People did it because they had to, in order for them and their families to survive and perhaps even prosper. Insofar as Little is interested in Arendt and Browning's formulation of the question of "cause" (and I think he isn't that interested) he seems to take the standard line. Even if such people "try to keep[their[ hands clean.. it is impossible. (p.305)" If this was what the book was addressing, then I think he could have stopped after page 20. But he didn't.
Asking the question of why normal people behave the way they do when placed into these situations begs the large, more interesting, and more often ignored question of how such situations come about in the first place. How does a social architecture of such horror actually get built? The holocaust was a result of the interaction of Nazi ideology with reality, with "facts on the ground" so to speak. To concentrate on the actions of the einsatzgruppen but to ignore the ideology and world-view that had created the system within which they operated is to look at only half of the picture.
Dr. Aue's problem is that he is a purely ideological creature, and that his national socialist ideology is self-contained and self referential, and therefore, within its own terms, true- as all such self-referential intellectual systems are. "...as in the middle ages, we were reasoning with syllogisms that proved each other. And these proofs led us down the path of no return. (p.122)" The actual results or outcomes of the intellectual framework of the ideology are secondary, not even relevant. "This terrible thing was also a necessary thing; and in that case we had to submit to that necessity. (p.103)" Throughout the book the intellectuals that Aue meets are all exactly the same (and intellectuals are the real main characters of this novel, the only ones that even begin to be fleshed out in a serious way). The Bridge builder he meets is a perfect example. "He himself had never built a bridge: he had drawn up some plans, but none had been realized. (p.135)." The bridge builder never does, in fact, get to build any bridges.
When we meet him again, he is still in the business of destroying bridges, and still hopes eventually to build one.
Aue, and the other national socialist intellectuals (and indeed, many intellectuals who are not national socialists) live entirely within their own heads. Ideology is primary, over and above reality. "My intuition told me that if one could provide him with the necessary ideological framework , the rest would come on its own. (p.192)
It may seem that Aue becomes unable to distinguish between fact and fantasy, reality and hallucination (such as when he fails to connect the events at his mother's house in France with the obvious fact that he murdered her, or the obviously hallucinatory persistence of the Detectives investigating the murder). In reality it isn't that Aue is schizophrenic- though he is delusional in a nonstandard way. He has never been able to make a self/world distinction, because he is pathologically self-absorbed. So are all the rest, which is how Dr. Muller can dislike the gas-truck method of execution because it isn't gemütlich. If one is familiar with the full sense of that German word, such a statement is baldly ridiculous, and darkly humorous. Hohenegg later compares the Kessel at Stalingrad, which would have been one of the most terrifying, horrible, and hopeless situations a person could find themselves in, as "a giant laboratory. A genuine researcher's paradise. (p.383)"
The only way that Aue can maintain this ideology is to insulate himself in a large sense from reality. This isn't because he needs such narcissism and solipsism to maintain his ideology-, rather, it is his narcissism and self-absorbtion that result in his fantastical ideology seeming "normal." And in being this way, he necessarily isolates himself from the rest of humanity, and even in a sense, from himself. His "passion for the absolute" leads him to feel that "I was always observing myself: it was as if a film camera was fixed just above me, and I was at once this camera, the man it was filming, and the man who was then studying the film. (p.107)" He divorces himself from all fellow feeling, which is why he draws strict distinctions between friends and lovers. "I never from bonds with my lovers: friendship is something else entirely. (p.271)" His friendships are also entirely intellectual, and in a great sense not even friendships. Nor does he truly have lovers in a real sense of that word. It struck me upon reflecting about the nature of his relationships that we know nothing about the inner lives of any of his "friends," even his sister , who he claims is the one true love of his life, is little more than a receptacle for his bodily secretions. Aue obsesses about her, and what she is doing, but only insofar as it relates to himself and to his jealousy. When she is "off-stage," so to speak, she might as well not even exist. One reviewer remarks that he finds it odd that Aue kills his "best friend" at the end of the novel. If Thomas is his best friend, it is rather a shock, because we know next to nothing about him. Neither does Aue, nor does he find this at all strange.
A lot of folks seem to be disturbed by the way that the author dwells on Aue's homosexuality, and the graphic representations of sexual acts, as well as the seemingly uneneding concentration of the author on Aue's various bodily complaints- including but not limited to defecating in all its possible permutations. In the main, I thought this usually made sense. Although there is a section in the second half of the book where Littell engages upon descriptions of Aue's sexual acts that goes too far. It isn't that its shocking (by that point it isn't) or that it is somewhat gross (it is, but if that bothers you this really isn't your kind of book). It is just that, by this point, it becomes tedious.
It isn't that Aue is "gay" in the conventional sense. In fact, I would even say he might be a repressed heterosexual. Relations with women, however, might lead him to the necessity of emotional connection, and it is this that is impossible for him. Even the one relationship he has with a woman is incestuous, and therefore deviant. Aue needs to be sexually deviant as possible, in a sense, because he has rejected everything "healthy" about the body. As he is a product of his time, that would also include rejecting "normal" heterosexual relations. He hates his body, it seems, and his body duly returns the favor.
Aue and his cohorts, both the fictional ones and "real" intellectuals, often seem to hate the idea of faith. Midway through the book Aue meets a character who explains that he loves the 20th century because "it is the only one that in no way can be described as an age of faith." Aue later notes that "it's not by chance that the rare opponents of our power were for the most part believers... (p.592)." Nevertheless, though Aue isn't self-aware enough to notice the contradiction, he refuses to argue with the captured commissar about their ideologies because "it's a question of faith, and so logical demonstrations, reasoning, won't serve any purpose. (p.394)"
Aue is the epitome of a perverted "ivory-tower" intellectualism. As such, it may seem appealing to write him off, and his real-world analogues, as a sort of one-off burst of irrationality that spontaneously erupted in the middle of the last century. But this is to ignore that, not only did national socialism have specifically have persistent roots, but that the manner of thinking and interacting with the world that Aue represents continues to persist. Ideas are powerful. And bad ideas produce powerful ill for the world. I am reminded of John Maynard Keynes remark on this theme: "The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. " It is important for all intellectuals, public and "private", to remember that their ideology must connect with real people in the real world.
As Littell put it, in the quote I consider to be the "moral" of the book, "I never said it was wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous."
My only complaint is that much of it is redundant and that it is exceedingly long and labored and parts. The philosophical discussions are priceless, such as how do you apply Kant, scategorical imperative to the final solution. There is a small section of graphic homosexuality that was probably necessary for plot development but that I could've lived without reading. Other the notice few complaints I found the book quite excellent and would recommend it
But the final twists and turns of the book finally destroyed its credibility for me. Not to mention the whole gay SS officer thing, which struck me as being too obvious a deconstruction of an old familiar stereotype, the bent psychopathic Nazi.
So as a work of fiction, it really doesn't add up. But as a one-of-a-kind hell trip through Germany in the '30s and '40s, it's definitely worth slogging through.