Translation Tuesdays: The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

A series dedicated to literature in translation whether classic or contemporary.


Originally published as Les Beinveillantes.
Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
HarperCollins (2009)

NB: These remarks will be classified in The Critic’s Notebook.  Unlike a more tightly constructed and formal book review, these notes will possess a larval nature: impressionistic, half-formed, spontaneous.  It stands as a record of my first impressions as well as operate as raw material I will mine when I prepare a more in-depth critical analysis.  This later analysis will also cover William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central (2005), Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1959), and William Gass’s The Tunnel (1995).

First Impressions:

1. An overall assessment has me borrowing Nathan Rabin’s My Year of Flops terminology.  In this specific case: Fiasco.

2. Other categories for the Kindly Ones:
a. Difficult
b. Controversial
c. Problematic

3. Difficult:

a. European-style paragraphing (no paragraph breaks for dialogue).

b. Epic size.  Does scale mean an inherent value or profundity?  Cf. volumes from The Song of Ice and Fire, Atlas Shrugged, The Bible, and so on.

c. Untranslated German military ranks.

d. Numerous characters to keep track of.

4. Controversial:

a. Prize-winning.  It won the Prix Goncourt in 2006, putting it in heady company, including Michel Houellebecq, Marguerite Duras, and Marcel Proust.

b. The sexuality of Dr. Maximilien von Aue.  Reviewers have categorized Aue’s sexuality as “deviant.”  (The construction of Aue’s sexuality will be further explored in the last category, since it is highly problematic.)

c. Aue’s sexuality has a certain grindhouse quality to it, giving the novel a sensationalist and exploitative gloss.  One thinks of Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, the Night Porter, and the Damned.

5. Problematic:

a. The narrative is at war with itself.

b. What is it?  At once a realistic historical novel and a mashup of the Orestia.

c. The novel starts strong, but ends weak.

d. Two major narrative demerits:

i.   Aue’s head wound suffered in Stalingrad.

ii.   Murder of parents (but with no memory of committing the act).

e. These major plot devices get built upon until it becomes implausibility heaped on implausibility.  (Aue’s advancements in rank and the police investigation.  The investigation begins as a real threat to Aue’s life and prestige, and then it devolves into a ridiculous farce.)

6. While the novel is loaded with excessive violence and explicit sex, these things aren’t inherently bad (Cf. Gravity’s Rainbow and Funeral Rites).

7. Do narrative fiascos have their own value to readers and critics?  What can critics extract from works that fail?

a. What do we mean by fail?  Not move units off the bookshelf?  (The Nathan Rabin-esque flop.)  Baffled/horrified/negative critical reception?  (Fiasco and/or Secret Success.)

8. Father & Son:

a. Jonathan Littell is the son of American espionage writer Robert Littell.  The Littell the Elder author of The Company, a multigenerational epic about the CIA.

b. With The Company and his other works, R. Littell tells the history of the US intelligence community via the “Jewishness” of the characters (Cf. Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, etc.).

c. Jonathan Littell’s grandparents were Russian Jews who fled Russia and settled in the United States.

d. Both Jonathan and Robert reside in France.

e. Jonathan Littell reframes his Jewish heritage with a narrator who is an SS jurist (i.e. an elite within Nazi German society).

i.   Littell further complicates this with Aue’s sexuality (see below) and Aue’s Alsatian heritage.  Alsace-Lorraine was German territory from 1871 to 1918 and re-annexed by Germany after the fall of France in 1940, then returning to France in 1945.  Alsace is a border province, lacking the historical credentials of a province within the German Altreich.  The sexuality and Alsatian heritage make Aue a luminal character, existing on the boundaries of society.

9. Aue’s Sexuality:

a. Max had incestuous relations with his sister, Una, when they were children.

b. Max and Una are twins.

c. Lacking the presence of Una, Max can only become sexually aroused via anal sex.

d. Does this make Max a gay character?  To this reader, a resounding no.  But this requires further explanation, since this shouldn’t be confused with “Homosexuality is a choice” parroted by the deranged, hypocritical, and ignorant of the Modern Theocratic Right.

e. Can “gayness” even operate as an accurate label for a scenario this contrived?

f. The contrivance is created for the purposes of the narrative fitting into the Orestia, since the play cycle has its fair share of demented sex and violence.

g. This contrived sexuality is odd given the very real history of Germany’s many thriving gay subcultures (the Prussian military, Weimar Berlin, and the SA).

  1. The novel draws upon the darker thread of French literary history, especially DAF Sade and Ferdinand Celine with its violence, depravity, gratuitous sex, and severe, albeit alien, morality.
  2. Unlike the novel Shadows Walking, which is written from a more realistic Balzackian tradition, depicting a “slice of life” of German Nazi-era society.

One thought on “Translation Tuesdays: The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell

  1. Thank you so much, Karl. I appreciate your reference to my novel, Shadows Walking, but even more, your incisive critique of Littell’s ambitious work, which, at least for me, doesn’t really work. He and I both want to tell how an “ordinary,” even well-meaning German allows himself to become a predatory Nazi. In the case of my protagonist, Dr. Johann Brenner, who joins the Party and commits crimes against humanity, my novel is based firmly on my archival research. Littell’s work is much more controversial in its rendition of “facts”–and, again in my judgment, doesn’t really convince me that his protagonist, Maximilian Aue, was a believable person of the era.

    With best wishes, Doug Skopp


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