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Transgression

I am not pleading Befehlnotstand, the just-obeying-orders so highly valued by our good German lawyers. 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….

My duty and…it had to be done,” of course, begs the question of the morality of the underlying Nazi ideology, his fierce attachment to whose “absolutes” is meant to be explained by the book’s mythic/sexual elements, the landscape of psychosexual aberration: a psychologizing cliché that many critics have dismissed. But I think that there is something to Littell’s interest in showing us a picture of ideology in action, of what things look like once ordinary and even thoughtful people begin to help carry out ideologies that may well look appalling to others—Manifest Destiny, Iraq, the West Bank.

It’s for this reason that Littell keeps reminding us that Aue himself is disgusted by the overt sadists he encounters, rightly objecting that “the ordinary men that make up the State—especially in unstable times—now there’s the real danger. The real danger for mankind is me, is you.” Anyone who has studied the Holocaust will recognize the bitter wisdom in this statement; its history is peopled with soldiers and civilians, Germans and Poles and Ukrainians and Dutch and Frenchmen, who went to church on Sunday, worried about their health, took care of their sick wives, fretted about their raises and promotions, slapped their children for lying or cheating, and spent the occasional afternoon shooting Jewish grandmothers and children in the head. While some will denounce Littell’s cool-eyed authorial sympathy for Aue as “obscene”—and by “sympathy” I mean simply his attempt to comprehend the character—his project seems infinitely more valuable than the reflexive gesture of writing off all those millions of killers as “monsters” or “inhuman,” which allows us too easily to draw a solid line between “them” and “us.” The first line of the novel takes the form of Aue’s unsettling salutation to his “human brothers”: the purpose of the book, one in which it largely succeeds, is to keep alive, however improbably, that troubling sense of kinship.

How Littell accomplishes this remarkable feat is worth considering, and brings us to the question of his novel’s style and technique—one that has been often raised by his detractors. It is true that at the level of words and sentences, Littell’s style is unremarkable, even pedestrian—his translator, Charlotte Mandell, has produced an admirably fluid English version that is more pleasing to read than the French. This novel invariably goes off the tracks when the author strives for writerly effects. Sentences such as “My thoughts fled in all directions, like a school of fish in front of a diver” or “I emerged from the war an empty shell, left with nothing but bitterness and a great shame, like sand crunching in your teeth” are the more wince-inducing for the success with which Littell so often conveys the drearily everyday chitchat, the gossip about promotions and orders, of his military milieu.

Indeed, the large success of the book, the way in which Littell draws us into Aue’s mental world, has much to do with a striking technique he employs throughout, which is to integrate, with more and more insistence as the novel progresses, scenes of high horror (or scenes in which characters coolly discuss horrific acts or plans) with quotidian, even tedious stretches, conversations about petty military intrigues and official squabbling and so forth that go on and on, thereby weaving together the dreadful and the mundane in an unsettlingly persuasive way—the tedious somehow normalizing the dreadful, and the dreadful seeming to infect the tedious. (There is a remarkable and entirely characteristic passage, fairly early on, in which the topic of conversation among a group of officers yo-yos between extermination policy and the quality of the roast duck with apples and mashed potatoes that they’re eating. “‘Yes, excellent,’ Oberländer approved. ‘Is this a specialty of the region?’”)

At first these juxtapositions horrify, and you may resent what feels like a striving for shocking effects; but then you get used to them—the sheer length and banality of the “everyday” stretches (of which there are far too many: some readers will give up) numbs you after a while. But this is, of course, the point: Littell has written a Holocaust novel that renders evil just as banal as we have been told it is—which is to say, not “banal” in the sense of boring or ordinary, but banalisé : rendered quotidian, everyday, normal.

Many dozens of pages of such juxtapositions, the murderous politics and the roasted potatoes, prepare Max (and the reader) for the imperceptible slide down a moral slope that, in Littell’s hands, becomes eloquently literal. In one of the scenes that critics have denounced as “pornography of violence,” Max finds himself literally slipping among the dead in the steep gullies at Babi Yar:

The side of the ravine, where I stood, was too steep for me to climb down, I had to walk back around and come in from the rear. Around the bodies, the sandy earth was soaked with blackish blood; the stream too was black with blood. The horrible smell of excrement was stronger than that of blood, a lot of people defecated as they died; fortunately there was a brisk wind that blew away some of the stench…. To reach some of the wounded, you had to walk over bodies, it was terribly slippery, the limp white flesh rolled under my boots, bones snapped treacherously and made me stumble, I sank up to my ankles in mud and blood. It was horrible and it filled me with a rending feeling of disgust, like that night in Spain, in the outhouse with the cockroaches.

Here again, the moral shock comes almost less from the details of the killing field than from that climactic, disorienting juxtaposition of extremity and normality—the unbearable scene of mass murder, a merely unpleasant memory from a vacation in Spain.

By the middle of the novel, the thoughtful anguish that accompanied his earlier exploits—an anguish always quashed, in the end, by Max’s fanatical allegiance to Nazi ideology and war aims, even after the brilliantly evoked catastrophe at Stalingrad, one of the novel’s great set pieces—has disappeared:

In the Ukraine or in the Caucasus, questions of this kind still concerned me, difficulties distressed me and I discussed them seriously, with the feeling that they were a vital issue…. The feeling that dominated me now was a vast indifference—not dull, but light and precise. Only my work engaged me.

The work in question, it’s worth noting, is his service in the “economic” area, to which he has been assigned after he’s noticed by Himmler: “economic,” as the war starts turning against the Germans, means trying to squeeze greater efficiency from slave laborers, a task which, because he now has to look at prisoners as workers who need to be fed and clothed and housed, eventually puts Max in the bizarre position of having to value the lives of the Jews he had been obediently killing before. Here again, Littell’s meticulous attention to persuasive details, the petty jockeying for position, the exasperated complaints about efficiency and waste—the way in which, finally, the use of the words “my work” in the phrase “only my work engaged me” bespeaks moral enormities—makes Max’s collapse unnervingly accessible to us.

3.

The success of the novel’s first large element, the historical/documentary narrative, in allowing us to grasp the mentality of someone in whom civilized values yield to base acts—in whom the Erinyes triumph over the Eumenides, so to speak—depends on maintaining that accessibility, on our continued sense that Max is a “human brother.” This success is disastrously diminished by the novel’s second major structural element, one to which Littell is obviously attached: the overlaying of the Oresteia parallel, with its high intellectual allure and literary allusiveness (just the kind of thing that Max himself would appreciate). And yet as the novel progresses and the parallels, at first rather submerged (the occasional reference to the disappearance of the warrior father, Max’s intense resentment of his mother’s remarriage to a lesser man), become unmistakable (the weird emotional twinning with the sister, the matricide and pursuit by the agents of law and justice), what gets lost is precisely any sense of Max as a human brother.

For as appalling as the descriptions of actual atrocities are in this book, they pale in comparison to the willfully repellent fantasies that are the atrocities’ counterparts on the novel’s Oresteian plane. What kind of kinship can the ordinary reader be expected to feel with a character who—apart from those basic “Greek” ingredients of incest, matricide, and homosexuality—becomes increasingly violent, dissociated, and deranged as his tale reaches its spectacularly lurid ending, a narrative climax marked by fantasies such as this one:

I tried to imagine my sister with her legs covered in liquid, sticky diarrhea, with its abominably sweet smell. The emaciated evacuees of Auschwitz, huddled under their blankets, also had their legs covered in shit, their legs like sticks; the ones who stopped to defecate were executed, they were forced to shit as they walked, like horses. Una covered in shit would have been even more beautiful, solar and pure under the mire that would not have touched her, that would have been incapable of soiling her. Between her stained legs I would have nestled like a newborn starving for milk and love, lost.

Such passages are, to be sure, part of a carefully plotted progression: Germany’s disintegration is mirrored in Aue’s indulgence in increasingly grotesque sexual activities and fantasies (not least, of coprophagy), as well as by other, external elements of the narrative. (Toward the end of the novel, when the Soviets have entered German territory and are making for Berlin, Aue and his “Pylades,” also trying to get back to Berlin, take up with a band of nightmarish Aryan orphans who wage brutal guerrilla warfare on Soviet troops, and in the book’s final few pages Aue commits his final murders at the zoo: he has, in other words, made a final regression first to the infantile and finally to the bestial.) But as much as we may admire these structural touches, the problem, in the end, is that they make it harder and harder—and, finally, impossible—to see him as anything but, well, “inhuman,” a “monster,” precisely the kind of cliché of depravity that so many of this novel’s strongest passages successfully resist.

Littell’s insistence on developing the fantastical, the grotesque, and the motif of extreme sexual excess that grow out of his Orestes theme is clearly the result of a choice; and he himself has carefully planted clues about the meaning, and the justification, of that choice, one that has little to do with the Holocaust per se, or with novelizing history, and everything to do with something very French and very literary.

Exactly halfway through The Kindly Ones, Aue finds himself in Paris—this is in 1943, the trip at the end of which he will go to the South and murder his mother—and, while strolling among the stalls of the bouquinistes, picks up a volume of essays by Maurice Blanchot (an author whom Littell has studied seriously and who, by a nice coincidence, has been recently translated by Ms. Mandell, the translator of The Kindly Ones 3 ). Inevitably, Aue is very much taken with an essay that he vaguely describes as being about a play by Sartre on the Orestes theme: the volume in question, then, must be Blanchot’s 1943 collection Faux Pas, which, in a section called “From Anguish to Language,” contains the essay “The Myth of Orestes,” and the Sartre drama in question is Les Mouches, which was first produced in 1943. Aue says little about the essay, apart from paraphrasing its point that Sartre “used the figure of the unfortunate matricide to develop his ideas on man’s freedom in crime; Blanchot judged it harshly, and I could only approve.”

Sartre’s play has famous connections to the Occupation and the moral dilemmas of France: in it, Orestes returns home to Argos to find a corrupted city and, indeed, a corrupted cosmos; he learns from Zeus himself that the gods themselves are unjust, a discovery that renders absurd his, or anyone’s, wishful yearnings for a life uncomplicated by moral anguish, indeed for a life in which one could simply be a person like any other person, a “human brother.” As in the Oresteia, Orestes must kill his mother, although here the act has distinctly twentieth-century meanings that Aeschylus could not have dreamed of, as Blanchot’s interpretation of the matricide indicates:

The meaning of the double murder is that he can only be truly free by the ordeal of an act whose unbearable consequences he accepts and bears…. The hero claims all the responsibility for what he has done; the act belongs to him absolutely; he is this act, which is also his existence and his freedom. Yet this freedom is not yet complete. One is not free if one is the only one free, for the fact of freedom is linked to the revelation of existence in the world. Orestes must then not only destroy the law of remorse for himself, but he must abolish it for others and through the unique manifestation of his freedom establish an order from which inner reprisals and the legions of terrifying justice have disappeared.4

Here, then, we see the large intellectual aim that the Orestes theme, as mediated by the Blanchot text to which Littell’s novel so pointedly refers, is meant to serve. Very early in The Kindly Ones, Aue makes a point of rejecting the solace offered by traditional moral terms: “I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that.” And indeed Littell, both in interviews and in the text of his novel, has dwelt on the differences between Judeo-Christian morality (with its emphasis on intent and mental attitude, on sin and the possibility of redemption) and the sterner, less sentimental, “forthright” morality he finds in Greek tragedy. (“The Greek attitude is much more forthright. I say it in the book: when Oedipus kills Laius he doesn’t know he’s his father, but the gods couldn’t care less: you killed your father. He fucks Jocasta, he doesn’t know she’s his mother, that doesn’t change a thing: you’re guilty, basta.”5 )

But Littell doesn’t at all want to suggest that Aue is “beyond morality”: quite the contrary, he wants to paint a picture of a character who, just as his actions have placed him beyond the bounds of the moral law, has also put himself beyond the comforts that the traditional concepts of morality and justice afford—like Sartre’s Oreste, in Blanchot’s interpretation:

It would be infantile to think that by his fearful murder he has rid himself of everything, that, free of remorse and continuing to want what he did even after having done it, he is finished with his act and outside of its consequences. On the contrary, it is now that he will sound the surprising abyss of horror and naked fear that dogmatic beliefs no longer veil, the abyss of naked, free existence, free of complacent superstitions…. He is free; reconciliation with forgetfulness and repose is no longer permitted him; from now on he can only be associated with despair, with solitude, or with boredom.

It is no accident that the elderly Aue whom we meet at the beginning of the novel, as he starts composing his vast reminiscence, is a man who lives exactly such a life: quiet but empty, desperate, alone, and above all very, very bored.

The passages I have cited above make it clear that rather than disapproving of Sartre’s play, as Aue suggests in his brief reference to this essay, Blanchot admired it; and indeed his essay begins by extravagantly praising Sartre’s play as being of “exceptional value and meaning.” So where is the “harsh judgment” that, Aue claims, Blanchot has made?

The answer to that question provides the key to understanding why Littell’s book veers off in the direction of “pornography” that has disturbed so many critics and readers. For, having set out his case for Les Mouches as a study of a man who has “decided to strike a blow at the sacred,” Blanchot observes that for the play to work, the blow at the sacred, the “sacrilegious quality,” must be excessive, overwhelming; and worries that the

impression of the sacrilegious is sometimes lacking from the play that it should sustain…. Did [Sartre] not push the abjection that he portrays far enough? Orestes’ greatness falls short of impiety against real piety.

And so, rather than using the graphic details of violence and sex simply (and naively) to shock his reader in a superficial way, the violence, the “pornography of violence” even, are consciously evoked, given their baroquely nightmarish details, in order to heighten the “impression of the sacrilegious”—not to somehow defend Aue because he is outside of morality, but to show us, horribly, what a life outside of morality looks, feels, sounds, and smells like. The “pornographic” material is not a shallow symbol of Max’s evil (a puritanical reading, if anything): it is, rather, Littell completing Sartre’s unfinished task, “pushing the abjection far enough,” struggling to show “impiety against real piety”—the “piety,” in this case, being our own conventional pruderies and expectations of what a novel about Nazis might look like.

In this sense, The Kindly Ones places itself squarely within the tradition of a “literature of transgression,” especially the French lineage that descends from the Marquis de Sade and the Comte de Lautréamont to Octave Mirbeau and Georges Bataille. Particularly in the elaborate sexual fantasies, the teenage sex between siblings, the coprophilia and incest themes, it is hard not to feel the influence, above all, of Bataille, to whose signature work, Histoire de l’Oeil, in which a violently detached eye becomes a sexual fetish used with great inventiveness, Littell seems to allude more than once in scenes of eyes popping out of crushed or exploded heads. I think that Littell might say that precisely because we are by now inured to representations of Nazi evil in literature and especially in film, he needs to break new taboos in order to make us think about evil, about a life lived in evil and a mind unsentimentally willing, even eager, to accept the ramifications of that choice.

So the “kitsch” is in fact integral to the novel’s moralizing projects. And yet, as I have said, its effectiveness works against the success of the other large element, the historical/documentary: either Aue is a human brother with whom we can sympathize (by which I mean, accept that he is not simply “inhuman”), or he is a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage; but you can’t have your Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and eat it, too. This is not to say that the aim of either element is mistaken or illegitimate, as some critics have argued: I don’t think they are. (My one great complaint, given Aue’s “Greek” morality, eagerness to acknowledge his responsibility for actions, is that the matricide and murder are committed during a kind of blackout on Aue’s part: he isn’t conscious of what he’s doing, which seems a serious evasion.) But precisely because each element works so well on its own, the novel as a whole falls between two horses.

Still, however badly it may stumble, The Kindly Ones brings to mind Maurice Blanchot’s judgment—one which Maximilien Aue enthusiastically and, you can’t help feeling, rather tellingly approves—of another enormous, hybrid novel, Moby-Dick : “This impossible book…[the] written equivalent of the universe…presents the ironic quality of an enigma and reveals itself only by the questions it raises.” As another Kindly Ones—that of Aeschylus—continues to remind us, there exist strange fictional creatures, improbable hybrids whose two sides seem to have little to do with each other, that, however unlikely we are to find them in nature, can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.

  1. 3

    Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas, translated by Charlotte Mandell (Stanford University Press, 2001).

  2. 4

    Blanchot, “The Myth of Orestes,” in Faux Pas, p. 62.

  3. 5

    Jonathan Littell, homme de l’année.”

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