A Nazi Zelig: Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones
Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones took France by storm in the fall of 2006, when it won the Prix Goncourt--the nation's most prestigious literary prize--and sold many hundreds of thousands of copies. Commercial success fed the heat of scandal, which followed the book to Germany in 2008, vaulting it to the top of the bestseller list. The furor revolved around nothing less than the governing conceit of Littell's thousand-page roman-fleuve: the novel pretends to be the memoir of a Nazi SS officer who witnessed the different stages of the Holocaust as it was being perpetrated. The dispute over the book was another round in the cycle of Holocaust controversies that have marked time since the end of World War II with the regularity of a metronome. Tempestuous quarrels may have raised public consciousness about the Holocaust; but even so, subsequent battles over its representation can feel no less unseemly. "Silence over the murder, scandal over the books," George Steiner worried in response to one of the first such imbroglios, forty years before Littell's intentionally sickening but unquestionably brilliant success.
Born in 1967, Jonathan Littell is an American, the son of Robert Littell, himself the author of a series of espionage thrillers (his latest, The Stalin Epigram, will be published in May). Apart from his time as an undergraduate at Yale, Littell fils has lived as an expatriate in Western Europe. Though The Kindly Ones was labeled his "first literary work," he had tried his hand after college at his own brand of potboiler, one based on cyberpunk instead of cold war intrigue. But unlike his father, Littell writes in French, and in The Kindly Ones he uses an impeccable literary style that--despite a few purists who feigned offense at one or two anglicismes, not to mention the whole idea of an American scaling the pinnacle of French literature--has garnered deserved praise. After finishing college, Littell chose a career with the NGO Action Against Hunger. It was his humanitarian work in the killing fields of Bosnia and Chechnya during the 1990s, he explained in interviews following the publication of The Kindly Ones, that led him to quit his job and turn to literature. He focused on the Nazis as the archetype of modern evil and plunged into years of research on their deeds.
The device of the Nazi narrator is not unprecedented: John Hawkes's The Cannibal (1949) was among the first novels in English to use it, and the various attempts in French include a prior winner of the Prix Goncourt, Michel Tournier's The Ogre (1970). But in Littell's hands, it is used in a new and inflationary way, allowing the novel to track the stages and sites of the genocide of the Jews from beginning to end, and with a degree of detail that lends authority to the tale. Maximilien Aue, Littell's protagonist, is present in the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that began the ethnic cleansing of the East behind the lines of the Wehrmacht's invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. A year and a half later, after a brief and eventful interlude in Stalingrad, Aue fetches up in Berlin, where as a functionary on Heinrich Himmler's staff he visits Auschwitz and the Operation Reinhard death camps, which become the factories of the "final solution" when the primitive methods of shooting Jews are supplanted by the technically evolved elimination through gassing and cremation. In 1943 Aue hears Himmler's chilling Posen speech, in which the Reichsführer-SS speaks of the Holocaust's glory in an almost public setting; and in 1944 he travels to Hungary, to be present while Adolf Eichmann condemns the nation's Jews to a massive paroxysm of death. Toward the end of the novel, Aue follows the death marches in the winter of 1945, the catastrophic months of the regime's collapse. And in the book's closing pages, he encounters Adolf Hitler in his bunker. Aue is a Nazi Zelig.
It is the implausible fact that Aue is everywhere that European critics attacked most frequently. Claude Lanzmann, whose film Shoah apparently piqued Littell's interest in the era, acknowledged that The Kindly Ones is learned but complained that it is not a persuasive memoir of one man--even a fictional man. Instead, Lanzmann alleged, it is more a ventriloquism of the history books Littell read while researching the era, which are precisely not one man's experience. In other words, no such Nazi ever existed. That objection made little sense, for what is a novel but a work of fiction, and what is a character but a fabrication? Implicit in Lanzmann's narrow dismissal, however, is a narrower question: whether this monstrosity of a novel ought to be read simply or even primarily as a compendium of facts--as a vivid summary of, or accessible proxy for, the frequently dreary books of historians.
I tend to doubt it, even though Littell is a gifted writer and what he achieves in fluently portraying the main characteristics of the SS "state within a state" during the war is unparalleled, to my knowledge. His depiction of the confusing summer and fall after the Soviet invasion--when the SS came to grips with its "special tasks"--is particularly interesting. (Less so, perhaps, is the mammoth narration in the novel's longest section of the SS's attempt to square its mission to eradicate the Jews with pressure to make the Reich's Eastern acquisitions economically productive, or at least useful in the war effort.) The details are assured throughout, and--despite the irritation of some European historians--Littell is rather impressively up to date; at times the novel reads like a fictional précis of the most recent scholarly research on the Third Reich. To take just one example, Aue's scattered reflections on the Soviet invasion as a colonial project, and how it might compare with its American, British and French precedents, comport with my colleague Mark Mazower's masterful Hitler's Empire, published last year.
But in the end, no matter how absorbing, Littell's thousand pages are hardly an easy or obvious substitute for historical scholarship or narrative history. The chronicle Aue presents is told from his idiosyncratic and self-interested point of view; more important, it is entangled with his wholly fictional--and perhaps even more gripping--personal story. There is too much else going on for "real" history to be the main event. At two critical junctures the jaded Aue suspends his narration of what he saw--"these camps have been amply described in the historical literature, better than I could do," he sighs at one point, leaving aside any description of the bulk of the killing apparatus--and these pauses prove beyond any doubt that the catastrophic history of the era is the occasion for a deeper and more complex fictional stratagem. If the novel needs to be so scrupulous in its period details and so generous in its scope, it is not merely for the sake of the facts.