Review- Littell, “The Kindly Ones”

REREAD (sort of) MINNIT with PETER: Jonathan Littell, “The Kindly Ones” (2006) (translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell) (performed for audiobook by Grover Gardner) – Since I got my current job, I’ve taken to listening to audiobooks while doing the various boring computer-bound tasks the job entails. I never got into them before- too slow, no opportunity to take notes. But I find with the right kind of book it’s ok, plus I’ve gotten sick of most podcasts, which either seem to be grade school-level recitations or regurgitations of twitter dramatics. Shouts out to the SHWEP (Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast) for keeping it real (and esoteric!).

Audiobooks are also a way to do rereads without feeling like I’m retreading. Rereading “The Kindly Ones” would be a major task- clocking in at over 900 pages (or nearly 40 hours of audio time, unabridged, ably performed by actor Grover Gardner) and not being exactly forgiving to the reader, in form or content. These 900 pages come to us from the point of view of an unrepentant (though not exactly free from guilt) SS war criminal. While protagonist Max Aue is determined to make clear to us that most of us would do as he did in the same situation, that it wasn’t some unique depravity of Germany or the Nazis that made the Holocaust possible, he is possessed of a fairly uniquely set of circumstances himself. He’s a highly-educated, cultured young man (in that, not unique among his generation of SS bureaucrats), and his family situation is the stuff of Greek tragedy, which has all sorts of effects on his personality and actions. His evil is not banal, though to a certain extent his drive to self-expression which frames the whole book is.

I guess it would make sense to say what actually takes place in the novel. After an extended introduction where Aue, an old man sometime in the 1970s or after, explains why he’s writing (and why he’s not- he’s not looking for an out, at least he tells us that), we start with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Aue, an officer in the Sicherheitsdeinst (SD) or Security Office portion of the SS, is sent to observe the actions of the Einsatzgruppe, SS units that were charged with protecting the German rear during the invasion. This generally meant mass killings, first of commissars and Communist party members, then retaliatory killings of civilians en masse, and always, mass slaughters of Jews. Aue witnesses the notorious Babi Yar massacre as well as numerous smaller killings and plays a minor role in carrying out some of them. There’s a lot of observing in this novel. Trifling critics have claimed Littell set up Aue to be everywhere at the “greatest hits” of the Third Reich, like a Nazi Forrest Gump. That’s flatly untrue. To the extent Aue’s career rings false, it’s that he meets a lot more high-functioning Nazis than necessarily makes sense, but his career — the Einsatzgruppe, helping decide the “Jewish question” in the Caucasus where old tribes of Jews had existed from time immemorial, Stalingrad, inspecting Auschwitz, involvement with the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews — isn’t that outrageous for an SS officer who could survive it all. And it doesn’t include a lot of important things, like Leningrad, any involvement with the Officer’s Plot beyond hearing about it, or anything to do with the Western Front, the latter an especially notable move for an American author.

As he’s observing and reporting all of these things, he has his personal life to deal with. He used to do incest with his twin sister when they were kids and he never got over it. His father, a WWI and Freikorps veteran, disappeared when they were little and his mother remarried a Frenchman who Aue hates. The kids were packed off to boarding school where little Aue developed a taste for sodomy that remains the only sex he has, with a lot of rhapsodizing about how being fucked brings him closer to his sister, etc. etc. He narrowly avoids being outed and fighting a duel in the Caucasus. He gets shot through the head in Stalingrad but survives, experiencing bizarre dreams of being rescued from the icy Volga by a zeppelin pilot who resembles Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Aue reunites with his sister and her husband, an old-school Junker conservative, for a bit and then in all likelihood kills his mother and stepfather, though he can’t remember it. After that, he’s pursued by two Columbo-esque Kripo cops and is protected by Bond-villain-esque Doctor Mandelbrod, who sends him to observe and try to wring more productivity out of Auschwitz. Finally, between his personal situation and the collapse of the Third Reich, Aue finds himself in a fever dream of further depravity and destruction which only ends with the novel. This paragraph and the one preceding it are very abbreviated and there’s all kinds of other intriguing bits in the novel, including Aue’s involving himself with the fascist literary scene in France and an interesting run-in with a Soviet commissar in the ruins of Stalingrad. It is, as they say, a lot.

Insofar as a novel full of death, depravity, and endless bureaucratic infighting and quibbling can be catnip to anyone, this one was catnip to me because I like a lot going on in a book and I think it makes a historical argument more than anything. Littell clearly did the reading in the history of Nazism, the Eastern Front, and the Holocaust. And excitingly (to me) he doesn’t stick with any one writer’s explanation of how it all occurred and let it direct the text. There’s some of Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” here, especially in the depiction of the rank and file of the Einsatzgruppe, but Aue and his peers are no ordinary men, even if you left aside all of Aue’s family drama. There’s more than a dash, alas, of the totalitarian school, drawing parallels between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the kernel of truth in which is generally drowned in tendentious Cold War overgrowth. The witness-bearing I see as, along with being a literary device, Littell’s tip of the cap to the diarists of the period and of the encyclopedic scope of works like Raul Hilberg’s “Destruction of the European Jews.” Examples could doubtless be added by people who know the literature better than I do. And maybe this is a stretch too far but I think Aue’s family situation is a way to bring the West as a whole into it by stirring Greek tragedy, one of the ur-texts of Western civilization such as it is, into the pot. But there isn’t one thesis that the book is illustrating. There’s a lot going on.

Littell wrote the book in French and was the first American to win the Prix Goncourt. But Anglophone (and, I’m told, German) critics first freaked out over it (in a bad way) and then ignored it- I’m told its English sales numbers were disappointing. They dismissed it as a horror story, as trash, exploitation, as overly long, evidence of French perversity. It doesn’t take much to bring out the provincialism of the New York Times literary page and this was more than enough. I first heard about it in an essay by Walter Benn Michaels where he contrasts the emphasis on structural responsibility, the smallness of the individual in the face of world-historical forces, that “The Kindly Ones” makes with the individualism of the memoir and memoir-esque writing that Anglophone critics seem to prefer. I think Michaels is right in this instance- the same critics will sit through all sorts of horrors if there’s a nice edifying moral or personal fulfillment in the end. Maybe it’s just the historian in me, but Littell’s depiction of the Holocaust and of Aue’s fucking himself with various objects in a fever delerium didn’t make my skin crawl nearly as much as Junot Diaz’s depictions of men “dating” preteen girls as though it was just normal in the Dominican community. Personally, I think reading “The Kindly Ones” is a salutary exercise, much more so than going through another contemporary memoir in my opinion, and, as Aue promises in the introduction, full of interesting incident. *****

Review- Littell, “The Kindly Ones”

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