I "The novel’s gushing fans…seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.” Michiko Kakutani. New York Times Book Review
A brilliant Holocaust novel…A world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and force…I read it without pausing for breath, so powerful and terrifying was its portrayal of Nazi Germany, and of the Holocaust.” Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
Amazon reviews of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell range from glowing accounts of the genius of Littell to one star reviews in which the work is described as pornographic disgraceful trash. In the two quotes above the book image you will see the division of opinion among professional critics. With some slight reservations I am in camp that sees this as a great work of art in the grand European tradition of the literature of cruelty.
The Kindly Ones was first published in English in 2009, shortly before I began The Reading Life. After reading several glowing reviews from other book bloggers I badly wanted to read Littell's account
of the day to day experiences, mental life, of a German SS officer assigned initially to the mass executions of Jews by gunshot in occupied Eastern Europe. Somehow I had so much to read I never got to The Kindly Ones. I as very glad to receive a promotional email a very recently offering the Kindle edition for only $1.95, temporarily reduced from $10.95. I acquired the book and emerged myself into a very dark world.
The story is told from the point of view of Maximilien Aue. When he begins to tell his story he is a silk merchant living in France. The war is over and like many others he feels compelled to tell his story, which he begins with these words:
"Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you."
Max, we will call him that as we end up knowing him better than we will wish to, is a very cultured man, fluent in French. His favorite authors are Flsubert and above all Stendhal. He is comfortable quoting Plato and loves the music of Bach. He becomes an officer in a unit initially scheduled in the Ukraine, charged with shooting as many Jews as possible. Max goes into great detail about the procedural matters involved. He does not seem to personally hate individual Jews but he totally supports the goal of eliminating all Jews. He is gay and their are lots of depictions of sex acts. Homosexuality was a crime carrying a possible death sentence in Nazi Germany but in Max's world everyone he encounters seems open to anal sex. War time writers often talk of the heightened sexuality the near possibility of violent death produces and this is exemplified throughout The Kindly Ones. Max will later play various roles in the treatment of Jews. There was a tension in the SS between those who were primarily interested in killing Jews and those charged with producing labor for slave labor camps. Much space is devoted to this quandary. How much food must a Jew have to work in a factor is debated at length.
Max has as a sexual fixation on his sister, stemming from apparent childhood incest. He is obsessed with shit. (If seeing this term offends you, The Kindly Ones is not for you.). He goes on an on about how victims of shootings, hangings, and slave laborers are filthy from their own waste. He also has a sexual obsession with his mother. In following Max's rise through the ranks in the SS, I learned a lot about how things worked in Nazi Germany. As the war dragged on defeat of Germany became inevitable, though to even suggest the possibility could get you executed. Max's descriptions of the Allied Bombing of Berlin were brilliant, for sure he brought this to life.
There are many side plots, minor characters, even Hitler makes an appearance, and top Gestapo leaders play an important part in the story.
Max as a narrator seems bent on disgusting, horrifying his readers. I admit in one long dream sequence involving his sister which violated all rules of taste, decorum, etc I actually laughed thinking this was a bit much. Littell very subtly shows how the long war and his terrible experiences change Max. He has a kind of romance with a German war widow and there is a subplot involving him as a suspect in murderring his mother and step-father which got tedious for me.
Reading this book is a powerful experience. Many on Amazon said they could not finish it. Some see it just as an endless obsession with shit. I found it near compulsive reading. I do see it as overall a magnificent work of art. I think the length of the book is meant to mirror the length of the lived experience of the war. As the Russians approach Berlin, Max and some of his colleagues begin to plan their own escape and cover stories. Many horrible things are depicted.
I am very glad I have now read The Kindly Ones. It is an international bestseller, a literary prize winner. It is a brilliant work, perhaps it will become a classic.
Is Max a monster or is he just another person?
JONATHAN LITTELL was born in 1967 in New York of American parents but was raised and educated mostly in France. Previously he worked for the humanitarian agency Action contre la Faim, mainly in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He now lives in Spain.