Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Kindly Ones. . .

Last week, I blogged about Hans Fallada's German resistance novel Every Man Dies Alone. Coincidentally, out the same week, is another big, powerful novel that traces the war from a German perspective but in a completely different way - Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, translated by Charlotte Mandell.

I've been following the literary reviews and blogging discussion for both novels with interest, and I have to say that I've never seen a novel so polarized in its reception as The Kindly Ones. People either love or loathe this novel, and the strong emotions either way, seem to be colouring and overshadowing any honest, objective critical discussion about the book. So it was refreshing to see two balanced reviews recently published, and I would steer your way towards Daniel Mendelsohn's lengthy and indepth review in the New York Review of Books, or André Alexis's Saturday review in The Globe and Mail, in which he outlines and dissects the important debates surrounding the novel.

I'm in the "love it" camp, but I do recognize that this isn't a book for everyone and it's a very difficult book to read, let alone write about. The subject matter is fairly grim. It tells the story of Maximilien Aue, an intelligent, cultured, anti-Semitic Nazi officer, looking back on the war years from his comfortable existence passing as a French lace merchant (he had a French mother and spent some of his childhood in France). Aue observed, gathered notes on, and participated in the mass executions of thousands of Jews. His story takes him to Stalingrad, the concentration camps, and Berlin during the last days of the war and there is a scene towards the end that is as chilling as anything you'll find in Lord of the Flies. The descriptions of all these horrors are incredibly detailed and unrelenting and they go on for nearly a thousand pages. The galley completely consumed an entire week of my Christmas vacation, but I just couldn't stop reading, even when my thumbs started to hurt from grasping the pages.

Most of the detractors of this novel argue that while Littell's historical research and fictional rendering of the war is commendable, the novel fails with the over-the-top depiction of Aue himself - a homosexual who has an incestuous obsession with his sister, murders his mother and stepfather, and has a ongoing fascination with his bodily fluids. But there are a couple of things to note before tackling this novel. First, Aue is a fictional creation and though he encounters many real, historical characters, this is a work of fiction. Secondly, as the title alludes to, Littell has used Aeschylus's Oresteia, as the framing narrative device of his novel. It's not necessary to have read the Oresteia to read and appreciate The Kindly Ones, but it's worth looking up the story of Orestes to see some of the parallels. (Or you could read other playwrights' modern takes - Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, or Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies as two examples). Greek tragedy, filled as it is with tales of murder and revenge, is hardly subtle and you can't ignore the allusions, which are done so effectively that I even started thinking of France as Clytemnestra and Germany as Agamemnon. Littell's juxtaposition of Aue/Orestes's story into the madness of the Second World War makes perfect sense to me. The Kindly Ones are another name for the Furies, that mentally pursue Aue (the novel is full of hallucinations, masochism and guilt) without Littell ever seeking to apologize for Aue's actions, as he himself remains defiantly unrepentant.

So why did I love this novel? Because, despite the bleakness of subject matter, this was a reading experience unlike any other that I've recently encountered. I admire Littell's sheer guts in telling this story. It was utterly original, the writing was compelling and in many ways the most horrific impact of the book came in the endless litany of bureaucratic and financial details surrounding the Final Solution. That so many millions of lives were coldly calculated with a view to balancing a martial business plan is heartbreaking, and yet so indicitive of how war really works. Could this all happen again? Absolutely. Littell's novel makes that very clear. As Aue writes at the beginning of his narrative:
"Those who kill are humans, just like those who are killed, that's what's terrible. You can never say: I shall never kill, that's impossible; the most you can say is: I hope I shall never kill."
I suggest you read Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone for the inventive and suspenseful plot, the masterly characterization, and for the heartbreak and hope of ordinary citizens living through war. I can't think of any reader who wouldn't enjoy this book. As for Littell's The Kindly Ones, this is a book to read for the important, visceral, and challenging questions it asks - about the atrocity of war, the nature of evil, and how history is chronicled and expressed in art and literary culture. It's for a reader who demands more than just plot; one who is up to the challenge of being shaken from narrative and stylistic expectations, and willing to devote the time to the story and Littell's craft. Don't read this novel in piecemeal fashion.
Both novels provide very different, but equally fascinating and essential views of the Second World War; I have no doubt that both will be read a hundred years from now. Reading both, almost back to back as I did, was an exhilarating, unforgettable experience.

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