What is left, for me, of The Kindly Ones now? I finished Jonathan Littell's astonishing book (wonderfully translated by Charlotte Mandell) two weeks ago, and I could, I'm sure, knock-out a half-decent review of the book if I was so minded. But reviews abound (as so often, Stephen Mitchelmore sets the standard; Carey Harrison's review here on RSB is not too shabby either) and, anyway, I'm more interested, at the moment, in wondering what it means to have read it, what the reading has left me with, what it has done to me...
But to investigate, however cursorily, the phenomenon of having read, one is inevitably drawn towards making a balance sheet of the book in question. One moves towards writing a review in order simply to discover what one remembers of the now-finished novel. To describe TKO, two writerly adjectives come to mind. I want to say that the book is Proustian, and also that it is Sadeian. Proustian, because this is a novel presented as a memoir, because it investigates memory by way of showing us everything that our principal protagonist, SS Officer Dr. Maximilian Aue, remembers and forgets; but more so because its weight and detail, its heft and extent, never add up to it being any more than a fragment. As with Proust's work, one is deliciously confronted with the ambiguity (an ambiguity that, say, Don Delillo plays with in Libra) that no matter how many facts one gets down, reality is overwhelmingly complex in the face of one's inevitably pathetic list. As one reads on, with page after page of detail piling up, one is confronted with all Aue is leaving out, either on purpose or has forgotten: Littell's brick of a novel counter-intuitively remains a testament only to all he does not say. The absence one is left with weeks after reading (indeed, even as one is reading) echoes the absence that the book's presence can never hide from sight.
The novel is Sadeian, of course because of the sexual details (of which, actually, there are precious few: Aue is coprophilic, and at the beginning and end of the novel incestuously priapic, but you'd be hard pressed to be able in any way to thrill to his own thralldom: the novel is a million miles away from pornography) but, more specifically, it is Sadeian in the encyclopeadic sense. In France between 1751 and 1772, Denis Diderot oversaw the creation of a 35 volume encyclopedia. As wikipedia will tell you, "Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu." The Enlightenment held knowledge as sacred, and the world was further desacralised by its endeavours as information piled up in ever-increasing volumes. De Sade's own project was inspired by the same animus: to get everything down. The 120 Days of Sodom is an excruciating (and to be honest, tiresome) list of every perversion Sade can enumerate, but something comic, something self-cancelling, issues from all these facts: boredom and forgetting structure the sexual excitement (come before it, after it, and are never eliminated by it), pleasure is predicated on tedium, and extremity seems to be an instantiation of an awful, corroding detachment, a horrifying lightness of being. As Aue is promoted within the Nazi hierarchy, as he learns more of the brutality of its system, he focusses on his own professionalism. He is a functionary, deeply involved, but somehow never an actor, never a player. Like us, he watches; sometimes in horror, but mostly divorced from what is going on: he is the reader of his own life, not the author.
Littell seems to have a rather Foucauldian reading of Nazi power. The idea of the banality of evil is mocked by Aue within TKO's pages (Eichmann is a key figure), but what we see is evil reigning, evil at large, but so implicated within the Nazi structure that responsibility for particular actions always lies elsewhere (power is productive, unbounded, fluid, ubiquitous but untouchable). Aue fights corruption within the ranks — principally by writing reports — but the corruptness of the regime as a whole rarely bothers him. Only occassionally, just out of view, just off the edge of page, do we glimpse Aue glimpsing, grasping the wider truth. Essentially, he is all about the detail. We too, as readers, drown in those details, are appalled by those details, but forget them as we plough on fascinated by them. Only one or two stand out: a corpse here, a rape there. Aue implicates us even as we think ourselves to be so utterly unlike him. Indeed, tragically, we are all very like him, and we prove ourselves inhuman, prove ourselves guilty, even in that most civilised process: reading, reading and forgetting.