In 2006, a young American expat named Jonathan Littell published one of the most audacious literary debuts in recent memory: a 900-page novel about the Holocaust, narrated by an aging ex-SS Officer. It was called Les Bienveillantes, and except for a few German bureaucratic terms, it was written entirely in French. (Littell had produced a cyberpunk novel in English at age 21, but subsequently renounced it as juvenilia.) Given its choice of protagonist, Les Bienveillantes might have seemed to be what marketers call “a tough sell,” but it went on to win the Prix Goncourt – France’s most prestigious literary award – and to move some 700,000 copies. It was subsequently translated into 17 languages, including English, where it became The Kindly Ones.
Meanwhile, a young Frenchman named Laurent Binet was tearing his hair out. Binet had been toiling away on a work-in-progress that turned out to have striking similarities with Littell’s succès de scandale. Where The Kindly Ones featured cameos from Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich and concluded with a physical assault on the person of the Führer, Binet’s novel-in-progress focused on many of the same characters, and culminated in Heydrich’s assassination. These resemblances were superficial, of course. Littell’s nervy postmodern update on the historical novel had affinities with William T. Vollmann’s blend of research, pastiche, and hallucination. Binet’s owed more to W.G. Sebald…and maybe Jacques Roubaud, insofar as he had already taken the step of writing himself into the book. Still, he seemed to have landed in a writer’s nightmare, akin to that of the studio exec who realizes in postproduction that a version his movie Armageddon has just appeared under the title Deep Impact. What’s a good postmodern to do? Well, write that into the novel, too.
Among chapters devoted to the plot against Heydrich and chapters devoted to his own research and aesthetic anxieties, Binet began to interpolate passages covering, in real-time, his reading of The Kindly Ones and his fears about what it meant for his book. These fears would prove unjustified; in 2010 his novel was published under the title HHhH (an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). But his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.
This month, an English translation of HHhH arrives in U.S. bookstores, trailing blurbs by the likes of Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wells Tower. This edition, too, is missing the Littell material. But Binet and his translator Sam Taylor have graciously allowed The Millions to publish the lost pages of HHhH for the first time anywhere. Their tone of comical anxiety and competitive ardor – of wishing at once for a colleague to succeed and to fail – will be familiar to many writers. Unsurprisingly, Binet ends up judging Littell harshly, as did many American critics, including this one (although I should confess that I still think about The Kindly Ones often). More important than their literary judgments, though, or their portrait of the artist as a young man, are the still controversial questions about representation and the Holocaust these pages candidly take up. Even relegated, as it were, to the margins of the published work, these questions transform the historical thriller at the heart of HHhH into a powerful meditation on the ethics of storytelling. — Garth Risk Hallberg
The Kindly Ones
Next to me on the sofa is Jonathan Littell’s weighty tome The Kindly Ones, which has just been published by Gallimard. The (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran, it is nine hundred pages long. Having created a massive buzz in the press, and sold out in most bookstores, this novel is crushing all its competitors on the bestseller list. Not only that, but its success is apparently causing problems for the entire publishing industry, as it is so long that it is lasting readers from September to Christmas, so they aren’t buying any other books.
There is a savage review of the book in Libération, with the headline “Night and Mud.” But even this review hails the author’s depth of research simply because Jon Littell uses SS ranks. Apparently, if one writes “I caught a Scharführer by the sleeve: ‘What’s happening?’ — ‘I don’t know, Obersturmführer. I think there’s a problem with the Standartenführer ,’” that is enough to produce a “heady feeling of realism.” I’m not sure if the journalist who wrote this is being ironic or not, but I’m afraid he isn’t. I remember having made a joke on this subject in one (invented) line during one of my chapters on the Night of the Long Knives. But anyway…
One of the book’s severest critics is Claude Lanzmann (although he also recognizes its good qualities), but according to his detractors, that’s because he believes himself to be the only person in the world (along with Raoul Hilberg) with the right to talk about the Holocaust. I met Lanzmann once: he is, in the flesh, a courteous man with an impressive presence. If you judge him solely on his public statements, though, you might easily regard him as narrow-minded. In this case, however, I think he shows great judgment when he criticizes Littell for his character’s “invasive psychology.” Not a good sign. But he, too, acclaims the author’s research: “Not one error; flawless erudition.” Well, all right, if you say so.
Apart from these examples, everything else is ecstatic. In Le Nouvel Observateur: “A new War and Peace”; in Le Monde: “one of the most impressive books ever written about Nazism.” And so on.
But the highest praise comes on the back cover of the book, where Gallimard has not skimped on the name-dropping: Eschyle, Visconti, even Grossman’s Life and Fate. Talk about bringing out the big guns.
Obviously, the book is up for every literary prize in the galaxy.
So I begin to read it, feeling simultaneously suspicious and excited. After three pages, my feelings have turned to puzzlement. It is quite badly written, and yet at the same time it is so very literary. This is not at all how I imagined an eighty-year-old SS veteran speaking or thinking. And, of course, I am allergic to interior monologues, at least when we are supposedly talking about history.
I am saying all this now, before continuing with my reading, because I am sure that, when it comes down to it, I am going to devour this book.
Let’s begin with the first line of Jonathan Littell’s novel: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.”
I don’t like this line. But the point here is not, for once, my personal tastes. Let’s look more closely at that opening: “Oh my human brothers.” With these first four words, we already know the book’s thesis. By beginning in this way, Littell deliberately places his novel in the lineage of Hannah Arendt. He is proposing the idea that evil is not the prerogative of monsters, but that it emanates from people like you and me. I subscribe to this thesis, of course, but I fail to see how its validity can be demonstrated in a novel. Even a nine-hundred-page novel.
From the moment when you create an imaginary character — a character who belongs to you, whom you can make say anything you want (“Oh my human brothers,” for instance), a puppet whom you are able to manipulate in any way you wish — it is easy and all too artificial to use this character to illustrate whatever theory you have in mind. A character may illustrate, certainly, but it cannot demonstrate anything. If you wish to suggest that the SS were sickened by the horrors they committed, you make your protagonist vomit at inconvenient moments. If you wish to suggest that the SS loved animals, you give him a dog. And then, to make it more real, you give the dog a name. Fritz?
But what interests me about the SS — if I wish to understand something about that troubled era, if I wish to extract something from all of that which can help me understand man and the world — is what they did, not what Jonathan Littell thinks they might have done.
The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible. That’s fine if I know about the episode in question. But if I don’t, I am left in limbo: perhaps this is true, or perhaps it’s not.
I wonder how Jonathan Littell knows that Blobel, the alcoholic head of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C in Ukraine, had an Opel. And I wonder whether Lanzmann, before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain “a single error, a single flaw,” checked this detail. If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research. But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not the same as known. I’m talking rot, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.
Perhaps Blobel had an Opel, or perhaps he had a BMW. And if Littell has invented the make of Blobel’s car, perhaps he has invented all the rest. The dialogue, for example. I find it surprising that an SS officer could exclaim: “Il a pété les plombs!” [“He’s blown a gasket!”] Littell’s entire book can teach me only one thing: how this writer imagines Nazism. And I am not really interested in that, particularly when the depiction is so dubious. I want to know how things really happened, so I expect him to tell me — at the very least — when an episode is true and when it is his invention. Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I think that is wrong.
So, irrespective of the Opel question, Jonathan Littell’s novel — as compelling as it may be (I am still at the beginning) — lost all credibility as a reflection on history from the moment its author chose to use a fictional protagonist. Which is a shame because, after all, it does seem quite well-researched.
I will, of course, apologize if it turns out that Blobel really did drive an Opel. But fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Littell’s Portrait of Heydrich, p. 58
You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success. And even if I can comfort myself by saying that our projects are not the same, I am forced to admit that the subject matter is fairly similar. I’m reading his book at the moment, and each page gives me the urge to write something. I have to suppress this urge. All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I like that image.
More on The Kindly Ones
Just a few more words. Let’s agree on this: an interior monologue, if designed to reveal to us the psychology of an imaginary character, is at best an amusing farce. If it is supposed to allow the reader access to someone’s thoughts, it becomes downright risible. An interior monologue can only ever reveal the psychology of two people: the author and the reader. And that is already quite a lot, let me tell you!
Having said that, I must admit something: I did not know that most of the cars used by the SS were Opels. Did they sign a contract with the firm? That is what I would like to ask Jonathan Littell. Or Lanzmann.
But, to return to the interior monologue, there is a real problem with The Kindly Ones: the tone of the imaginary SS veteran’s supposed confession is unbelievably neutral, almost like a history book. It is the kind of tone I myself try to adopt when I describe horrors, in order to avoid the twin traps of pathos and grandiloquence (not that I always succeed). But what is the point of writing in the first person if you are going to erase practically all trace of subjectivity? From time to time, it’s true, the narrator reminds us of his existence with little, discreetly ironic remarks. These don’t seem very plausible to me, but still. Interior monologues are everywhere! But it is not even the psychological implausibility that bothers me; it is just the pointlessness of the procedure. Putting an idea, no matter how interesting, in the head of an invented character… I cannot bring myself to do it; I find it completely puerile, even if it is a dramatic convention.
One Last Word?
All right, this is my last word on this, I promise. I have just read my chapters about The Kindly Ones to my half brother. He pointed out that many historical novels use fictional inventions, sometimes with interesting results. Of course, I cannot deny that. For Alexandre Dumas to use historical material for its novelistic possibilities, and for him to mix it with his own invented stories, does not shock me at all. Everything depends on the author’s intention. If it is to tell a beautiful and exciting story, without any other pretention, then that is perfectly fine; I would happily surrender to the pleasure of the novel. But I heard Jonathan Littell speaking on the radio, and apparently this was not his intention: he really did want, as I’d suspected, to understand evil. As Alexandre (my brother, not Dumas) put it, tackling a speculative question with a supposedly historical angle by way of an invented character (and, I repeat, even with solid research as backup) is “entropic.” I don’t really understand that word, but I know I agree with him. In fact, I think that what he means by “entropic” is something between “centripetal” and “tautological.” So, upon closer examination, the term is inappropriate, which is a shame because it struck me as quite eloquent. But never mind, the idea remains the same. What I am saying is that inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, as my brother says, It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.
I am not saying that all invented characters are worthless. I would happily swap Napoleon, Kutuzov, Julius Caesar, or Heydrich for Josef K. Or even the real Mark Antony for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony. As soon as fictional characters are loosened from their historical roots, they are able to become universal — even if (and perhaps because) they differ from their historical models: Richard III, Rameau’s nephew, Zaitsev in Life and Fate, Edison in Tomorrow’s Eve, and so on. But in all these cases, we are not interested in what kind of car they drive.
A Littell Mistake, p. 209
Despite all this, I did end up getting into The Kindly Ones. In other words, I finally managed to abandon myself to the innocent pleasures of reading, except for my brain’s never-ending production of critical and metacritical thoughts.
But, while lazing in the bath, book in hand, feeling vaguely guilty about the idea of spending my weekend in this way when I have a thousand things to do, what should I read, on page 209? In the course of his story, Littell writes that Heydrich “was wounded in Prague on May 29”! I cannot believe my eyes. Okay, okay, it’s only a date. But for me, it’s a bit like being told that the Bastille was stormed on July 12, or that the United States declared its independence on July 6.
I had been so close to trusting Littell that, when I saw this, I even came up with an excuse for him: it is possible, after all, that news of the assassination attempt was not divulged until two days afterward, and that even members of the SD, such as the narrator, were not informed immediately. But that doesn’t make sense, because the story is supposedly being told by an SS veteran, years later, when the facts and dates are well known.
Of course, this doesn’t discredit all of Littell’s work. In the context of his book, it is a small and inconsequential error, probably nothing more than a simple typo. But I think again of Lanzmann: “Not a single error,” he said! And I had believed him. This makes me think about the way we accept — daily, constantly, unthinkingly — the arguments of authority. I truly have a great deal of respect for Lanzmann, but the moral of this story is that everyone — even the world’s most authoritative specialist — can make a mistake.
This makes me think of a specialist on the life and works of Saint-John Perse (the most famous specialist in France and, I imagine, in the world) who declared on the radio, with the learned assurance typical of French universities, that the poet was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner in 1938 when he was working at the Quai d’Orsay. This seems somewhat surprising, given that he was one of the two diplomats who had accompanied Daladier at the agreement’s signing! Open any history book that mentions Munich, and you can check just how deeply Alexis Léger, the Foreign Office’s general secretary, was implicated in this infamous agreement. But evidently this great specialist did not consider it useful to consult even one book, preferring to rely on a biographical note written by . . . the subject himself! According to Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger,
In spite of his personal opposition to the so-called policy of ‘appeasement’ and to Hitler’s well-known hostility towards him, the general secretary [talking about himself in the third person!] reluctantly agreed to attend the Conference as the Quai d’Orsay’s representative, as the Foreign Secretary had not been summoned to this meeting of government heads.
Apparently, our specialist did not wonder what Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger meant by “reluctantly.” Was he dragged to Munich against his will, surrounded by policemen? Was his family threatened? Was it really impossible to contemplate resigning in protest of a policy that went so strongly against his personal beliefs? Was there really no choice, once the agreement had been signed, than to adopt that contemptuous, arrogant attitude toward the Czechs? Did he at least have the decency to resign after the agreement was signed in order to register his disapproval? Clearly, French literature specialists do not feel any great obligation to study history in much depth. But this does not prevent them sounding categorical. The end result is that this myth is taken up and spread by all the country’s literary authorities. And the students swallow it. In any case, literary types rarely differentiate between fable and reality, so when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about Alexis Léger’s diplomatic career. But this does not prevent them from repeating, with the perfect assurance of those in the know, that Saint-John Perse, this great Nobel Prize winner, was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner. If he was anti-Munich, you have to wonder what a pro-Munich campaigner would look like. A German.
So anyway, Saint-John Perse, Littell . . . you must always be suspicious, of everybody! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s not my fault, but well-intentioned friends send me everything they can find about Jonathan Littell, and I am yet again forced to return to the subject. Things are not going well at all. I have just read the account of a speech he gave at a Normale Supérieure school, where he said: “Evil is committed by people like us, people who sleep, who shit, who fuck, and who have the same relationship as we do to the body and to the fear of death, with thought coming afterwards. All killers are like us.”
Fair enough. In fact, I agree completely. Here again is Hannah Arendt’s thesis, and here, again, I cannot deny its truth. But it is a very strange speech to justify his book, precisely because Littell seems to have done his utmost to invent the most singular character possible. Let us recall, for those few unfortunates who have not been able to read The Kindly Ones, that the SS veteran Aue is an intellectual who sleeps with his sister, kills his parents, actively participates in genocide, sucks off Robert Brasillach, survives a bullet in the head, is never separated from his Flaubert, and enjoys rolling in his shit from time to time. For a guy who is just like you and me, that is quite a list!
Do you often carry your Flaubert around with you?
The vise is tightening around my book. The warning shot was in fact a nuclear attack. The atomic bomb was Littell, his Prix Goncourt, his million copies sold, and all the newsprint he’s generated in reviews and exegeses. (Only this week, a reading guide called The Kindly Ones Decoded has come out.) What publisher of any kind of renown would want to publish a book on roughly the same theme in the decade to come? What publisher would be prepared to look like a follower, while taking the risk of publishing someone who is more or less unknown? There is more to lose than to gain: unsold copies if the book is a failure, being accused of opportunism or even cynicism if it’s a success. And that’s without even considering that the horde of critics who’d decreed that The Kindly Ones was the novel of the century will not want to go back on their decision (although, knowing them, this problem is surmountable).
My editorial problems don’t end there. For years, I have been writing to the tranquil rhythm of my own erratic inspiration, but no one warned me that I was in a race against the clock. The longer I wait to finish my book, the greater the risk that I will arrive after the battle has ended. Someone told me on the phone the day before yesterday that a biography of Heydrich has just come out, written by a German whose name I have never heard, Mario Dederichs. It is translated into French and is already on the bookshelves at Gibert. I felt both excited and slightly ill. I was thrilled at the chance to learn new anecdotes and facts about Heydrich, but at the same time, I have to admit, it gets on my nerves a bit. And today, in a bookshop in Normandy, I discover a novel by Georges-Marc Benamou, entitled The Ghost of Munich, featuring frequent appearances by Alexis Léger / Saint-John Perse. If this continues, everything I have to say will already have been said! I am avidly reading Benamou’s book: in literary terms, it has no merit, but it is pleasant to read all the same, and I am learning new things. At least, I think I am. No matter what, I know I have to stop reading. I need to hurry up and finish telling my story because I am convinced, probably irrationally, that I am the only person capable of writing it. This could seem pretentious, obviously. But I do not want my story to be wasted — it’s as simple as that.
A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he is often critically detached from National Socialist doctrine — and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts… but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”
Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.