There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels.
I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?
Maybe the place to begin is near the end of The Kindly Ones, when Aue finds himself in a marsh:
We made our way through a little meadow covered with tall, thick grass, sodden and bent; beyond stretched out more sheets of water; there was a little padlocked hunter’s cabin, also standing in water. The snow had completely disappeared. There was no use sticking to the trees, our boots sank into the water and the mud, the wet ground was covered with rotten leaves that hid quagmires. Here and there a little island of firm land gave us courage. But farther on it became completely impossible again; the trees grew on isolated clumps or in the water itself, the strips of earth between the puddles were also flooded, wading was difficult, we had to give up and go back to the dyke.
This isn’t by any means the toughest terrain Aue has crossed. In the fall of 1941 he slogged through “black, thick mud” from Kiev to Kharkov, following the Wehrmacht’s advance into the U.S.S.R.; in the winter of 1943 he was skulking in the rubble of Stalingrad; he has seen the death camps at Auschwitz and survived the Allied bombing of Berlin. Max Aue witnesses every phase of the Final Solution; in fact, this witnessing is the reason for his existence. Littell, in an interview with Le Monde des Livres, describes Aue as a “roving X-ray, a scanner.” He exists so Littell can attempt a human answer to the questions that still loom over the history of the Holocaust: why? And how?
I want to set those questions, and Aue’s answers, aside for a moment, to talk about this relatively unimportant moment in which Aue, along with his friend Thomas and their driver, Piontek, are trying to rejoin the German lines. What can we say about it? Well, for one thing, the little cabin is remarkable. By the time Aue gets to the marsh, the book is almost over, and we know, in gross, anyway, how the story will end: the Germans are going to lose. And yet Aue takes the time to see the cabin, to remember it, and to describe it. This is a literary strategy known, I believe, as “realism,” but there’s something hallucinatory about Aue’s refusal to sort important from unimportant information, as though he really were a “scanner” and not a person. (Littell has refused to sell the film rights to The Kindly Ones, on the grounds that it would be impossible to make the book into a film, but the effect is distinctly cinematic.) In this scene, the beneficiary of Aue’s X-ray vision is the landscape, which rolls past as if in real time; Aue is trudging, and you, the reader, have to trudge along with him.
It reminds me of another long novel in which the characters have to cover a lot of ground on foot, and even, as the end approaches, find themselves in a marsh:
The hobbits soon found that what had looked like one vast fen was really an endless network of pools, and soft mires, and winding half-strangled water-courses. Among these a cunning eye and foot could thread a wandering path. Gollum certainly had that cunning, and needed all of it. His head on its long neck was ever turning this way and that, while he sniffed and muttered all the time to himself. Sometimes he would hold up his hand and halt them, while he went forward a little, crouching, testing the ground with fingers or toes, or merely listening with one ear pressed to the earth.
I don’t want to make much of the thematic parallels between The Kindly Ones and The Lord of the Rings, although something could be made of them—the Second World War was very much on Tolkien’s mind as he wrote; between Mordor and the Nazi Mörders there was hardly more than an umlaut’s worth of difference.1 I only want to call attention to the fact that both novels spend a fair amount of time, an enormous amount of time, really, fleshing out the worlds in which they happen, giving you, the reader, a feeling of preternatural completeness. Littell happens to have done his research in libraries, whereas Tolkien wrote his own source material, but there’s a brute experiential way in which that difference is immaterial. What matters is the feeling that you are trudging through a world about which everything is known. That The Kindly Ones and The Lord of the Rings also happen to be among the most readable long novels of the last sixty years is perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps not.
The preternatural quality of Max Aue’s memory has been remarked on before; it’s the basis for one of the most telling and often-cited criticisms of The Kindly Ones. Claude Lanzmann, who directed the film Shoah, wrote that
Littell’s “hero” speaks torrentially for 900 pages, this man who doesn’t know what a memory is remembers absolutely everything. One has the right to ask, is Aue flesh and blood? Is Aue a man? Does Aue exist? He speaks like a book, like all the history books Littell has read. At the moment when the last witnesses of the Shoah are disappearing, and the Jews are anxious because memory is becoming History, Jonathan Littell flips the terms of the opposition, and gives his memoryless SS “hero” History as memory.
The danger of this procedure is that it will undermine the value of witnessing, precisely because it’s more complete than any eyewitness account. No one could have seen as much as Max Aue, but there’s something impossibly seductive about the idea that someone could have seen it all, that we could have both the totality of History and the authority of presence. Lanzmann fears that people will stop watching Shoah, stop reading Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, and pick up The Kindly Ones instead, that the fiction will in time replace the fact.2 It’s a possibility worth fearing; but let’s assume for a moment that Jonathan Littell is not an idiot—pace the opinion of at least one German critic3—and that he knows what risk he runs by this procedure of turning History into memory. Why would he do it?
Here we come back to the question of how. How could the Final Solution have taken place? As Lanzmann observes, the SS don’t speak; it’s impossible to get them to tell their side of the story. Max Aue does speak, but the answer he gives is as predictable as it is unsatisfying: he is “just like you,” and people like you are capable of carrying out even the most horrific acts when the circumstances demand it. “[I]f you are an American, consider your little Vietnam adventure,” he writes,
which so traumatized your fellow citizens. You lost fifty thousand troops there in ten years: that’s the equivalent of a little less than three days and two hours’ worth of dead on the Eastern Front, or of some thirteen days, twenty-one hours, and twenty-five minutes’ worth of dead Jews. I obviously am not including the Vietnamese dead; since you never speak of them, in your books or TV programs, they must not count for much to you. Yet you killed forty of them for every single one of your own dead, a fine effort even compared to our own, and one that certainly speaks for the value of technical progress.
Never mind that the Vietnam war was conducted under an idea, however absurd, of strategic gains and losses, whereas the Final Solution had the distressing and unfathomable quality of being an end in itself; in a total war there can be no civilians (this is Aue’s reasoning), only the fight of one mass against another. In such a fight every participant is equally guilty: the killers with blood on their hands and the supply officers who fuel the trucks. You might have died rather than shoot, but would you have died rather than pump gasoline?
This is an argument that got tested at Nuremberg without a lot of success; it does not compel belief. That’s what Aue’s prodigious memory is for. In the middle of the novel, and the war, Max Aue is sent to inspect the concentration camps of Poland, to see what he can do about getting the inmates better rations, a quixotic errand. When he gets to the Lublin camp, things turn out to be complicated, not only because Aue’s mission is incompatible with the purpose of the camp, but also, and above all, because it’s hard to figure out who’s in charge. “Out of about four hundred and fifty men, not counting the Hiwis [local recruits],” a deputy explains,
almost a hundred were assigned to us by the Führer’s Chancellery. Almost all our camp commanders are from there. Tactically, they’re under control of the Einsatz, but administratively, they depend on the Chancellery. They supervise everything having to do with salaries, leaves, promotions, and so on. Apparently it’s a special agreement between the Reichsführer and Reichsleiter Bouhler. Some of those men aren’t even members of the Allgemeine-SS or of the Party. But they’re all veterans of the Reich’s euthanasia centers; when most of those centers were closed, some of the personnel, with Wirth at their head, were transferred here so the Einsatz could profit from their experience.
Get it? Not quite? Good. The enormous quantity of information contained in The Kindly Ones (you could call the novel “encyclopedic,” but, given its narrator’s subjective bias, “wikipedic” might be a better way of putting it) serves not only to enchant, but also to distract. With so many administrative structures in play, so many names and ranks and acronyms and badges and bosses to keep track of, how can you think about what KL Lublin4 was for? The more immediate, and more satisfying because more achievable, task consists in doing what Aue does: sussing hierarchies, admiring or deploring moves made in the game of Nazi power.
It’s thinking like this that got Eichmann in trouble. Hannah Arendt, reporting on the SS officers’ 1961 trial for the New Yorker, observed that “except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, [Eichmann] had no motives at all.” Max Aue, who meets Eichmann again and again over the course of The Kindly Ones, puts it more bluntly: “He had a very harsh attitude but at bottom it was the same to him whether or not the Jews were killed, the only thing that counted, for him, was to show what he could do, to prove his worth, and also to use the abilities he had developed, for the rest of it, he didn’t give a fuck, either about industry or about the gas chambers for that matter, the only thing he did give a fuck about was that no one fucked with him.…” Eichmann was guilty of mass murder, but he is infamous for thoughtlessness, for not giving a fuck. As Arendt says, “He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.”
Call it the danger of Too Much Information: if your mind is occupied with bureaucratic turf wars, how can you make room to think about what’s happening in the crematoriums that smoke just a few hundred meters away, polluting the air with the smell of burning flesh? Especially when the gulf between the one kind of awareness and the other is so vast: the first belongs to the world of information, whereas the second belongs to the order of knowledge. You can have all the information in the world about the camps—Eichmann had much of it—but knowing them is something else entirely.
Now think for a moment about the complicated, perverse thing which The Kindly Ones does to you, the reader. Anyone could tell you that information and knowledge are two different things, that it’s possible to be ignorant even in the thick of the facts. Arendt could tell you that; her remark that Eichmann’s self-important ignorance illustrates the banality of evil has itself become a banality. But how, short of participating in a genocide, can you know what it’s like to be thoughtless? This is the door to which Max Aue holds (or rather is) the key. The book abounds with markers of lived experience: the icy waters of the marsh, the “insomniac dead” who lie scattered by the side of the road to Kiev, the diarrhea and vomiting fits that plague Aue all through the war, and afterward. These signs draw you in; they give you the feeling of knowing, but all you’re getting is information. The effect is weirdly stupefying—which is, perhaps, how Eichmann felt, after a while.
But Max Aue is no Eichmann, no pale number, no evil Everyman. The more you learn about him, the more you have to laugh at his claim that “I am just like you”: he fucks his twin sister, he kills his mother and his stepfather and a couple of other more or less innocent people, and no one ordered him to do any of it. If you were to infer anything about evil from Aue’s account, you would infer that it is lurid, mythic. And as it happens, underneath the euphemism of euthanasia, which masks the smell of the chimneys and the reader’s cry (eu…, or should it be aue…?) of disgust, there’s a bigger Eu at work: the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones. They used to be called the Erinyes, the Furies, the Greek goddesses of revenge. Aeschylus wrote a play about them, the third part of the Oresteia, in which they pursue Orestes for the murder of his mother, Clytemnestra. The goddess Athena tells them to hold off, and has Orestes tried before a jury of Athenians. The jury is divided, but Athena convinces the Furies to let Orestes go, an act so uncharacteristic that she renames them the Kindly Ones. It’s a story about justice and mercy, about the possibility of forgiveness for even the most terrible crimes, and it runs through Littell’s novel like a badly set bone, bending it in strange directions. Not only is Aue a human face for the Nazi crimes against humanity; he’s also Orestes, the matricide, pursued by the inhuman Furies, putting himself on trial before you, the jury of his readers.
The conflation of the two kinds of guilt, the mythic and the historical, feels almost unforgivably cheap. If it were only Aue making himself out to be Orestes, you’d dismiss the gesture as an unjustified but understandable bid for sympathy, but it’s Littell who puts Aue through Orestes’s paces, as if to give credence to Aue’s assertion that “in this [life] I never had a choice,” that his free will was curtailed by “the weight of fate.” (Which was, in fact, Orestes’s defense. Admitting his crime freely, he tells the court that he had good reasons for killing Clytemnestra, who had murdered Agamemnon, his father, but also that “Apollo shares responsibility for this”: the god commanded Orestes to murder his mother.) It’s tempting to wish this aspect of The Kindly Ones away in favor of something more naturalistic. Picture Aue as a bitter Frank Wheeler type, coming home to his pretty, loveless wife and his thwarted dream of writing the Great German Novel.… And in fact the narration shows the strain of accommodating the mythic material. Aue doesn’t remember killing his parents—it’s one of the very few things he doesn’t remember. The police investigation of the murders reads like it’s been pasted in from a whodunit; the final appearance of the detectives who hound Aue through the last parts of the novel (he describes them as “like a pair of cops from an American movie”) gives the conclusion of this enormous book all the charm of a bathtub being drained. You could almost say that the Orestes drama plays itself out in Aue’s blind spot; it is the one thing the scanner can’t scan.
Yet this blindness, unmotivated in narrative terms, makes sense if you keep in mind that the one thing an all-seeing eye can’t see is itself. Despite their apparent incongruity, the historical and mythic aspects of the book are as identical as twins: the former is a fantasy of total knowledge, the latter a fantasy of divine will. No one is permitted to do what Max Aue does, but no one can know all that he knows, either. If we find his X-ray eyes (Aue’s Augen, a play on words that Littell, who doesn’t speak German, may or may not have intended) more “realistic” than his bloody family drama, it’s perhaps because our notion of divinity has been depersonalized; the only kind of transcendence that still rhymes with our world is the impossible archive, the camera that takes everything in. But the two fantasies, that everything can be known, and that we aren’t responsible for our actions, still go together—in a world without surprises, what could we be but pawns?—and Aue has the dubious honor of reminding us of it. He is a scanner and a monster, which is, etymologically, a thing that must be seen; his two aspects are in that sense the active and passive forms of the same verb.5
When you’re talking about novels, the word for a completely worked-out world in which the characters act according to a grand design is escapist; when you’re talking about life, the word for a world like that is totalitarian. The totalitarian state possesses infinite knowledge, and it perpetrates infinite crime, authorized by the leader’s godlike will; its end products are mass death and documentation, which are the two means by which the fictitious world of its ideology are extended. Reality falls—or is pushed—out of the picture; what you have is an obsessively elaborated world that seems all the more real because it’s shot through with myth. The totalitarian state is engrossing the way certain books, The Kindly Ones among them, are engrossing: it offers a complete world that masks the reader’s incompleteness; its fantastic descriptions set ablaze those lazy (or young, or sad) minds that want nothing to be left to the imagination.
The problem with totalitarian states, from their own point of view, is that they don’t go on forever. A point comes when they have extended their power as far as it will reach; what follows is contraction, defeat, ruin. The same is true of total fictions. Narrators suffer from exhaustion; the most powerful ones may even suffer more than the ones who began with more modest claims. So, after 782 pages of telling us how it was, corpse by corpse, Max Aue admits to a feeling of impatience: “I’m getting tired, I have to start bringing this to an end.” The downfall of his narration is, like the downfall of the Third Reich, pretty swift, although, again like the Third Reich’s, it’s not swift enough. Max retreats to his brother-in-law’s estate in Pomerania; he is consumed by fantasies of his sister, of himself becoming his sister; eventually his friend Thomas comes to get him and they set out for Berlin. They cross a marsh… but even as Aue takes the time to describe that hunter’s cabin, you can feel the ground dissolving beneath their feet. The universe is contracting; the elements in play have less and less room to play in. They begin to bump against one another; the apparent limitlessness of Max’s vision can only take in the same faces he’s seen before, minor characters from other parts of the novel, drafted by the author to shore up a collapsing imagination. Soon we’re in a bunker, a tunnel. The final gesture of The Kindly Ones, which uses up all the characters who haven’t yet been accounted for, can be read as a kind of suicide. All that remains is the book, translated into twenty-five languages, printed by the millions.
The appeal of the total fiction is one that should be met warily, or even with some alarm. Even Littell seems nonplussed by the success of his novel. In an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau, he remarked that he had told his literary agent, “I have thought of a final solution for my fame.” He wouldn’t say what the solution was. Suicide, he’s said elsewhere, isn’t on his mind—and it would only feed the myth engine anyway. I can only imagine that Littell has found a more constructive way to bring the totalitarian impulse that animated The Kindly Ones to total extinction: he’ll write an unreadable book.
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