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Las benévolas by Jonathan Littell
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Las benévolas (original 2006; edition 2007)

by Jonathan Littell, María Teresa Gallego Urrutia

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1,815723,853 (3.92)95
biblioforum's review
La novela que nos proponemos leer, de unas 1000 páginas, fue "Premio Goncourt 2006" y el "Gran prix du roman de l´Académie francaise" de ese mismo año. Su autor, Jonathan Littell, es un judío nacido en New York en 1967. Desciende de una familia que emigró de Polonia a Estados Unidos a finales del siglo XIX. Gracias a este libro consigue la nacionalidad francesa por "su contribución a la brillantez de Francia". Actualmente reside en Barcelona con su esposa y dos hijas.

El autor es hijo de otro escritor, Robert Littell. Sus inquietudes le llevan a colaborar durante siete años con la ONG, Acción contra el hambre, particularmente en Bosnia Herzegobina, pero también en Chechenia, Afganistan, el Congo e incluso Moscú. En 2001 cesa en estas actividades y se dedica a escribir ésta, su primera novela. Basada en la segunda guerra mundial y concretamente en el frente del Este, narra las memorias imaginarias de un culto oficial alemán de las SS, Maximilian Aue, que participó activamente en los hechos que dieron lugar al Holocausto y otras atrocidades.

El personaje, en los últimos años de existencia, no se siente arrepentido ni trata de justificar lo ocurrido. La historia abarca toda la vida de este oficial, desde su niñez a su paso por el frente, los campos de exterminio y sus experiencias de todo tipo. Lo que se narra se hace desde el punto de vista del verdugo, no desde el de las victimas. Para Littell "cuando la forma se ve desde ésta óptica, la del ejecutor, los procesos son iguales para todo el mundo, tanto para los nazis, como para cualquier soldado de la nacionalidad que sea".

El título de la novela remite a "las Erinias, del mito de Orestes". Como aquellas que persiguen a los criminales hasta el final, también al personaje lo persiguen los cazanazis.

Probablemente una de las cosas más impactantes que nos debe dejar la lectura del libro, es que la cultura en si misma no nos ampara de poder cometer las mayores atrocidades. Los nazis no eran un grupo carente de cultura. Admiraban a los mejores compositores musicales del mundo, a los más grandes escritores y filósofos; a todos los que habían engrandecido el arte y saber humano, y aún así, fueron capaces de llevar a término atrocidades que aún hoy, con lo que después ha pasado en otros muchos lugares, no deja de impresionarnos y horrorizarnos. posiblemente por su planificación y sistemática ejecución, y la cercanía geográfica.

Al final del libro esperamos añadir comentarios sobre su contenido, que parece no ha dejado indiferentes a personas de la talla de Jorge Semprún o Vargas LLosa.
  biblioforum | Apr 28, 2012 |
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Horrifying book ( )
  Wmt477 | Jul 11, 2014 |
not a perfect book, but one so vital, so important and so shattering that everyone should read it. The challenge from Dr Aue, SS man and lace factory owner is simply = 'What would you do, if you'd been there?' Littell takes us from the killing fields of the Ukraine and the Caucases to the fall of Stalingrad and the apocalypse of Berlin. We experience the killing squads working out how to murder; the dashing SS officers seducing young girls and boys, the industrialisation of the camps and the bureaucracy of genocide. And at the same time we experience this with Dr Aue, through his psychosexual traumas, stresses and his assent to the most horrific of crimes. The war in the east was not a war for gentlemen. And yet anyone who has worked in an ordinary office or lived an ordinary life will see parallels with the decisions and actions that we take part in every day. Extraordinary and overwhelming
  otterley | May 14, 2014 |
Lush storytelling that seems so authentic, so true, at times I forgot I was reading fiction. I just really loved this book. I had to read it twice--the first time I raced through to see how it would possibly end, then went back through and savored it. Beautiful. ( )
  justplainoldcj | Dec 9, 2013 |
The Kindly Ones is a densely-packed, minutely-detailed look into the eastern front of Hitler’s battle for world supremacy. Mr. Littell leaves no character actionless and no detail indistinct in this tome. Rather, he feels that a reader must have all of the details in order to best assess the psychological impact of the war and the Nazi doctrine on party members, collaborators, and unwilling participants alike, and he truly means all of the details. Dialogue is excruciating as every major and minor soldier has a line, no matter how trivial it may be. The unfamiliar German military ranks only serve as added weight to an already endless narrative, as does the pre-Cold War geography. The narrative and dialogue occur as if a reader is there next to Aue, watching the scene unfold firsthand and with the appropriate level of historical context to be able to understand the major players and meaning behind their actions. For readers without the historical knowledge, this makes the entire novel slow, ponderous, and more than a little confusing.

There is no doubt The Kindly Ones is controversial. In fact, it rivals American Psycho for its descriptions of the sick and perverted things one human can enact against another. The matter-of-factness with which Dr. Aue’s contemporaries and fellow soldiers execute the Jews and the gypsies and anyone else on the official “no friend to the Nazis” list, including inmates and hospital patients is terrifying. Similarly, the imagery is stark and gruesome. While Mr. Littell acknowledges that most soldiers struggled with the mass murders, this admission in no ways lessens the impact of such scenes. However, it is not these scenes with which readers will take the most offense. The controversy lies in Aue’s fantasies. As the war progresses, his hallucinations become more ghastly and more extreme, fueled by the strain of hiding his sexuality from the outside world and the compounded trauma associated with the war and the damage incurred by his highly inappropriate relationship with his sister. The last chapter is the culmination of this toxic stew and will simultaneously turn readers’ stomachs as well as render them breathless with Aue’s pain and suffering.

In spite of all of The Kindly Ones’ faults, Dr. Aue is a fascinating character by whom to study the psychology of peer pressure and justification of actions. Early on in the novel, Aue has this to say about guilt:

“What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been. For that is what total war means: there is no such thing as a civilian, and the only difference between the Jewish child gassed or shot and the German child burned alive in an air raid is one of method; both deaths were equally vain, neither of them shortened the war by so much as a second; but in both cases, the man or men who killed them believed it was just and necessary; and if they were wrong, who’s to blame?…I think I am allowed to conclude, as a fact established by modern history, that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and, pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was.” (p. 18-20)

It is with this in mind that a reader enters the first chaotic scene of the Germans following the Soviets into Poland and Czechoslovakia and beyond. These few statements not only provide keen insight into Aue’s frame of mind as he writes his memoirs, the fruit of which becomes the novel, but also a curious sense of remoteness as the reader ponders whether Aue is correct in his conclusions – something that leaves quickly upon a reader’s increasing emotional involvement within the story. It definitely raises one’s awareness about the idea of complicity, something that has plagued Germans since the end of the war.

The Kindly Ones is meant for readers with tough stomachs and even tougher psyches. Any scene involving the Jews is achingly brutal in the unflinching details. It is one thing to know of their fate; it is quite another to have their fate described down to the last blood drop or twitch. The nonchalant attitudes of the Germans are equally difficult to accept, as is their sometimes bizarre justifications for their actions. Still, it does no one any good to forget such things, and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones makes it impossible to forget.
1 vote jmchshannon | Nov 28, 2013 |
OFFICE POLITICS IN HELL

The persistent question about the Holocaust is how Germany, such a cultured, civilized nation, could decide--in the 20th century, no less--that the life of the nation depended upon wiping out all of Jewry. Littell confronts this dichotomy through the person of his narrator, Max Aue.

Aue is knowledgeable about and interested in art, literature, philosophy and, most of all, classical music. But he is also a mid-level SS functionary and a cog in the machinery of death. He observes and writes reports about the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings, and selections and crematoria in the death camps. He regularly meets with Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer and other big names in the history of the Nazis' genocide.

Aue suffers severe gastrointestinal illness from his field work, but he never connects it to the horror of what he observes. He believes in National Socialism and the Final Solution. When he becomes friendly with a linguist who tells him that Nazi racial science is utter hogwash, Aue responds that he has been given something to think about and wishes to return to the discussion, but he is saved from the necessity when his friend is killed. Instead, he continues to plod along in his career path and blandly reports it all to us in this lengthy novel.

So what's it all about? I came to the conclusion that, in essence, this is a history of the management of the worst corporation ever. A corporation whose mission is the most spectacularly wrong-headed and horrific thing imaginable---but whose failure to achieve its goal is attributable to those most prosaic banes of so many companies: office politics and the Peter Principle. All the various functionaries spend most of their time squabbling with each other for position or to try to achieve whatever they think the Führer's will is. Since they are all petty men of limited imagination and intelligence, of course it's all a complete schweinerei, as Aue likes to call it.

Does that mean this is another novel whose point is the banality of evil? Not exactly. Aue is not just some Aryan in an SS uniform. He is one screwed-up bizarro. He has a sexual fixation on his twin sister, with whom he had childhood incestuous relationship, broken up by his mother and stepfather. He often digresses from his tales of another lousy day at work into lengthy, hair-raising descriptions of violence, repulsive bodily functions and sexual perversions, real and imagined.

Littell is not the first author to try to connect Nazism with sexually-related mental illness. It makes a sort of sense. It's somehow easier to understand the Holocaust if we tell ourselves that those Nazis weren't like normal people; they were a bunch of sickos. But I think this detracts from the story.

Littell could lose all of the psychosexual and endless scatological stuff and have a much more powerful narrative. Aue's screwed-up psyche gets in the way of Littell's point that there is not, in fact, some bright-line difference between normal, ordinary people and those who can participate in unspeakable horrors. Littell does an excellent job of showing how Germans involved in the genocide become increasingly desensitized and brutalized. It's unfortunate that this, the most powerful part of the book, becomes obscured by Aue's psychosis and his escalating perversity, including a ridiculously over-the-top murder subplot.

Still, despite its huge flaws, this is a tremendously ambitious book, well worth reading. ( )
  Remizak | Apr 7, 2013 |
A monstrous account of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi bureaucrat who participated in it. ( )
  KidSisyphus | Apr 5, 2013 |
"A new War and Peace ... Never, in the recent history of French literature, has an early work been so ambitious, so masterfully written, so meticulous in its detail or so serenely horrifying."
-Le Nouvel Observateur, taken from the back cover

E€EWhat is this shit?E€E
-A former French resistance fighter on this book, as quoted by Laurent Binet in The Millions

This is a book that could have been. There were brief flashes of fascination, tantalizing ideas, lost in an interminable sea of dreck.

The opening Toccata gives us a few teasing sentences: "y human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." says the SS-Officer, and ends with "I am a man like other man, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you." Now is this a pleasing lie to himself or a plea to persuade? This brings to mind Arendt's study Eichmann in Jerusalem, on how ordinary people can be convinced or seduced to commit great evils and justify them.

But the book turns sour. The chapters with their musical titles of Allemandes, Courante, Sarabande, so on, are played largo in E minor.

It is to be understood, in a book like this, that there is due to be excessive violence. This is, after all, about an SS-Officer in the Eastern Front. It is gruesome, but endurable. And furthermore, I must give credit to the author for doing his research. He apparently got the hierarchy of titles and organizations right, as far as I can tell. And his long information dumps are intensely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of languages and ethnicities of the Caucus, and the absurdity of trying to classify them into Jewish or not-Jewish so they can be exterminated shows the foolish ideal of the Nazi goal of racial conquest.

For those, I give the author credit. And he has had his experience with war and suffering - mainly, volunteer work in the DR-Congo.

But after that, there is little investigation of moral dilemmas at all. Just chronology. Atrocity, extermination, rear-guard action, pincer movement, all become a dull sludge. Only a few cursory fragments, as tempting as they are, give us reason to think. But otherwise it is a catalog of atrocities.

Speaking of sludge, what is it feces and this book? Perhaps it may have been written as a shock factor, but instead of any contemplation or angst at all, we see a more physical psychosomatic reaction. Do something evil? Just poop it out! Your nation and ethos crumbling around you? Put a sausage up your butt in the Siege of Berlin, 1945 and cry thinking about fucking your twin sister!

I'm not saying that feces as a metaphor is inherently bad. Nor does the gratuitous and forced incest make an inherently bad novel, although they can understandably disgust so many readers and either dissuade or titillate so many others. Instead, they are more like a substitute for something more important, as though a long and difficult conversation is being avoided or hidden with more gratuitous shock value.

The author seldom mentions the simmering occupation of France. Only a few mentions, if perhaps at all. If the author spoke of atrocities there, say Oradour-sur-Glane, would the book arouse such prurient interest, visceral recognition of true evil? But that, too, is another omission.

Tant pis. 1 star, not because the whole work is to be discarded (at least, all but the beginning), but because of how much it frustrated and disappointed.hhap ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Madness. Despicably disgustingly amazingly crafted madness. The ability of authors to write out these scenarios, diving into and drowning in the minds of the most horrific human beings imaginable, without completely losing their minds astounds me sometimes.

Maximilian Aue is just a byproduct of this whole history, if you can believe it. He starts out with horrific tendencies, to be sure : incest from an extremely young age, coprophilia, murderous inclinations. And then comes the war and its horrible mesh of insane procedures combined with genocide in the name of a logic that only exists in minds blinded by 'the bigger picture'. The motto of the war? It's someone else's responsibility. Every bit of it.

And the sheer idiocy of it: setting out to wipe out entire races while simultaneously saving them for an efficient work force? The entire war effort of the Germans degenerated into a paradox along these lines; at the end it became nothing more than an atrocious mess of confusion and futile attempts at maintaining order, and above all rampant killing. You look at Dr. Aue, and you look at a microcosm that contains a good deal of the horrors. The thing is, even he wasn't enough of a monster to fully appreciate them; the war machine around him combined with extreme physical trauma tormented his conscience into complete insanity. One of the more completely fucked up characters of literature.

You have to appreciate the detail of the book; it's so easy to sink into the world described from every aspect of cultural/political/societal context. Of course the sick taste of madness never fully leaves the pages; the aim of the book is not to leave you comfortable. Yes, quite a bit of this book will turn your stomach. But if you condemn it solely because of that, you're missing the entire point that Germany in WWII was not a nice place. It would sicken you then, so there's no point if it doesn't sicken you now.

In a more accredited person's words:

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.
-Oscar Wilde
( )
  Korrick | Mar 30, 2013 |
NB: These remarks will be classified in The Critic’s Notebook. Unlike a more tightly constructed and formal book review, these notes will possess a larval nature: impressionistic, half-formed, spontaneous. It stands as a record of my first impressions as well as operate as raw material I will mine when I prepare a more in-depth critical analysis. This later analysis will also cover William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (2005), Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1959), and William Gass’s The Tunnel (1995).

NB2: Spoilers ahead! So don't read this review if you want to read the book.

First Impressions:

1. An overall assessment has me borrowing Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops terminology. In this specific case: Fiasco.

2. Other categories for the Kindly Ones:
a. Difficult
b. Controversial
c. Problematic

3. Difficult:

a. European-style paragraphing (no paragraph breaks for dialogue).

b. Epic size. Does scale mean an inherent value or profundity? Cf. volumes from The Song of Ice and Fire, Atlas Shrugged, The Bible, and so on.

c. Untranslated German military ranks.

d. Numerous characters to keep track of.

4. Controversial:

a. Prize-winning. It won the Prix Goncourt in 2006, putting it in heady company, including Michel Houellebecq, Marguerite Duras, and Marcel Proust.

b. The sexuality of Dr. Maximilien von Aue. Reviewers have categorized Aue’s sexuality as “deviant.” (The construction of Aue’s sexuality will be further explored in the last category, since it is highly problematic.)

c. Aue’s sexuality has a certain grindhouse quality to it, giving the novel a sensationalist and exploitative gloss. One thinks of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, the Night Porter, and the Damned.

5. Problematic:

a. The narrative is at war with itself.

b. What is it? At once a realistic historical novel and a mashup of the Orestia.

c. The novel starts strong, but ends weak.

d. Two major narrative demerits:

i. Aue’s head wound suffered in Stalingrad.

ii. Murder of parents (but with no memory of committing the act).

e. These major plot devices get built upon until it becomes implausibility heaped on implausibility. (Aue’s advancements in rank and the police investigation. The investigation begins as a real threat to Aue’s life and prestige, and then it devolves into a ridiculous farce.)

6. While the novel is loaded with excessive violence and explicit sex, these things aren’t inherently bad (Cf. Gravity’s Rainbow and Funeral Rites).

7. Do narrative fiascos have their own value to readers and critics? What can critics extract from works that fail?

a. What do we mean by fail? Not move units off the bookshelf? (The Nathan Rabin-esque flop.) Baffled/horrified/negative critical reception? (Fiasco and/or Secret Success.)

8. Father & Son:

a. Jonathan Littell is the son of American espionage writer Robert Littell. The Littell the Elder author of The Company, a multigenerational epic about the CIA.

b. With The Company and his other works, R. Littell tells the history of the US intelligence community via the “Jewishness” of the characters (Cf. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, etc.).

c. Jonathan Littell’s grandparents were Russian Jews who fled Russia and settled in the United States.

d. Both Jonathan and Robert reside in France.

e. Jonathan Littell reframes his Jewish heritage with a narrator who is an SS jurist (i.e. an elite within Nazi German society).

i. Littell further complicates this with Aue’s sexuality (see below) and Aue’s Alsatian heritage. Alsace-Lorraine was German territory from 1871 to 1918 and re-annexed by Germany after the fall of France in 1940, then returning to France in 1945. Alsace is a border province, lacking the historical credentials of a province within the German Altreich. The sexuality and Alsatian heritage make Aue a luminal character, existing on the boundaries of society.

9. Aue’s Sexuality:

a. Max had incestuous relations with his sister, Una, when they were children.

b. Max and Una are twins.

c. Lacking the presence of Una, Max can only become sexually aroused via anal sex.

d. Does this make Max a gay character? To this reader, a resounding no. But this requires further explanation, since this shouldn’t be confused with “Homosexuality is a choice” parroted by the deranged, hypocritical, and ignorant of the Modern Theocratic Right.

e. Can “gayness” even operate as an accurate label for a scenario this contrived?

f. The contrivance is created for the purposes of the narrative fitting into the Orestia, since the play cycle has its fair share of demented sex and violence.

g. This contrived sexuality is odd given the very real history of Germany’s many thriving gay subcultures (the Prussian military, Weimar Berlin, and the SA).

The novel draws upon the darker thread of French literary history, especially DAF Sade and Ferdinand Celine with its violence, depravity, gratuitous sex, and severe, albeit alien, morality. Unlike the novel Shadows Walking, which is written from a more realistic Balzackian tradition, depicting a “slice of life” of German Nazi-era society.

http://driftlessareareview.com/2012/10/30/translation-tuesdays-the-kindly-ones-b... ( )
1 vote kswolff | Oct 31, 2012 |
The Kindly Ones is probably the best straight historical fiction that will come out of WWII. The narrator (Aue) experiences most facets of the German side of the war--he is with the SS--including, delightfully, the initial stages of battle in the Caucusus and the final stages in Pomerania. The main value for the reader is that the author has distilled innumberable sources into a presumably accurate description of both the processes so well known and the experience of those who put them into motion, less well known. The formula is easy to decipher--Littell knows more or less all there is to know in great detail about German machinations and he has a believable narrator, who is believable as a true believer and as a humane witness. Littel also believably manouvers his narrator from place to place, position to position, in order that he may narrate, for instance, the degraded circumstances of mid-war Lublin, the size and insuck of Stallingrad, the progression of Jew-killing methods, the petty administrative struggles that undermine the war economy...The humane witness, the Nazi as humane witness and participant, is not as problematic as it may seem, for in a massive work of realism a lack of shock or nausea at endliess nearby atrocities would hardly be convincing. Naturally, the book is populated with a wide variety of sadists, and, to put it one way, those both cunningly and congenitally oblivious.
However, as the book stands as the memoirs of a single man, more than excellent history is required, more than adept realism. The narrator must be a fascinating fellow to keep a reader interested for more than a few hundred pages, or, in such a congested circumstance, more than six or seven hundred. The failure of Littel in this regard is fascinating. Aue is a rather stunning combination of the kind of guy you did not notice at the party and an unpredictable, deeply disturbed lunatic capable of let's just say anything. I would not accuse Littel of creating an unbelievable character, rather one who badly selects his monologues, not to mention their timings. In this manner, I think he avoided a cliche, but at the cost of boring the shit out of the most forgiving of readers. My guess is that different readers will begin to skim at very different places, and that most will do so well into the narrative. In fact, for me the war was clearly lost before I started my intense skimming, where I saw no point in the further belaboring of logistics related to the proper care and feeding of the labor force/condemned. Later, Aue the psycho was even more boring, going dozens of pages in detail about behaviour we had already been made to understand, allowed to read, come to accept, and so could not help but find excruciatingly dull in the redundant detail. No further insight into the character was gained--I skimmed carefully to be sure--and no virtuoso writing was offered [an example of virtuoso writing came during a very long dream sequence that was so well written, the innate impatience of the reader for the lengthy details of dreams in works of realism was overcome].
I heard once a man of moribund writing authority tell the author of a brilliantly seamless work of surrealism that the story did not succeed because one cannot begin with the real and end with the surreal. You can see instantly what an ass he was. Yet, in reviewing The Kindly Ones, I think that the failure of the book is in its inability to find the right balance between the real and absurd, the mix of the real and surreal. There is great potential comedy in some plot contrivances, yet good jokes fall flat when ill-timed. This likely has to do with the effort to combine vast and authentic detail with the voice of a fascinating character. Little has to choose where the events take precedence and where the personal foibles of Aue need expression. I hate to post-op a novel, but in this case I believe Littel may have chosen the wrong narrator. Aue's excesses/perversions would have been delightfully told by Thomas, Aue's Robinson, the revenant beneficent friend, who, unlike Aue, always likes a good time.
Following, to support some of what I am trying to get across is something that could be, in a world where ideas are in death camps, called a 'spoiler':

Aue does not like to fuck ladies, absolutely refuses, and yet he has a long relationship in the latter half of the book with someone we already know--not only because of who he is, but because, unnecessarily, he tells us. There may have been a good page or two to make from the interplay of Aue and this lady, yet Littel allows here to remain everpresent throughout most of the latter half of the book. And it;s a very strange feeling to, rather than strain in reading for any resolution at all to simply known that none will be forthcoming. This creates the demand for skimming.

An unspoiled last word:
I highly recommend the book to anyone who would be interested in a marvelously researched and believable account of the war from the eyes of a rather highly placed German; I don't recommend it to a reader looking for a masterpiece. Despite my disdain for the star system i will play along, giving it four because 3 might suggest mediocrity and five would suggest masterpiece.
8 vote RickHarsch | May 29, 2012 |
Not for the faint-hearted! But don’t be discouraged by the length of the book or its subject matter, it fully rewards perseverance.
The novel is the purported memoirs of Dr. Max Aue and traces his life and experiences from joining the SD (part of the SS) in Germany in 1934 and his rise through the ranks until the end of the war in 1945. Using Aue as an individual example, Littell explores how a seemingly cultivated and sensitive person could be enthralled with the Nazi ideals and despite being revolted by the methods employed in the Final Solution, can rationalise them as acceptable to achieve the desired result. Intertwined with these psychological and moral perspectives, are descriptions of Aue’s time working in concentration camps, his involvement in the Battle of Stalingrad and the final days of the war in Berlin.
The tone varies between the investigation of Aue’s state of mind, to vivid and graphic descriptions of the horrors of the war. Through it all, Littell’s writing commands one to follow Aue’s progress.
  camharlow | Apr 24, 2012 |
Muy buena, a veces innecesariamente guaranga ( )
  gneoflavio | Mar 24, 2012 |
The Kindly Ones is an incredibly ambitious book, taking in the whole scope of WWII from the Nazi invasion of Russia onwards, all through the eyes of Max Aue, as SS bureaucrat. And for the most part Littell pulls it off. He has constructed a story which actually keeps you invested as you swing between detailed historical events. But there are criticisms, as is inevitable with a story of this length and scope.

The book seems a little unsure of what it wants to be. On one hand it is a thoroughly reseached piece of historical fiction (Littell spent 5 years traversing Germany, France and Eastern Europe to visit the locations in the book). On another it is a study of morality from an ancient Greek perspective. This leads to many references to Greek mythology (the title refers to a Greek myth) such as incest and matricide which often test the readers suspension of disbelief.

There are also criticisms which could be made over some of the gratuitous descriptions, not of violence which is to be expected, but of mastubatory orgies and diarrhea episodes.

For me, the biggest criticism, however, is that the opening chapter sets out the gambit that you are just like the narrator and that anyone could have found themselves in his shoes.

But Aue is anything but ordinary. He has an incestous love for his twin sister to whom he has devoted himself leaving him, to all intents and purposes, gay. He hates his mother and has abandonment issues over his father. This makes it difficult to identify with him in an 'it could have been me' sort of way.

But despite these criticisms I would recommend this book. It takes you right into the heart of some of the most hellish times and places in history, such as Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and the prose is so descriptive as to have been compared to the realism of Tolstoy.

You will, despite yourself, develop a connection with Max Aue as he kills and then tries to save Jews. Never out of his own convictions or sense of good or evil, but to accomplish his orders to the best of his ability.

And that is perhaps the biggest triumph of this monumental piece of prose. I only wish I had the abilty to read it in it's original French. ( )
1 vote GaryN1981 | Nov 13, 2011 |
My interest in the Holocaust led me to read Jonathon Littell’s novel and overall, I think it works well, as it did what it’s supposed to do (I believe) and get the reader to think about the Holocaust perpetrators on individual, human terms. What’s more, for all its shortcomings, the book consistently allures by putting one inside the mind of Max Aue, who sees the evolving horrors around him through unmovable, guiltless, and understated perception. There’s not much of a plot but a great book doesn’t need much turning to be successful (I’m thinking of Kerouac’s On The Road) and it is fairly long (I estimate 395,000 words), but the simple prose and Mandell’s fluid translation let one read fast.

Littell obviously reveled in his own research but students of the holocaust will note nothing new with the horrid details. For instance, one memorable passage where Max tenderly leads a little Jewish boy to his execution (who wandered from the crowd) is a nicely done elaboration of an anecdote in Kuznetsov’s novel-account "Babi Yar". What does make The Kindly Ones as a keeper for your library, though, is the unworldly landscape (the jacket blurb uses “hallucinatory” –an accurate term that caught on with reviewers), to which Littell transports us through his relentless but subtle observation. As others have noted, moments of brilliance occasionally arise. For instance, early in the novel where Max interviews an old man to determine if he’s Jewish and then has him executed, is as a finely crafted “short story” as you will read.

Yes, it's very good but following 945 pages of engrossing and intellectual writing (admittedly with much weird sex and distracting symbolism), we have developments (I count seven) that are so implausible and forced, it makes one question if it’s just been one large joke played upon the reader. Here, in the last 40 pages, we have the following escapades where the previous surreal and mind-blowing narrative suddenly devolves into a cartoon of an underground Friz Freleng. Warning, plot spoilers follow: A group of rabid children kill Max’s driver while the SS officer Aue and his colleague helplessly watch. Max sadistically murders a male lover in a bathroom. During a medal ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, Max nearly bites the Fuhrer’s nose off. While arrested and being transported, Max is rescued by an errant Russian shell that kills nearly everyone but him. While again fleeing amongst the Berlin ruins, Max runs into a subway tunnel where he suddenly meets up with two detectives that have been pursuing him throughout half the book. Here he is again magically rescued by a sudden Russian attack. Max stumbles upon and visits the office of an industrialist-acquaintance whose three amazonian women-servants casually lie murdered in the room. Max runs away to a zoo, but there one of the detectives catches up with him only to be murdered by Max's friend, Thomas, who also suddenly turns up. Nevertheless, Max then kills that only friend he's had, perhaps just to wear his civilian clothes of escape.

In addition to these final absurdities, the book does present a contradiction of sorts, by the last line of the first chapter. Here Max states directly that he really shouldn’t be blamed because in the end, he’s very much like you (the reader). At least that's Max's opinion, (probably and hopefully not Littell's opinion). Of course, Max really isn't much like me, you, or even the average German of the 1940s. Yet, in the end, this really doesn’t matter, as it’s not a fundamental to enjoying and (learning from) the involving, haunting, and memorable narrative. In fact, the first chapter (really a prologue) is the weakest, as it’s little more than a Ripley’s believe-it-or-not kind of compendium of Holocaust death statistics.

So, a very good work, almost masterpiece of a first novel, (Littell’s youthful, punk science-fiction opus notwithstanding). I much anticipate his next book, whatever it may prove. ( )
1 vote Dill_the_Collector | Jul 24, 2011 |
In some ways, it's easy to see why this novel, in the original French, won le prix Goncourt; it's a sprawling, quite obviously heavily-researched (though how accurate the results of that research was is a matter of no small debate), and above all ambitious work, taking as its focus the whole of the Holocaust, and the morals of Greek tragedy as its inspiration.

On the other hand, its ambitious nature is also its downfall: in its sprawling desire to include everything, it perhaps covers too much; in its wish to reach the heights of ancient tragedy, it frequently oversteps in its attempts at seriousness and occasionally moves into adolescent pretentiousness. Many of the long digressions onto only marginally related topics would have been better presented had they been shortened or even excluded altogether. (e.g. The long piece on languages in the Caucasus. Appropriate to be coming from a linguist? Perhaps, but we as readers don't need all that detail, and it smacks of Littell including it solely because he researched it and therefore doesn't want to let that effort go to waste.) The same goes for the multiple hallucination sequences, which could have been better served with trimming — though my own biases against extended dream and hallucination sequences are something I acknowledge.

Finally, both the plotting and the prose are not enough to sustain the book's nearly 1000 pages. The former frequently drags and meanders to ill-effect, particularly in the opening and longer sections, while the latter frequently comes across as convoluted and over-wrought. (The latter, it should be noted, may be partially a problem with the English translation. I have heard complaints about it, but have never seen the original French. It still doesn't excuse some of the more scenery-chewing characters and moments, however.)

So in the end: I admire the ambition, but I'm still not sold on the execution.
1 vote g026r | Jun 15, 2011 |
Perhaps one of the most compelling WWII books dealing with Nazism. Possibly the best contemporary book I read. And I read a lot!
As others, I purchased this book after seeing many 5 stars flanked by ones. This is a book of controversy, thus a book that people love or love to hate. I read many "1-starred reviews" and am confident that most of these Reviewers have not finished the first chapter of this sinister, scary, wonderful book. A reader complains that the book is "scary" and "disgusting". Well, Nazism was both.
There are several parallel stories here, some are personal, some universal; other parts of the book are pure non-fiction, historical writing at its best. There is scatology, yes, but we all go to the bathroom, don't we? There is incest, as in the Old Testament. And homophobia, yes the Nazis were very similar in moral values to our current conservatives. The main character is gay, in a very asexual way, more gynophobic than homosexual, sex is just another bodily function. Max Aue does not love, does not hate, stops feeling early during the Russian campaign. Max is gay, and a Nazi. Does this make him a "kindly one"? Well, you be the judge.
How did Littell come up with this Dantesque encyclopedia of horrors remains a mystery. If you can understand the complexity of this character, Aue I mean, you will experience WWII as it happened. You will be in Stalingrad, but also in Piatigorski, at the line of scrimmage, but also a few miles away sipping cognac. This is how it was, this is how my parents told me it was, they never spend so much time and never used so much detail, knowledge. Aue /Littell is more than a witness, he is an interpreter of history.
This book should be mandatory reading for those who want to understand what happened to men and women in Germany before WWII. You will also understand Bosnia, hate, xenophobia. And also race, how volatile racial definitions are. One of the most compelling parts refers to the issue of Mountain Jews, Bergjuden. Are these real Jews, and as such to be killed? Or are they descendants of Persian tribes? Or are they Greeks? Well, the debate goes on in Crimea, while Stalingrad (look at the map, not very distant!) is falling. The Nazis even call an expert from Berlin to direct a full investigation. The cultural background of these criminals is unbelievable, their knowledge broad and profound. And also totally skewed to fit National Socialism. Again, today's news shows come to mind "no matter what really happened, I am right and you are not a patriot if you don't agree". The debate on Bergjuden goes on and on, we never really learn what the final decision was. It does not matter, the Final Solution was already in the books.
The end is predictable to a point. The parallel story of love and incest is magnificently depicted, without taking away from the inhumane background. The description of Aue's family life is also very well merged with the war and pre- (and post! Aue survives and as many other Nazis lives a normal life!) war furor.
The need for such a book in today's society is sad. We have learned little and reluctantly. We are still permeated by racism, the objects are not Jews anymore but the problem remains. We are aware of horrors occurring next door (Africa is not another planet!) but turn to more mundane problems. We have a lot of homophobia to deal with and sometime find Aue's tracks. Whenever a crypto gay preacher gets caught, think about Aue. History repeats itself if and when ignored. The Kindly ones sets the record straight and does it so well that you will not be able to forget (anymore). ( )
1 vote Lapsus16 | May 29, 2011 |
I read this novel over last summer - a bit of an odd choice for holiday reading. While I couldn't say that I 'enjoyed' it in the conventional sense of the word, I certainly found it interesting both in what Littell was attempting - the sheer scope and size of his research is mindboggling - and in the way he chooses to do it. He draws out the mythical thread of The Kindly Ones, in what is otherwise a work of brutal realism, in order to present the protagonist's mental decline. This is a major feature of the novel; Littel often uses his painstaking research to demonstrate the strangeness of Aue's world, for example when a colleague speaks for pages and pages about linguistics systems in the midst of chapters on atrocities.

I did struggle with it as the narrative becomes more and more commandeered by Aue's descent into utter madness. The extremely unerotic sexual scenes and the fantasy episode make this a hard book to stick with until the end, which is inevitably disappointing. As the whole text is set out as a flashback, we're left wondering how he could possibly conceal this madness in his new life.

The book becomes less about the reality of the Holocaust and more spiralling uncontrollably around the obsession of Aue with The Kindly Ones (no spoilers, but if you know what they are you can probably guess). He develops a sort of fatalistic idea of his approaching judgement, which is in his mind not for the thousands of innocents he has helped to kill but for a far more personal crime. We simultaneously condemn him for his blindness and wonder if, as a projection, it is another unpleasant effect of his circumstances - leading us again to question how far he's responsible for his own actions.

I've given it 3 stars because, while it is thought-provoking, I honestly don't know who I could recommend this book to, if at all. I don't think it's something I'd read twice. It leaves you feeling that it's fallen short somehow, that justice is not done - but the same is true of history. ( )
1 vote dalekk | Mar 24, 2011 |
At nearly 1,000 pages and with paragraphs that run to several pages, this was a very difficult book to read. The author, though of American heritage, lives in France and originally wrote the book in French where it won numerous awards and was highly praised. I really wanted to read this book but found it such heavy going that I ditche...d it after getting through about half - and I really never do that, if I start a book and get further than about 20 pages, then I'm committed and will finish it. The subject matter is distasteful (the story of an SS officer who was present at all the 'big' WWII moments - the initial Jewish cleansings, the siege of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Birkenau and he even meets Hitler) but I also just didn't 'get' what the author was aiming for. I think the point of the book was to demonstrate how 'anyone can do anything' given particular circumstances. Littell is not an apologist for the Nazis but he does make the point that war is drudgery, boredom, terror, orders and the gradual desensitising of human feeling - but I get that, I didn't need to read this novel to understand that and I'm not sure who would. I found it interesting that UK reviews praise the book highly while US ones have tended in the opposite direction. I think the translation is part of the problem but it's also a book that once you start to think about it, the coincidences are too much, the failings and depravities of the narrator are too obvious while at the same time the narrator's obvious cultural and intellectual background are also used too often to drive home the message - anyone can do anything. The author has a lot of promise but apparently he wrote the book freehand in a matter of weeks (albeit after years of research) and it shows ( )
  PennyAnne | Jan 6, 2011 |
Written in the form of the memoir of an SS officer, I would characterise this not only as a narrative of the gritty horror of war, but also an attempt to explain (and I think it "explain" rather than "justify") how ordinary people can get caught up in perpetrating something as horrific as the holocaust.

It does not dwell on "only obeying orders", but rather on someone who, as a committed Nazi, believes that unpleasant actions, even things which he may disagree with personally and believe to be wasteful and misguided, may be necessary during a time of total war. It is compounded by the aura of the Fuhrer and his claim to represent the Volk. It is made worse by the inhumanity of war. At a time when life is so cheap, particularly on the Eastern Front, soldiers routinely commit such acts of brutality and inhumanity that performing a few more (or a few million more) hardly seems to matter.

The narrative deals with more than the killing of Jews. Quite early on many categories of Germans were killed (mentally ill, elderly, etc) to get rid of useless mouths to feed. Behind the lines in eastern Europe people were killed because they might become, or support, partisans and saboteurs. The narrator recognises that not all, in fact not even a majority, pose a threat, but in the fog of war who has the time to really investigate? Easier to kill them all. At times he questions the issue, but not on what might be considered moral grounds. Wouldn't some of the overrun populations be more use to their conquerors if they were assimiliated rather than exterminated? What a waste that so many healthy concentration camp inmates were killed or died due to poor conditions and ill-treatment when Germany was desperate for slave labourers in its armaments factories. No such sympathy for the useless women, children and elderly, though.

It's a long book (over 900 pages of small print) and at times it is hard going, not only because of the horror of the subject but also because the writing is a bit turgid in places. There are also long philosophical discussions, some of which are interesting but others not so, and rambling dream sequences when he is wounded, sick or unstable. I'm not really sure what their relevance is, nor that of his relationship with parents and sister, unless it is to emphasise how mad people become in that sort of war situation.

It ends as Berlin falls to the Soviet army, with an unexpected twist right on the last page. All in all excellent, albeit not light, reading. ( )
1 vote johnthefireman | Sep 26, 2010 |
I never thought I would want to read a 1,000 page (more or less) first-person novel about a Nazi who basically sees the Holocaust in terms of the bureaucratic nightmares it causes. But I cannot put it down. ( )
1 vote Clea_Simon | Aug 11, 2010 |
One of the most daring books I ever read. Of course it had terrible details, but they are not just there to shock. Littell shows his readers what WWII was like; raw, harsh and inhumane. It is very disturbing to find out that at some points I could feel with the main character. But that is exactly Littells point. It makes you think what you would do in situations like that. Would you be a good person, or would you save your own face, at any cost. Very interesting and thought-provoking.

Yes, there are words to describe what happened in those days and Littell found them. Excellent! And I thought the ending was amazing. ( )
2 vote Marijkie | Jul 23, 2010 |
The story of one man’s soul, even the pettiest, can be more interesting and instructive than the story of a whole nation…
Lermontov

Historical knowledge is the knowledge of what the mind has done in the past… the historical process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by re-creating in his own thought the past to which he is heir.
R.G.Collingwood

Je suis le mensonge qui dit toujours la verite.

Jean Cocteau

The meaning of the Holocaust and of the other acts perpetrated under the Third Reich has troubled thinkers and sensitive people since these horrors were first revealed. The central philosophical and humanitarian questions of the post-war period were: How could they have happened? What would I have done? What does it mean for our humanity that others of our kind were capable of this?

Hannah Arendt famously saw in it the banality of evil and a lack of proportion in the drive towards consistency. George Steiner agonised over the relationship between our higher civilisation and our lowest instincts, bemoaning the fact that those responsible for the worst nightmares were also the most highly cultivated and civilised, and that the possession of the highest culture was no guard against the capacity to commit the lowest depravities. Dawidowicz saw in it a master plan of hatred put in place from the beginning to eradicate Jewry, and an expression of the most virulent anti-semitism. Hilberg and his school have documented exhaustively the gradual stages towards the Total Solution, helped in their endeavour by the meticulous record keeping of the Nazis. (Other, lower life forms, bottom feeders such as David Irving and Richard Williamson, have denied the whole thing, one would like to imagine, out of a refusal to acknowledge that humanity is capable of it.)

Littell’s novel is another attempt to answer these questions, one that draws primarily on the resources of literary fiction rather than historical reconstruction or philosophical argumentation. Like Collingwood and Lermontov, Littell sees in the symbolic imagination (guided by historical accuracy) a method for understanding the events; and his novel may be read as a sustained attempt to penetrate this dreadful mystery through the power of literature, by recreating it in his own thought and ours...

Read the full review on The Lectern. ( )
13 vote tomcatMurr | Jul 17, 2010 |
I have a doctorate in Holocaust Literature and have read most of the same sources as the author. Jonathan Littell's novel has literary shortcomings which might have been mitigated if his editor had been more effective, and made him be more selective in choosing which of his research was incorporated into the book. It's no wonder he was able to write this massive book so quickly - he seems to have copied and pasted huge chunks of his research verbatim into the novel. It is, however, a landmark in the field and has been poorly served by its reviewers in the US and the UK. Both praise and blame have missed the mark. The two reviews which give perceptive readings of the novel are Samuel Moyn's in 'The Nation' http://www.thenation.com/article/nazi-zelig-jonathan-littells-kindly-ones , and Daniel Mendelsohn's in 'The New York Review of Books' http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2009/mar/26/transgression/. ( )
3 vote evertonian | Jul 14, 2010 |
[The Kindly Ones] by [[Jonathan Littell]] (2006,2009)

This nearly 1000 page tome is everything you've probably heard about it: gruesome, disgusting, repulsive, difficult to take. It is also gripping, intelligent, informative, insightful, and well-written. It is the story of World War II through the eyes of Max Aue, SS officer. Aue is with the Nazis when they invade Poland; he's at Babi Yar and the Battle of Stalingrad; he's with Eichmann at the concentration camps; he's in Hungary near the end of the war when the Germans proposed "blood for trucks;" and he's in Hitler's bunker in April 1945. When we meet him, in present time, he is a well-respected French lace manufacturer with a past no one questions. He is also unrepenetant.

Aue is a cultured and intelligent man, but never a sympathetic character. His personal life mirrors the depravity of the war--he is sexually obsessed with his twin sister and acts out this obsession in homosexual affairs. His mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. And, as you may have read elsewhere, there's a lot of diarrhea, blood, vomit and guts.

When Aue is not on the frontlines, he is a bureacrat--a clear manifestation of the banality of evil. His job involves such things as determining how much food a concentration camp inmate should get daily. What is the optimal amount of time to keep a concentration camp inmate alive so as to maximize the benefit of his labor vis a vis the cost of his upkeep? Should Jews get less food than other types of prisoners, since they are destined for execution anyway?

There are also endless discussions with "racial anthropologists," linguists, and other experts as to what circumstances make a person or group of people Jewish, which would almost be silly if these weren't life or death matters for the people under discussion. There's even the discussion among the starving soldiers at Stalingrad as they consider cannibalism on whether they should eat a dead Russian or a dead German. If they eat the meat of a Slav or a Bolshevik, won't they become corrupted? On the other hand, wouldn't it be dishonorable to eat a German?

Aue is clearly a psychopath. I don't know if all SS officers were psychopaths, or whether some were just temporarily insane. This book isn't The Diary of Ann Frank. You will know whether you can stand to read something like this or not. If you can stomach it, and you want to try to understand how and why the Germans did what they did, it is a book you should read. ( )
4 vote arubabookwoman | Jun 27, 2010 |
A 975-page novel probably isn't the best for the first 'microreview,' especially one as widely praised and condemned as Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.

The book won two of France's highest literary awards before being translated into English -- although it is written by an American. It is the fictional, but exceptionally well researched, memoir of Max Aue, a Nazi SS officer who survived the war and remains unapologetic about National Socialism, its aims and his involvement in what became known as the Holocaust. When you combine Aue's lack of guilt with his incest, scatological references, brutal homosexual encounters and possible murder of his mother and stepfather, this is not a pleasant read. Still, it is an unquestionably intriguing and unvarnished exploration of the psychology -- or abnormal psychology -- of Nazism's true believers.

The readability of the work is not helped by its typography. Littell uses a quotation style with which Americans are unfamiliar, he loves commas and he avoids paragraph breaks. Thus, many paragraphs in the book's seven chapters, all named for 17th Century dances, can run on for two or more pages. Substantively, The Kindly Ones can be criticized as at times far-fetched given Aue's somewhat miraculous escapes from death and his personal contact with a true rogue's gallery -- Himmler, Heydrich, Speer, Eichmann and even, in a somewhat ludicrous scene, Hitler. But Littell's focus isn't necessarily external events or history. He tries to look much deeper, to take us inside how seemingly ordinary men committed such horrendous acts. He forces us to examine the question of evil in man, whether banal or otherwise. These are inherently unpleasant inquiries.

Littell sometimes lets Aue expound on history, philosophy and the arts at perhaps too much length. That said, the unique, albeit disturbing, perspective The Kindly Ones gives on some of history's greatest atrocities makes it a book that can and should be considered an 'important' work of fiction.

(Originally posted at A Progressive on the Prairie)
2 vote PrairieProgressive | Jun 20, 2010 |
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