Like Orestes, the hero of the Greek tragedy to which its title alludes—and which, according to its author, has from the start provided his novel with its “underlying structure”1—The Kindly Ones has been both extravagantly blessed and hideously cursed. Published in France in 2006 as Les Bienveillantes, it was immediately crowned with the most prestigious critical garlands: not only rapturous reviews but also both the Prix Goncourt and the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française. It was, too, gilded by an astonishing commercial success, selling over 700,000 copies in France and commanding enormous advances from foreign publishers (nearly $600,000 for German rights alone, and a reputed seven figures for the US rights). This combination of kudos and euros, together with a subject matter that is, to put it mildly, sensational—the book, which runs to nearly a thousand pages, takes the form of a memoir of an SS officer who, apart from the wartime activities that he recalls in meticulous detail, is also a homosexual matricide who has an incestuous relationship with his twin sister—has had a large part in giving the novel the luster of triumph and excess that accompanies its arrival on foreign shores.
As for the curses, these have been abundant, too—starting in France itself. Claude Lanzmann, whose epic documentary Shoah Littell has referred to as an inspiration for his book, was not alone there in denouncing what he called the novel’s “decor of death,” the way in which, as some critics saw it, the book, and perhaps its author, seem to revel in offering graphic details of atrocities.
It comes as no surprise that a book that is preoccupied with giving a persuasive account of what it would be like to be an ostensibly civilized person who ends up doing unimaginably uncivilized things should, for the most part, have been enthusiastically embraced and, to a far lesser extent, vigorously resisted in a country that has such a tortured historic relationship to questions of collaboration and resistance. For the same reason, perhaps, you’re not surprised to learn that the most violent criticism of the “monstrous” book’s “kitsch” and “pornography of violence” has come from Germany and Israel: the countries, that is to say, of the perpetrators and the victims. The critic of Die Zeit bitterly asked why she should
read a book written by an educated idiot who writes badly, is haunted by sexual perversities and abandoned himself to racist ideology and an archaic belief in fate? I am afraid that I have yet to find the answer.2
The answer to that impatient question surely has something to do with the novel’s large ambitions, which precisely address the question of why we would be interested in how an educated person could abandon himself to racist ideology, and what the ramifications of that abandonment might look like. Some of these ambitions are brilliantly realized; others much less so. But all of them make Littell’s book a serious one, deserving of serious treatment.
The key to these ambitions lies in the complex resonances of the novel’s title. Bienveillantes is the French rendering of the classical Greek word Eumenides : the “well-meaning” or “kindly” ones, the ritual appellation rather hopefully used to designate the awful supernatural beings far better known to us as the Erinyes, or Furies. In Aeschylus’ Oresteia—a work that Littell’s novel repeatedly invokes, from the protagonist’s casual reference to his closest friend as his “Pylades” to large plot elements, not the least of which is his murder of his mother and her second husband—the hero Orestes is pursued by these awful, slavering, dog-faced creatures, whose province is the punishment of kin murder, after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra, in a divinely ordained retribution for her murder of Orestes’ father, Agamemnon. (Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon because he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia in order to win favorable winds for his fleet’s journey to Troy.)
The heart of the trilogy is in fact a competition between the claims of vengeance and the claims of justice: not for nothing does its climax, in the third play, take the form of a trial scene. For Eumenides ends with Orestes being acquitted by a newly instituted formal court of law, a result that enrages the Furies, who are finally appeased with a promise that they will henceforth no longer be reviled bogies but rather incorporated into the life of the Athenian state and given a new home beneath the Acropolis. In accordance with their new, rather domesticated status, their name gets prettified, too: instead of the dreadful Furies they will henceforth be known as Eumenides, “the kindly ones.” And yet it is hard not to feel that this ostensibly happy ending has disturbing overtones: How tame, really, do we think these superficially redubbed Furies will be?
To name a literary work after the third play in Aeschylus’ trilogy, then, is to invoke, with extreme self-consciousness, two related themes: one having to do with civilization in general, and the other with human nature. The former concerns justice, its nature and uses: how it is instituted, and then executed, how much it conflicts with, regulates, and possibly appeases the more primitive thirst for vengeance, which it is meant to supersede. The latter concerns the unsettling way in which, beneath even the most pleasant, “kindly” exteriors, dark and potentially violent forces lurk. Neither, needless to say, is restricted to Greek tragedy, or classical civilization; if anything, both are intimately connected to the main preoccupation of Littell’s novel, the German program of extermination during World War II.
The Kindly Ones comprises two large structural elements intended to explore these questions. The first is the historical/documentary plot—that is to say, the meticulous chronological recreation of Maximilien Aue’s wartime career from 1941 to 1945, which allows us to track Germany’s career, too: from the mass graves in eastern Poland and the Ukraine, following Operation Barbarossa, to Babi Yar and Kiev, to the Caucasus, and thence (after he irritates a senior officer who punishes him by sending him to the front) to the disaster at Stalingrad, then back to Berlin where he becomes a favorite of Himmler and Eichmann; then a stint in Paris which allows him to catch up with friends from his student days, collaborators who, like many of the characters, are real historical figures (Robert Brasillach, Lucien Rebatet); then a posting to Auschwitz in 1943, and finally, the fall of Berlin itself, which finds the Zelig-like Aue in Hitler’s bunker. This itinerary allows Max to be both eyewitness to and participant in the atrocities—and, because this narrator is an educated, reasonable-seeming man, allows the reader some access to the mentality of a perpetrator.
The second element is the mythic/sexual: that is, the entirety of the Oresteia story, superimposed on the primary narrative and consisting both of flashbacks to Max’s earlier life and events transpiring in the wartime present, which establishes him as a latter-day Orestes. He is obsessed with his soldier father’s disappearance at the end of the Great War, and with what he sees as the unforgivable betrayal of his father by his “odious bitch” mother (“It’s as if they had murdered him…. What a disgrace! For their shameful desires!”). He has an unnatural closeness to his Electra-like twin sister, Una (which turns out to be incestuous—a nod to Chateaubriand, one of the many French novelists who preside over Littell’s text; the sibling incest theme is, too, a notorious element in the work of the 12th century German bard Hartmann von Aue, whose name Littell has borrowed for his hero). He kills his mother and her second husband (in a scene closely modeled on Greek myth, including the mother’s desperate baring of her breast to her axe-wielding son). He is pursued relentlessly by agents of punishment—in this case, a pair of rather noirish detectives given the suggestive names of Weser and Clemens (“Be-er” and “Merciful”). All this is overlaid with increasingly elaborately narrated sexual fantasies and activities, culminating in an onanistic orgy at his sister’s abandoned house as the Russians enter Pomerania.
The surprise—and also a key to understanding the outrage Littell’s book has provoked, and the reasons for its successes and its failures—is the way in which these structures are meant to tackle the large themes suggested by his Aeschylean title. For it is, in fact, the historical structure that is meant to shed light on the problem of human nature; while it is the mythic-fantasy element—and above all, if I am reading Littell’s complex allusion to a much more recent revision of the Orestes myth correctly, those explicit and even pornographic sexual scenes—which are meant to explore the nature of crime, atrocity, and justice.
The conflict between civilization and the ugly energies that civilized institutions seek, and often fail, to contain is a tension that stands at the center of any discussion of the moral implications of the Holocaust—a tension that can be seen reflected at the level of individual psychology, too. For the question of how it could have been possible for a country with Germany’s superior cultural achievements to have also created Auschwitz inevitably raises, as well, the related question of how individual Germans (or Poles, or Ukrainians, or Latvians, or Lithuanians, or Frenchmen, and so forth)—who, for the most part, saw themselves as reasonable, normal people, and indeed led normal-looking lives throughout the war, apart from their participation in the crimes—could have perpetrated horrors to which, perhaps naively, perhaps self-servingly, we like to refer as “inhuman.”
But in a passage that typifies a provocative aversion to sentiment that is likely to alienate some readers, Littell’s protagonist disdains any use of the word “inhuman” when talking about Nazi atrocities. Here, Aue recalls the case of a soldier who, he learns, had originally joined the police force because “it was the only way to be sure I could put food on the table,” and had ended up as part of a unit given the horrific task of liquidating hopelessly wounded soldiers—German soldiers—at the collapsing Russian front:
There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity: and that Döll is a good example. What else was he, Döll, but a good family man who wanted to feed his children, and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree?
The singular achievement of Littell’s novel is the way in which he brings us uncomfortably close to the thinking of people whose careers took them from police work to euthanasia, and worse. The twist is that while Aue tries to get into the mind of an ordinary, working-class man like Döll, Littell very persuasively illumines the thoughts of Aue himself. And why not? He is a well-educated and indeed sensitive person, musical, literate, cultured, who far from being monstrously indifferent to the crimes he sees perpetrated and which he is called on to commit himself, spends a good deal of time reflecting on the questions of guilt and responsibility that a self-aware person could be expected to entertain. Littell makes a point of having Aue—at least at the beginning, before he collapses into a rather over-the-top Götterdämmerung—refuse to acquit himself of responsibility, the defense that became the notorious byword of the war crimes trials:
See the interview "Jonathan Littell, homme de l'année," in Le Figaro Magazine, December 29, 2006.↩