The Kindly Ones
by Jonathan Littell
Published by Harper
992 pages, 2009
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
While I was waiting for an advance copy of Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones, winner of the 2006 Prix Goncourt, I satisfied my curiosity by reading articles about it and interviews with its author (in which he came across as prissy and mean-spirited: it was made clear that once he answers a question in one interview, he won't answer it again in another). Anyway, when it finally arrived in the mail, I dove right in.
Then promptly hit a submerged boulder that all but snapped my neck.
By any measurement, this is not a lightweight book. Measured page-wise, it's a 975-page behemoth. Measured plot-wise, it's a complex, detail-laden brick that's a memorable -- but far from great -- read. The subject matter is controversial, unpleasant, even incendiary. Its author is an American who wrote the book in France, in French (that's what qualified it for the Goncourt).
It's written as the autobiography of Dr. Max Aue, who runs a lace factory in France. Aue has a wife and children and a life that's as bucolic as his surroundings. It's an easy life -- the beard for a hideous past that's about as far from where he is now as one can get.
During the Second World War, Aue was a high-ranking Nazi official with one of those titles that's so long it barely fits on a single line of text. He was an active torturer of Jews and other enemies of the German state. Plus, he is a closeted homosexual and a sexual deviant who fantasizes sexually about his sister (that passage, near the end of the book, is a non-stop phantasmagoria that's shocking, repellant, and indulgently overwritten).
Of the 975 pages, 24 are brilliant. Unfortunately, they're the first 24: a long chapter in which Aue proclaims that we are all alike, he and his readers. That is: he and I, he and you. This self-serving proclamation is Aue's detached, desperate excuse for what he did in the war. After all, if he would commit his crimes so readily, why wouldn't we? In war, he argues, men are expected (and given leave) to do things they would never do in normal times. They steal, murder, torture, and much worse, all in the name of winning the war -- and that's the way of the world. At this point I wasn't ready to agree with Aue, but I was more than ready to get on the ride with him. Then, amazingly, Aue breaks the war down into statistics: its duration, down to the minute. The number of dead, presented, ultimately, in a dead-per-minute rate. Such exacting arguments are important, Aue says, for each minute of the war represents 13.04 deaths. So gather, he challenges, 13 of your friends into a room, and within a minute they all have to die. Bang. Bang. Bang.
This is horrific, compelling stuff that puts the war into blazing, innovative context -- and I was thrilled when I read it, completely hooked. But then... well, I soon enough longed to regurgitate the line and the sinker I'd swallowed.
For the next 951 pages, The Kindly Ones is just nauseatingly bad. I read it with eyes wide and mouth agape -- not because it was so riveting or well written -- but because it wasn't. Much of it is written in paragraphs that go on for pages. We're talking about solid blocks of type, page after page of them that are made no easier by Littell's liberal use of German expressions and unintelligible military ranks. Littell has said that he intended The Kindly Ones to be hard on its readers. He wanted them to feel pain, reading Dr. Aue's self-examination. Well, mission accomplished.
Aue shares every last detail of his wartime life. With so much detail jammed into every moment, I know he relished the telling -- but what he writes about tells me he was disgusted by the living. His German-minded accounting doesn't stop at the war: He applies this same exactitude to his bodily functions: burps, farts, vomits, bowel movements both solid and liquid. The war may not have driven him mentally mad, but it drove him physically mad, and his body rebelled against it at every turn, doing all it could to derail itself from the killing, the fatal decisions, the politicking, the ass-kissing (literal and figurative), the absurdity of Aue's daily life.
As he makes his way through the war, Aue does all he can to keep from revealing his homosexual desires, though there are a few dalliances with fellow soldiers. But these encounters lack any real emotion; they're simply a form of masturbation. Aue couldn't care less about the vessel that allows him to relieve his pent-up sexual desires; likewise, he couldn't care less about the deaths that pile up around him. I have to imagine Littell was going for something major, giving us so much. But with 975 pages of it, something happens I didn't expect: the killings, the tortures, the horrors, even in their great numbers, lose their impact. I think part of it was that I grew numb to it, but, really, Littell just didn't know when to stop. More is, in this case, less.
The horrors of World War II are indelible, but in Aue's hands -- or is it Littell's? -- they produce, in the end, a deadening ennui that stops the book dead.
Aue becomes an automaton, doing his job, and I'm sure a lot of men survived the war by doing just that -- but this isn't meant to be a documentary. (Claude Lanzmann, the documentarian who made the landmark Holocaust film Shoah, has all but denounced The Kindly Ones, citing Aue's implausibility). It's meant to be -- and is -- a fiction. It might have succeeded if Littell had rested a little less on his thesis (what was it again?) and worked a little harder to build a compelling read. The contempt he feels for readers -- the endless paragraphs, the pornographic violence, the violent pornographics -- is clear. But where is the illumination? Is there nothing to Aue but his worthlessness? What "autobiographer" would set out to bore his readers to near death?
Even the end of this book is a cheat, hung on a cliché potboiler in which Aue is accused of the deaths of his mother and her husband. Did he kill them? Was his own account of his last visit with them (many many many pages before) a lie, a feeble attempt to cover his tracks even for us? What are we to think when Aue murders his one close, lasting friend? Or -- and this is a much bigger question -- are we supposed to care?
The Kindly Ones was a novel I couldn't wait to read. By the time I got into it, I knew it would be profoundly disturbing and profoundly hard to read. What I didn't expect was how profoundly disappointing it would be as an experience. This is a 975-page wannabe epic whose point is made in the first 24 pages: brilliantly, searingly, unforgettably. As for the rest, well, skip it -- if only to treat yourself more kindly than Littell treated me. | March 2009
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.