The Kindly Ones

by Jonathan Littell, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
Harper, 984 pp., $29.99
Jonathan Littell
Jonathan Littell; drawing by Pancho


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”1The 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.