The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
Amid the gathering storm of responses to Jonathan Littell’s monumental and phantasmagoric World War II novel, The Kindly Ones, readers as yet unfamiliar with the book may well be conscious of near-unanimity on one point: the book is appallingly, and ground-breakingly obscene, not in its depiction of historical scenes from Stalingrad or Auschwitz, but in its apparently gratuitous addition of a welter of repulsive deeds performed by Max Aue, the narrator of The Kindly Ones, in his family and private life. Ground-breakingly obscene! Great heavens, we haven’t heard such a phrase for years. Is it even possible, in this permissive culture to be ground-breakingly obscene? But it’s true: matricide, step-patricide and sibling incest are words positively glowing with innocence when held up against their gory enactments in the novel. Even Daniel Mendelsohn, in a fine and well-argued tribute to The Kindly Ones in The New York Review of Books, is moved to wonder why Littell resorted to giving Max Aue such a severely crazed, depraved and disgusting inner life (how much of what Aue tells of his family dealings is fact and how much fantasy is never entirely clear); for Mendelsohn this aspect of the book undermines the exquisitely judged historical reconstruction around Max Aue, in which for much of the book Aue plays the part of the man we might have been, the lost soul any of us might have become had we entirely lost our moral compass.
Mendelsohn’s conclusion grants The Kindly Ones a majestic, honourable defeat in pursuit of the indescribable. To my knowledge, he is the only reviewer so far to have seriously tried to assess how the hero’s ghastly secret crimes, and his almost unbearably twisted soul, could be convincingly aligned with classical literary virtues of Littell’s painstaking evocation of a man steadily succumbing to indifference, amid a horror in which he is participating. This horror alone, the horror of Babi Yar and of Auschwitz, is so memorably imagined that even without the Pelion of Aue’s inner corruption being piled upon the Ossa of the Holocaust, many readers will have turned away in revulsion. For Mendelsohn, Littell’s choice to make his hero a monster cleaves the book down the middle and leaves it scarred by a gigantic, self-inflicted wound. The New York Review of Books pays tribute to Littell’s literary antecedents, and to Littell’s own debts to Aeschylus and to pre-Christian concepts of tragic destiny. Yet the book itself remains, for Mendelsohn, a monster; it can only be redeemed by being called impossible, with a sanctifying reference to Blanchot’s estimate of Moby-Dick. Without resort to such eminences I should like to make a simpler argument for the strategic coherence of the book.
To see the book as monstrously divided is almost to grasp the literary strategy Littell has so provocatively employed. For in order to plumb the Nazi psyche – and this is quite unmistakably The Kindly Ones’s purpose, despite all the reviews that treat the book as a ‘Holocaust novel’ – it will not do to make a visit to Hell in the person of an ‘ordinary,’ representative human being. Deceptively, the book begins with that very proposition; Aue tells us that we, you and I, are the very Devil; now you shall hear, the book tells us, how horrible you truly are. This, of course, thrills us, and is thoroughly deceitful. Aue is serving his own self-exculpatory purposes, while his author is equally well served by their enticement. Littell’s purposes are not Aue’s: he knows that a guilt trip will not be sufficient to carry us to the shores of unthinkable evil. Readers who fall for this Dantesque Everyman project, as proposed by the narrator, will either struggle unsuccessfully to reconcile it with the irretrievable otherness Aue reveals to us later in the book, or, as I would submit they should, may come to accept that this shocking otherness represents, as literary strategy, the boundary one has to cross to reach the enactment of utmost horror. Only a kind of liberal straw man (one in the reader’s mind, or one on the page, or both) could suppose that this threshold offers a two-way street. There is no return to normality after a visit to Hell. Indeed there is no return at all, and Aue’s grotesque inner life – to many readers a surfeit of ghastliness which turns them back from reading the book – is precisely the fire through which as readers we must pass, the burning away of all hope, in order to render in fiction the experience of the enormities Littell must merely describe. Their description alone – and his Stalingrad is one of tours de force of historical recreation – cannot sear us sufficiently, no matter how horrible the detail. What is required here isn’t greater mimetic skill, but a fictive strategy that overturns our ability to simply watch. Only by pushing into our face the warping of our surrogate self in the novel, the replacing of the narrator’s human face with his true fiend-face, can we abandon our notional identity in the book and surrender to its nightmare. This could be achieved, readers might think, by obliging us to take part, alongside the narrator, in terrible deeds. But even this could be borne; could be beheld. What is utterly wrenching is the gradual discovery that our guide is a monster in his own right, and not merely by virtue of the degradations of the time.
I would argue, too, that what Aue’s revelations of his private hell of perversion represent – for regardless of when Aue’s perversions began, we are discovering them as we plunge headlong into wartime hell, and experiencing them side-by-side with the notorious massacres Aue witnesses and takes part in – is a manifestation of humanity, no matter how twisted a humanity, in the face of that smothering indifference which alone can enable us to survive the enactment of ghastly deeds. What speaks out of Aue’s most horrible secret acts is humanity, resisting the inhumanity that threatens to overcome him. Aue himself announces that there is no such thing as inhumanity but, as always, we need not believe him. There is inhumanity: it is not cruelty itself, but the indifference that makes systematic cruelty possible.
Reviewers so far appear to fall into three broad categories: those who reject the book as the pornography of violence, adding Aue’s orgy of perversion to the orgies of genocide and total war; those who find a way to describe a book riven into two, falling as it were onto its own sword in a gesture of despair – noble literary despair, in a good cause - at the loathsome prospect of integrating a narrative about the Nazi psyche into a single consumable whole (while others who see the book in the same way, as riven, refuse to see it as nobly divided, and indict Littell with losing all perspective); and those who swallow the book approvingly, without confronting the inner Aue-chamber of horrors except to note the prudery of those who are revolted by it. There is another way. We need to ask ourselves whether there is any literary strategy that will accomplish Littell’s mission, a journey to the world in which tout est permis and back, other than one that embraces the reader with a far more ghastly hug than he could ever have anticipated. In reality, unlike in the act of reading, there is no journey back, no return ticket; yet for the reader there always is. We close the book. We’re home again. Somehow the author must find a systematic way to undermine such safety, a trap-door inscribed in the very conception of the book. It will not be enough for Littell to describe the banality of the life of mass murderers with scrupulous attention – especially with attention to the bureaucratic infighting that occupied the foreground of the Nazi mind, with which Littell shows a depth of familiarity that would have impressed Himmler; this a novelist can do, if supremely well-informed and sufficiently gifted. But as readers we merely stand and watch – until we are seized by the devouring jaws of our narrator’s perversions, and thrust by another door into a maelstrom of guilt and disgust. Let us out, we cry, this isn’t what we came for! Which is precisely the cry of all those who sign up for horror, accepting the come-on that everyone else is doing it. This is Aue’s come-on at the start of the book, hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, which merely tickles us: ooh yes, we’re guilty too. Now tell us more, author. But we have in fact been kidnapped, not by the remorseful survivor who greets us in the introduction, but by a monster, and it will soon be too late to scream.
This is the adventure, as it were the strategy, of The Kindly Ones, and many will not take kindly to it. Time, I believe, will tell in favour of its gruesome cunning.