Sunday, March 8, 2009

Not Reading "The Kindly Ones"

There used to be a big independent bookstore located right across the street from my office building. Among other things, it had a cafe that served coffee, pastries and light sandwiches at lunchtime. I used to walk across the street for lunch at least twice a week. Sometimes I would go with other people but often I would go by myself. I would often run into other people I worked with while standing in line to pick up a sandwich and we'd grab a table together to eat before we wandered off separately to check out our favorite sections of the store.

One day there was a table of about six of us who had run into each other by chance. We ended up in an animated discussion of a review we had all read in the New York Times Book Review. It turned out that none of us had read the book in question or had any interest in reading the book in question. But we had a fantastic discussion about the review. We laughingly said that we should start a lunchtime book club in which we only discussed well written book reviews.

I was thinking about this as I've been reading reviews of Jonathan Littel's The Kindly Ones, which I have not read nor do I particularly want to read. Littel's novel, written in French, was recently translated into English. It is a fictional memoir of Dr. Maximillian Aue, a former Nazi officer who observed and engaged in the atrocities of the Nazi regime. It also tells his individual story in which he murders his mother and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister.

While highly acclaimed in Europe, winning prestigious awards, it was also subject to much criticism. The very idea of telling a story of the holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi simply offends some people. Others were offended by what they call the "pornographic" nature of the sections dealing with Aue's personal life.

As the Waterstones Books Quarterly says:

Despite the massive (and, admittedly, unexpected) commercial success of the book, it has divided critical opinion, being vilified and exalted in equal measure. While some critics have compared the novel to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Littell has been disparaged elsewhere as ‘a pornographer of violence’, and has been criticised for his graphic descriptions of incestuous sexual fantasy and the protagonist’s apparent obsession with his bodily functions. It has to be said that this novel is definitely not for the faint-hearted or easily offended.

Now it is coming to the English speaking world. In the first review I read, in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani panned the novel. But I didn't take it very seriously because Kakutani's review mostly seemed concerned with pointing out that her view was better than all of those other people in the world who have said that this is a novel worth reading. She begins the review by listing all the prizes the novel has won and then she belittles them:

The novel’s gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

Yes, all of those other people in the world were ... mistaken. How simple.

She concludes:

Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”

So there.

Last week a second New York Times review by David Gates was published, also not recommending the novel: "When you get this far into a novel, you should be able to tell whether something’s intentionally preposterous; but in this book, apparently a middlebrow historical epic gone willfully weird, it’s hard to trust that the author knows what he’s doing." But at least Gates gave Littel credit for trying something big, but failing. Littel, perhaps, bit off more than he could chew:

While “The Kindly Ones” may have a Nabokovian narrator — obscurantist in his erudition, hyperspecialized in his sexual tastes — its exhaustively researched historicity and documentarian realism clearly derive from “War and Peace.” It would take a writer of unimaginable genius to work these opposed tendencies into a coherent whole — and Tolstoy himself might have thought twice before trying to write fiction about the Holocaust. (Though, being Tolstoy, he would eventually have rolled up his sleeves anyhow.)

This review was a little more to my taste because I don't see the point in condemning a work without trying to figure out what the author was trying to do. On the other hand, Gates didn't try very hard, asking questions but then just "supposing" answers: "What does Littell hope to reveal with what Aue calls these “infantile obscenities”? I suppose we’re to connect this compulsion for self-completion with his indifference to the mass murders in which he’s complicit, but such peculiarity hardly seems necessary." My immediate thought was, then maybe the "peculiarity" was put there for another purpose?

As usual, I found the foreign press more interesting. The Times of London gave it a pretty good review while implying that anyone who really wants to enjoy it ought to read it in the original French. Some of us might even infer from the review that even the English translation could have been better if it had only been ... English: "This Anglo-American translation, which is certainly faithful, cannot quite capture the stunning use of language in the French original, in which harsh-sounding German ranks and technical terms strike the ear like the crack of a whip." Anglo-American translation. Hmmmm.

Interestingly, Littel is an American who has lived in France for years and he decided to write this novel in French. He did not, however do the translation.

The Times did acknowledge the controversies over this novel:

The book has caused a furious controversy. This is hardly surprising since in the past 25 years the Holocaust has become a sacred subject, mistakenly separated from and elevated above the Second World War itself. Some critics have argued that humanising one of the oppressors creates a form of empathy, if not sympathy. But I cannot understand how anybody could sympathise with Aue by the end of this book. Littell, a Jew, rightly believes that the prime duty of a writer as well as a historian is to understand. He has succeeded in putting himself inside the tortured mind of his character.

Aue's own sexual narcissism and perverse fixations with graphic scenes of degradation, to say nothing of a scatalogical leitmotif, has prompted accusations that the book constitutes a form of Nazi pornography. Yet it is a far cry from the crass SS orgies of Visconti's The Damned. Aue is completely obsessed by his twin sister, with whom he developed an incestuous relationship at puberty. There are mysterious details, such as the twice-mentioned fact that Aue is circumcised. Littell refuses to explain, saying that he himself is not sure what they signify, but that they felt essential when he wrote them: a form of symbolic logic that is intuitive and completely unplanned. As an author, he feels that it is up to the readers to analyse as they see fit. It is not the job of the novelist to explain his own work.

The review in The Globe and Mail was even more analytical, while not raving about the novel:

...The Kindly Ones is a work of art and it brings to its subject things only art can. To begin with, although it is ostensibly about the Shoah told from the side of a German soldier, it is actually a long meditation on transgression and the limits of the human imagination. Max Aue is homosexual, incestuous, matricidal. He is obsessed with feces, sperm and blood. Everything about him is about crossing a line. Why?

In order to rethink where our lines actually are, to think through what "limits" mean: moral limits, aesthetic limits, sexual limits. The great act of the imagination here is not only the imagining of what it would be like to be a Nazi (and, as Littell is a Jew, this is already a sacred act), it is also in trying to push the imagination to its furthest limits and, in doing so, to reaffirm limits, to reaffirm humanity. That is: It's only from outside of town that one knows where and what "town" is.

It was not until I read Daniel Mendelsohn's extremely well written analysis in The New York Review of Books that I wished that the "Book Review Book Club" existed so that we could discuss it.

Mendelsohn calls it an ambitious, serious novel and believes it worthy of serious treatment (implying that so far it hasn't received serious treatment from the English language press). According to Mendelsohn, to understand the novel we must understand Littel's ambitions - we must try to understand what Littel was trying to accomplish.

The key to these ambitions lies in the complex resonances of the novel's title. Bienveillantes is the French rendering of the classical Greek word Eumenides : the "well-meaning" or "kindly" ones, the ritual appellation rather hopefully used to designate the awful supernatural beings far better known to us as the Erinyes, or Furies. In Aeschylus' Oresteia—a work that Littell's novel repeatedly invokes, from the protagonist's casual reference to his closest friend as his "Pylades" to large plot elements, not the least of which is his murder of his mother and her second husband—the hero Orestes is pursued by these awful, slavering, dog-faced creatures, whose province is the punishment of kin murder, after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in a divinely ordained retribution for her murder of Orestes' father, Agamemnon. (Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in order to win favorable winds for his fleet's journey to Troy.)

The heart of the trilogy is in fact a competition between the claims of vengeance and the claims of justice: not for nothing does its climax, in the third play, take the form of a trial scene. For Eumenides ends with Orestes being acquitted by a newly instituted formal court of law, a result that enrages the Furies, who are finally appeased with a promise that they will henceforth no longer be reviled bogies but rather incorporated into the life of the Athenian state and given a new home beneath the Acropolis. In accordance with their new, rather domesticated status, their name gets prettified, too: instead of the dreadful Furies they will henceforth be known as Eumenides, "the kindly ones." And yet it is hard not to feel that this ostensibly happy ending has disturbing overtones: How tame, really, do we think these superficially redubbed Furies will be?

To name a literary work after the third play in Aeschylus' trilogy, then, is to invoke, with extreme self-consciousness, two related themes: one having to do with civilization in general, and the other with human nature. The former concerns justice, its nature and uses: how it is instituted, and then executed, how much it conflicts with, regulates, and possibly appeases the more primitive thirst for vengeance, which it is meant to supersede. The latter concerns the unsettling way in which, beneath even the most pleasant, "kindly" exteriors, dark and potentially violent forces lurk. Neither, needless to say, is restricted to Greek tragedy, or classical civilization; if anything, both are intimately connected to the main preoccupation of Littell's novel, the German program of extermination during World War II.

Mendelsohn then spends the next few pages working through the novel to see how Littel succeeds. He breaks the essay down into parts and first looks at the story of Aue as the "human brother" who, in the course of war, does inhuman actions by his own free will. In the next part he examines Aue's personal story and spends much time analyzing Littel's structure in terms of the story of Orestes, not only the Aeschylus version but as the classical story was later used by Jean Paul Sartre.

Littell's insistence on developing the fantastical, the grotesque, and the motif of extreme sexual excess that grow out of his Orestes theme is clearly the result of a choice; and he himself has carefully planted clues about the meaning, and the justification, of that choice, one that has little to do with the Holocaust per se, or with novelizing history, and everything to do with something very French and very literary.

Exactly halfway through The Kindly Ones, Aue finds himself in Paris—this is in 1943, the trip at the end of which he will go to the South and murder his mother—and, while strolling among the stalls of the bouquinistes, picks up a volume of essays by Maurice Blanchot (an author whom Littell has studied seriously and who, by a nice coincidence, has been recently translated by Ms. Mandell, the translator of The Kindly Ones). Inevitably, Aue is very much taken with an essay that he vaguely describes as being about a play by Sartre on the Orestes theme: the volume in question, then, must be Blanchot's 1943 collection Faux Pas, which, in a section called "From Anguish to Language," contains the essay "The Myth of Orestes," and the Sartre drama in question is Les Mouches, which was first produced in 1943. Aue says little about the essay, apart from paraphrasing its point that Sartre "used the figure of the unfortunate matricide to develop his ideas on man's freedom in crime; Blanchot judged it harshly, and I could only approve."

Sartre's play has famous connections to the Occupation and the moral dilemmas of France: in it, Orestes returns home to Argos to find a corrupted city and, indeed, a corrupted cosmos; he learns from Zeus himself that the gods themselves are unjust, a discovery that renders absurd his, or anyone's, wishful yearnings for a life uncomplicated by moral anguish, indeed for a life in which one could simply be a person like any other person, a "human brother."

Where Mendelsohn differs from many other reviewers is in his belief that the "pornographical" sections are not gratuitous or unnecessary, but are absolutely necessary to Littel's vision of what he is trying to achieve.

And so, rather than using the graphic details of violence and sex simply (and naively) to shock his reader in a superficial way, the violence, the "pornography of violence" even, are consciously evoked, given their baroquely nightmarish details, in order to heighten the "impression of the sacrilegious"—not to somehow defend Aue because he is outside of morality, but to show us, horribly, what a life outside of morality looks, feels, sounds, and smells like. The "pornographic" material is not a shallow symbol of Max's evil (a puritanical reading, if anything): it is, rather, Littell completing Sartre's unfinished task, "pushing the abjection far enough," struggling to show "impiety against real piety"—the "piety," in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like.

In this sense, The Kindly Ones places itself squarely within the tradition of a "literature of transgression," especially the French lineage that descends from the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautréamont to Octave Mirbeau and Georges Bataille. Particularly in the elaborate sexual fantasies, the teenage sex between siblings, the coprophilia and incest themes, it is hard not to feel the influence, above all, of Bataille, to whose signature work, Histoire de l'Oeil, in which a violently detached eye becomes a sexual fetish used with great inventiveness, Littell seems to allude more than once in scenes of eyes popping out of crushed or exploded heads. I think that Littell might say that precisely because we are by now inured to representations of Nazi evil in literature and especially in film, he needs to break new taboos in order to make us think about evil, about a life lived in evil and a mind unsentimentally willing, even eager, to accept the ramifications of that choice.

This is a marvelous essay. It led to all kinds of thoughts. Was this a novel that could only be appreciated in Europe where the remnants of classical education still exist? Or does the commercial success of the novel in Europe speak less to the presence of a classical education than to the timelessness of the ancient Greek stories? Or was the commercial success so grounded in the lingering fascination with the war in the former battlegrounds of that war that it will not translate to untouched American soil? Or does it simply say something about the choices made by newspaper publishers with respect to who gets to review a book and get it published in the New York Times. And an even more basic question: Is it no wonder we have very few novels of ideas in our time when there seem to be so few persons who have the background necessary to understand those ideas?

In any event, it didn't make me want to read the novel. But I do encourage everyone to read Mendelsohn's essay.