Review of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
The Kindly Ones
by Jonathan Littell
This may not be evident, but I tend to avoid historical fiction set during World War II. I'm not sure why: it's an obvious (perhaps too obvious) source of material for exploring the human condition. I'm not squeamish about the details of the Holocaust. Maybe it's just that a lot of World War II fiction focuses on the battles, the military strategy and tactics, and it's military fiction that I'm avoiding. In the last month, however, I read Time's Arrow and The Kindly Ones, both of which are memoirs to an extent; now I'm reading A Thread of Grace. Compared to Martin Amis, Jonathan Littell gets at least one thing right: he tells the story in roughly chronological order. And you know what, Amis? It works better that way. Unfortunately, The Kindly Ones eludes the masterpiece status being accorded to it by some reviewers. Maybe it deserves more credit than I'm willing to give it, but some of the critical acclaim it has received is just . . . silly.
The back cover of my edition has a blurb from Kirkus Reviews: "Littell's apocalyptic ending is like nothing else in the literature….. The closing is a tour de force. But so is the entire book … with not a wasted word." That is serious hyperbole for any book, and it's outright preposterous for this ponderous 983-page novel. A book this thick does not get the benefit of a doubt. And the page count is only the beginning, for The Kindly Ones shelters monstrous multi-page paragraphs—in fact, I think no paragraph is under one page in length, and I counted one as long as seven pages. If the scope of this novel is broad enough to stretch from occupied France to the Russian front, the level of detail dives down toward the infinitesimal. This book is a prime example of why I have a "literary pretentious" shelf at all.
Of course, pretentiousness and ponderousness are not ipso facto bad. Still, there is a reason that all fiction must elide certain parts of the narrative; it's simply impractical to include every detail about every event from the beginning to the end of the story. An author chisels a good narrative from a block of wild, untamed story, wrapping it in perspectives and limitations until we can comprehend the tale. The skill requires knowing which parts to remove as well as which parts to keep (and a good editor helps too). As with any rule of writing, it's permissible to bend or break this one. But I'm sceptical The Kindly Ones earns such permission. It's obvious that Littell has done his research, and this results in an immersive depiction of Nazi Europe I have not often encountered. Nevertheless, for every harrowing description of the treatment of prisoners or the twisted veneer of civilization in Berlin, there is a passage submerged in a quagmire of impenetrable military jargon from which the glossary at the end provides no relief. Reading this book is a little bit like going to war against it.
Though the book itself may sometimes forget this fact, The Kindly Ones is a memoir. Maximilien Aue is an officer in the SS, but he is not a soldier, not in the classical, warrior sense. He is a bureaucrat, a legal scholar—an intellectual, which is always an interesting and controversial word. There is plenty of violence, death, and bloodshed, but this is not a book about the battles or the strategy. Aue himself, when quizzed on these subjects, reminds people that strategy isn't his department: he's a paper-pusher who, for some reason, often ends up too close to the firing line, whether literal or metaphorical. Most importantly, Aue offers us—or seems to offer us—the perspective of a Nazi soldier who does not unreservedly hate all Jews and want to wipe them from the face of the Earth. Yes, he works toward this goal, but only because it's a logistical necessity toward winning the war—or so he claims. Whether or not Aue's apathy toward anti-Semitism is genuine, Littell does manage to create a complex picture of German attitudes toward the Holocaust. He emphasizes that the Nazi treatment of Jews extended to other demographics as well. Most importantly, amid the rabid and stereotypical Jew-hating Nazis he includes soldiers and citizens who, far from hating Jews, regret and lament the Führer's Final Solution. In a way, these people's existence is even more terrifying than the existence of villains like Hitler and Himmler—they are a reminder that supposedly rational and reasonable individuals recognized how wrong the Holocaust was and still did nothing about it. Sure, we can demonize every SS man and claim that they were all pure evil. Yet that, in my opinion, diminishes the sincerity with which we remember the Holocaust. It is a manufacturing of an Other where there is none, an attempt to distance ourselves from those who committed these atrocities. Rightly horrified by the Holocaust, we declare, "Only Others could have done this, only monsters," because it reassures us that we do not possess any such darkness within ourselves.
This conceit Aue seeks to refute. Almost immediately he explains that, regardless of his flaws (and there are oh so many) he is still a human being:
But I don't think I'm a devil. There were always reasons for what I did. Good reasons or bad reasons, I don't know, in any case human reasons. Those who kill are humans, just like those who are killed, that's what's terrible.
The tragedy is not that extremist bigots exist but that ordinary people will, given the proper motivation, follow those bigots and participate in disasters like the Holocaust. War is terrible precisely because it is not a natural disaster, an act of God that we can neither prevent nor mitigate. War is a human action, an evil perpetrated on humans by humans. And few humans can ever say that they will never kill, regardless of the circumstance:
You can never say: I shall never kill, that's impossible; the most you can say is: I hope I shall never kill. I too hoped so, I too wanted to live a good and useful life, to be a man among men, equal to others, I too wanted to add my brick to our common house. But my hopes were dashed, and my sincerity was betrayed and placed at the services of an ultimately evil and corrupt work, and I crossed over to the dark shores, and all this evil entered my own life, and none of this can be made whole, ever.
This passage affected me the most. It's a reminder of the uncomfortable truth of my own humanity. I'm not saying I'd sign up for the SS and start marching and saluting the Führer. But maybe I wouldn't be brave enough to stand against it. And certainly, given the right circumstances, I could be driven to kill.
So Littell reaches into the core of my being . . . on page 24, barely 2 per cent of the way through this epic. Yes, everything after this point is downhill (although not evenly so; there are various crests and troughs along the way). There are several reasons for this decline, but one in particular relates to Littell's theme of ordinary people participating in extraordinary atrocities. Aue insists that he is "a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!" Except he isn't. At the extreme end, Littell has decided to rehash the Oresteia with Nazis. Aue is a psychopath. He murders his mother and stepfather, and later, several more people in cold blood. I'm willing to attribute these over-the-top actions to the bullet he takes through the brain while in Stalingrad. Still, he was having fantasies about his sister long before he joined the SS; they just intensify as the war goes on and Aue becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable. I don't begrudge Littell his Greek allusions or Aue's psychological baggage—but they do bely any claim that Aue is somehow "like us."
Honestly, though, I didn't get the point of Aue's baggage. If we want to get Freudian, we're supposed to believe it all stems from animosity toward a harsh, and later absentee, father. He resents his mother for not breastfeeding him (he was allergic to her milk). And his frustrated, unrequited desire for his sister has fouled any notion of heterosexual intimacy; rather, he seeks sodomy with other men in an attempt to feel closer to his sister through the act of penetration. But what's the point of the hallucinatory, unreliable flashbacks and memories that Aue recounts to us? Is this Littell's way of justifying Aue's solitary nature (why does this need to be justified)? Or does Littell include this out of the sheer disturbing fascination it provokes? This part of the story culminates in Aue's complete surrender to his fantasies while occupying his sister's empty house in Pomerania. Aue has spent the last week wandering his sister's house while naked, masturbating in the woods, and experiencing . . . scatological perturbations. Thomas, arguably his only friend, comes to retrieve him. The Russians have advanced almost past this point, and their return to Berlin becomes a flight from the encroaching enemy. But by this point in the novel, I'm skimming, and I've lost any sense of sympathy or empathy for Aue.
If Maximilien Aue were the only thing The Kindly Ones had to offer, it would be a sorry excuse for a novel. Fortunately, Littell's prose supplies solutions as well as problems. Aue shows us aspects of the war that, if not undocumented in fiction, certainly escape the history books. In school, I learned about World War II as a series of episodic battles, culminating in V-E and V-J days. Perhaps necessarily simplistic, this presentation ignores the quotidian operations behind the front. The two most captivating parts of this slow-paced story were Stalingrad and the latter half of Berlin. In both cases, Aue was involved in administrative work. Normally that would be dull, but in this case it provides a perspective on the war effort to which I am unaccustomed.
Also, there are some serious ruminations on ideology and methodology in this book. Aue has a nice conversation with a Communist prisoner, who compares National Socialism to Communism: both are deterministic and assert the existence of an objective enemy. These philosophical digressions are a welcome interlude from the jargon-laden descriptions of military activity. Now if only the dialogue was separated by paragraphs … ugh.
And while Aue did not impress me, and Thomas was very transparently opportunistic, there were two characters who found a place in my heart. Both met untimely ends. Voss, a linguist who befriends Aue, is the least evil Nazi I've ever seen. He's a specialist in Indo-Germanic languages, but he's using the war as an excuse to plunder rare texts from the libraries of occupied countries. (OK, this might be an evil act, but when you're up against "killing all the Jews," even the destruction of cultural heritage pales in comparison.) Piontek, Aue's driver, is loyal and competent. He reminds me a little of another character, Ivan, who protects Aue while he's in Stalingrad. Piontek is a grunt, and thus doesn't have much personality of his own, but along with Thomas and Helene he is one of the few people with whom Aue has any sort of healthy comradeship. The emphasis there is on "healthy." Aue's experiences during wartime are, for the most part, distinctly unhealthy. And he's right to blame the war—after all, what is it good for? Yet the war can't be entirely to blame, and Aue never does seem contrite, just crazy.
The Kindly Ones consists of many serious, worthwhile ideas suspended in a robust but tasteless broth of prose. Is it too long? Well, it does itself no favours by being this length, and a shorter book would probably earn more leniency (I'm not saying the system is fair). To condemn it on length alone is a shallow assessment, though. The Kindly Ones isn't just overly long; it's messy, so merely cutting out material isn't going to remedy much. There are fascinating and moving parts to this book, enough so that it's not a total loss. But I can't be much more enthusiastic than that, nor can I really recommend it to others. And that's where the length becomes the true issue: pages are investments, and for all of Littell's obvious research and effort, The Kindly Ones is an investment that provides little return.