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The Kindly Ones Hardcover – Bargain Price, March 3, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 154 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition (1 in numberline) edition (March 3, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061353450
  • ASIN: B002M3SP2S
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 2.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (154 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #388,364 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
An unknown American writer (even a bilingually educated one) who attempts to write an immense novel in French would usually expect to receive nothing but mockery for his trouble. As if the linguistic effort weren't audacious enough, then there's the subject matter: an epic of World War II gore and phantasmagoria from the point of view of a reflective--but largely unrepentant--German SS officer. It's the sort of literary high-wire act that should have ended in a face plant. Instead, Jonathan Littell's "Les Bienveillants" somehow swept France's top literary prizes when it was published in 2006. Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette histoire?

After a brief prologue in which the narrator introduces himself as a war criminal in hiding, the action opens with the Germans' brutal invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and concludes, almost a thousand pages later, with Berlin in ashes in 1945. The protagonist and narrator, Dr. Max Aue, bobs along with the flow and ebb of German fortunes on the Eastern Front like a stormtrooper Candide--except that he inflicts as well as endures enormous suffering.

Aue is not only an enthusiastic Nazi, but a first-class catastrophe of misdirected sexuality. Without giving anything away about his issues, let's just say that he gives anyone in Dr. Freud's files--or Greek tragedy--a run for their money. Yet whatever sympathy the narrator may occasionally earn for his tortured personal backstory, sporadic self-awareness and reliable literary flair is quickly squandered by his willing participation in many of the Nazi regime's atrocities, as well as several that are entirely his own.
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Format: Hardcover
I read this in French when the reviews started coming out raving about it. I dont intend to read the English translation: once in any language is enough. But I found that I could not put it down once started. It is astonishing, compelling, revolting and, alas in all too many places, boring. As I was reading it, I was constantly reminded of Daniel J. Goldhagen's reminder of the physicality of the Holocaust: blood and brains spattering all over the murderers: you get the point. It struck me that this is where Littell is taking the reader: into the physicality of the heart of darkness. And there is a lot of that in this novel: too much, or just enough? I guess it depends on how you take it. Kakutani in the NYT didnt take it at all well. But I think still there is merit in Littells approach: this is perhaps the thing that art can do best, deliver a whalloping punch to the gut. And that the novel certainly achieves. On the downside, it does tend to go on and on; there are long passages describing Aue's dreams or hallucinations or whatever that dont succeed well at all, IMHO. I found myself skimming these passages after close reading of the first one. They dont seem to add much insight into Aue's character, psychology or motives.
The Kindly Ones will certainly not be to everyone's taste and Littell took a huge risk in tackling such a sensitive and explosive topic in the way he did. I have been haunted by this novel from time to time since I read it, but I dont regret it. There is a case to be made that it's garbage, but in the end, for me, I found it deeply illuminating in places, and ultimately satisfying as art. Human evil remains a mystery here and that is as at should be.
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Format: Hardcover
I became interested in reading "The Kindly Ones" because a review in the Guardian Weekly in March 2009 explained that this massive novel explores an intriguing question: how apparently ordinary people could have become complicit in horrors such as the Nazi Holocaust. I assumed that a book weighing in at just under 1000 pages must have something substantial to say on the matter, so despite some reservations about the lurid content (which I'll come to later), I bought the book. So if you are thinking of buying it for the same reasons, here's my impression:

The truth is that although the opening chapter of the book concentrates substantially on the "ordinary men" theme, the rest of the novel seems to largely abandon it. The most telling evidence of this is that having opened with a question, the book has no conclusion. It simply crash-lands where the narrative ends. And in case you're guessing that the book is *deliberately* left open-ended to keep the reader thinking, I must say that I find that hard to credit. The story just ... stops.

The moments that I have been able to identify, however, where the narrative *substantially* ponders the issue of "ordinary men" - and the horrors they perpetrate - are as follows:

p. 95:
Max Aue (the narrator), witnessing the massacres of Jews in the east, realises that his own urge to be "radical", his yearning for "the absolute" has led him to this point;

p. 147:
Aue muses that the apparent sadism and brutality of the SS is a result of them psychologically reaching for the converse of the pity for "the other" which they recognise in themselves;

p. 178/9:
Aue realises that he is becoming inured to the horror surrounding him, and attempts to regain that "initial shock";

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