Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, newly translated from the Russian by husband and wife Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and publishing in June from New York Review Books, is a book of three parts and 959 pages. It has an introduction, an afterword, and a pleasant forest-green spine. These markers of being are remarkable given the fact that an original Russian edition of this translation of Stalingrad doesn’t exist.
In truth, the Chandlers’ translation of Stalingrad draws on three published Russian editions of Grossman’s novel, which are all different from one another, plus several typed drafts and handwritten notes. The new translation is the result of the Chandlers’ “detailed comparison” of the three versions, and of their determination to prove that the novel can stand up to its better-known sequel, Life and Fate, which has long been recognized as Grossman’s masterpiece.
The idea that Stalingrad must be Grossman’s lesser book is a legacy of Soviet censorship, Robert says. Grossman wrote the novel in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when all literature in the Soviet Union had to follow the tenets of socialist realism. Official doctrine demanded a “historically specific depiction of reality,” in which characters would undergo “ideological rework… in the spirit of socialism.”
Writing that was judged insufficiently socialist realist by censors would remain unpublished, and its author might be sent to a labor camp or killed. Given these possibilities, Robert explains, “no writer in the Soviet Union ever wrote without an awareness of how the authorities would react, and every editor was, in effect, a censor.”
For Grossman, a sense of danger seems not to have been intuitive. Born in Ukraine in 1905, he studied chemistry in Moscow and then worked in a Donbass mine as an engineer. But writing drew him, and he returned to Moscow and published two novels and a short story praised by Maxim Gorky, then the Communist party’s favored writer. During Stalin’s purges, Grossman’s second wife was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Daringly, Grossman wrote a letter arguing for her innocence, and she was released. And when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman—a 35-year-old Jewish intellectual who couldn’t shoot—volunteered for the Red Army. He was sent to the front as a journalist for the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper.
Elizabeth speaks of the “emotional balance and steadiness of imagination” characteristic to Grossman’s prose. It was perhaps this equanimity, and his knack for getting a good interview, that made Grossman’s articles the newspaper’s most popular pieces. In August 1942, he went to Stalingrad.
“Grossman’s evocation of the inner life of young men who know they are certain to die within the next 24 hours is remarkably convincing,” Robert notes in his introduction to the novel. For much of the five-month Battle of Stalingrad, in which two million people died, Grossman lived alongside the Soviet soldiers fighting to take back Stalingrad from Axis forces. He spent hours talking with snipers, nurses, and divisional commanders; he saw them crossing the Volga under fire to enter the bombed-out city. Sometimes he traveled with them.
Writing of this wartime crossing in his novel, Grossman describes a sublime steppe landscape that becomes riddled with the corporeal—with corpses: “Millions of stars gazed down at the city and the river, listening to the murmur of water against the shore…. Some dark object slid down the river, painfully slowly, and there was no way of knowing whether it was a boat without oars, the swollen corpse of a horse or part of a barge destroyed by a bomb.” Grossman’s characters also embody this strange wartime synthesis: some are terrified while others sit calmly in their fired-upon barges and boats, making plans to read the day’s paper.
Like Grossman, the Chandlers also became interviewers as they worked on Stalingrad. Specialists and scholars, including Yury Bit-Yunan, Brandon Schechter, and Pietro Tosco, were particularly helpful, and “there are dozens of other people—translators, writers, friends, military historians, historians of the coal mining industry—who have read drafts,” Robert says. These readers helped the Chandlers accurately render details of life in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Under the title For a Just Cause, Grossman’s novel was finally published in 1952 in a “heavily censored” version, Robert says. Two somewhat less censored editions followed in 1954 and 1956. The English translation of Stalingrad restores Grossman’s preferred title and “follows the third edition for the general plot and the ordering of the chapters.”
It also includes, as the Chandlers often emphasize, “several hundred of the vivid, comic, and surprising passages” that were published in only some of the Russian editions, and passages that were never published, such as those describing a Red Army commander reminiscing about making his wife a dress, a doctor complaining about overcrowding at a hospital, a roach “scuttling across a map” of military operations, mentions of a postwar future, and a woman with a tomato.
The censors struck out anything that wasn’t politically on-message, as well as any details that weren’t elevated enough, Robert says, to be mentioned in connection with the venerated Red Army. Men sewing, crowded hospitals, bugs, the future, and errant vegetables were, inconveniently, just real—not socialist realism.
In Grossman’s reality, people were struck out too. He was one of the first journalists to write about the Holocaust, in which his mother was killed. But after the war, he signed a document giving credence to Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. It’s possible that Grossman’s momentary lapse came because he feared that his next novel, Life and Fate, would be censored. He was right: Life and Fate, the sequel to Stalingrad, was clearly no longer bound by the strictures of socialist realism. The KGB confiscated the manuscript in 1961. Grossman died in 1964, and the book remained unknown until it was published in Switzerland in 1980.
It was through this Swiss, Russian-language edition, 40 years ago, that Robert Chandler first encountered Grossman. The art historian Igor Golomstock suggested that Robert take it on as a translation project. At the time, Robert was just starting out as a translator, and his immediate reply was that he “did not read books as long as Life and Fate in Russian, let alone translate them.”
The chapter that Robert eventually translated interested the British publisher Collins Harvill, who bought the book and published it in 1985. And the Chandlers’ collaboration began when Elizabeth retyped several chapters of Robert’s full translation of Life and Fate and then offered to type his translation of Andrey Platonov’s novel Happy Moscow. “We gradually got into discussing, and improving, more and more passages,” she says. They’ve continued this way of working through subsequent translations of Grossman, Platonov, and Pushkin.
Robert, who is the fluent Russian speaker, prepares drafts he reads aloud to Elizabeth. “Whenever either of us feels that something is unclear or that the tone is wrong, we discuss that sentence, batting different versions between us, until we feel we have got it right,” he says.
“If translations fail, this is very often not because they are inaccurate but because they fail to convey an author’s voice,” Elizabeth says. “With time, one gets a sense of what words a particular writer would or wouldn’t use. Grossman, for example, is often extremely funny, but he is seldom mocking.”
Life and Fate is the achievement of the broad, lucid view of Soviet life toward which Grossman had been working, and in which both humor and deep pathos have a place. But this view was already apparent in Stalingrad. In the novel, even Grossman’s worst-tempered characters are afforded moments of insight and clarity—and, Elizabeth says, “unlike nearly all his Soviet contemporaries, he treats even his German characters with respect.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference:
Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull — no — no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure…and when I think of my calling I do not fear life.
Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke.
Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two?
But what tack to follow when one encounters literature — celebrated literature — that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction?
“We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.”
So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe?
When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.”
This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation).
Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters — dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss — but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny.
This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch.
‘The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.’ — ‘I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.’ — ‘I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.’ — ‘There’s only one way out for us — we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.’ — ‘Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna…’
These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist — and Fulbright hopeful — theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major…
Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering — to the patient reader — insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it.
Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich’s five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject — Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War — results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories.
Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice — their own.
Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens — Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians — at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train.
And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________…
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.
Stephen Dodson wasn’t the only one inspired to write about Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate this month. Over at The New Republic, Adam Kirsch calls Grossman’s masterpiece one of the world’s “very greatest Holocaust novels.”
A mist hung over the earth. So begins one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate; the short drumroll of a sentence is somehow ominous, and we soon discover we are outside a German prison camp, looking through barbed wire at a set of identical wooden barracks. The next chapter takes us inside the camp, where we meet a collection of Russians of various political persuasions, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, even an American colonel (who finds it strange that an intelligent-looking Russian major can’t understand his English). This movement, from outside in, is typical of the novel, which takes us places we don’t want to go, but does so with a humane insistence we find impossible to resist. After six chapters in which we get to know these people – especially the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who is troubled that “much in his own soul had become alien to him” – we are suddenly dropped into a command post in the besieged city of Stalingrad, where we are confronted with an entirely different collection of people, some of them historical figures (generals and commissars) and others fictional. This too is typical; the novel does not let us rest for long in any situation, but whisks us up and down the Volga (much of it is set in cities like Kazan and Saratov), west to Moscow, and further west to the German camps, showing us a vast panorama of Russia (and Germany) at war.
If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control. We get to know Lyudmila, annoyed with her husband, her daughter, and her mother (who lives with her in Kazan), terrified for her son Tolya (who’s in the army), and concerned for her sister Evgeniya; Evgeniya’s ex-husband Krymov, who’s sent to Stalingrad as a commissar; and especially Lyudmila’s husband Viktor Shtrum, a physicist who almost as soon as we’re introduced to him we find thinking “about something he’d never thought about before, something fascism had forced him to think about – the fact that he was a Jew, and that his mother was a Jew.” Those facts are guns on the wall, and following Chekhov’s prescription they go off.
It is of course inevitable that the Nazis play a considerable role in a World War II novel, and the horrors of their beliefs and their actions are not stinted; what is astonishing is that they are presented as human beings with understandable motives, unlike in almost any other Russian war novel. And what is even more astonishing is that the doctrinaire communists are presented as no better than the doctrinaire Nazis – the Soviet system of camps and terror is explicitly compared to the German one. It is almost inconceivable that Grossman thought this book could be published in the Soviet Union in 1960, but he did; he was doubtless prepared for it to be rejected by the magazine he sent it to, but not for the secret police to show up and confiscate every scrap of it they could get their hands on – Grossman was told by a top member of the Politburo that it could not be published for two hundred years. However, a copy was eventually smuggled abroad (long after the author’s premature death in 1964) and published in 1980; at that point, in the depths of the Brezhnev stagnation, no one could have guessed that in less than a decade it would be published in the Soviet Union, shortly before that country ceased to exist. It had a powerful effect, but it was only one of a flood of forbidden works that were suddenly appearing; we can only imagine the effect it would have had if it could have appeared in its full, scarifying glory in 1960, with the war fresh in memory and Stalin even fresher. It might well be Grossman rather than Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn who was remembered as the writer who exploded the frozen Stalinist world of literature.
I said there were no language games, but I didn’t mean the writing is not superbly effective. Remember that opening sentence? The payoff comes hundreds of pages later, in part II, chapter 29 (chapter 28 in the NYRB translation). Obersturmbannführer Liss is visiting the site where an extermination camp is being constructed, and as his plane lands Grossman says A mist spread over the earth. Even if a reader doesn’t consciously remember the first line of the novel, this reprise should make a chill run up the spine. Unfortunately, the existing translation does not bring this out (I’ve retranslated all the quotes here); it’s well enough done that I encourage everyone to go out and get it, but it’s got enough omissions and mistranslations that it’s high time another one appeared. Many of the other recent Russian classics (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki) have multiple translations, and it’s the least Grossman deserves. His combination of bravura storytelling and clear moral vision has few peers.
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Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant star in an eight-hour dramatization of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Completed in 1960, and centered around the bloody battle of Stalingrad, the novel was deemed so dangerous by the KGB that the book itself was arrested. BBC’s excited, and all the episodes are available to download.
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones’ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones’ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?