Tuesday, December 20, 2011
THE KINDLY ONES by Jonathan Littell
Many critics were much too kind to The Kindly Ones. Not only is Jonathan Littell's trainwreck mash-up of Ernst Junger, Gert Ledig, Georges Bataille and Aeschylus not a great novel; it rarely even rises above mediocrity. Littell's prose is bland and boring, and the narrative this toneless instrument is forced to carry achieves the rare feat of being both unimaginative and unbelievable. The prose (which I assume is as flat in the original French as in English translation--probably a safe assumption these days) might be defended as a deliberately bland narrative voice, an appropriately banal reflection of the evil banality of an SS bureaucrat's mind, but there are two major roadblocks on the way to this artistic justification: first, Littell's narrator, Maximilien Aue, is not a typical Nazi bureaucrat but an aesthete among the fascist elite, so one would expect his voice to be more florid, baroque, even Proustian; second, the opening line of the novel ("Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.") suggests that what follows will be a novel 'spoken' in a recognizable, idiosyncratic voice, a la the voices of Humbert Humbert or Dostoyevsky's underground man. Instead, Littell quickly loses this tone, and the prose becomes a merely competent, workmanlike wordstream remarkable only in its Nilotic length. The fact that this is exactly the kind of unremarkable, transparent prose we find in popular fiction (and no, I'm not going to invoke Gide, Camus, Robbe-Grillet and 'degree zero' writing; Littell's effort isn't good enough to merit that defense) suggests the proper way to read The Kindly Ones. For this is not really a 'literary' novel at all; it's a work of genre fiction, a big, bloated, research-intensive historical novel of the kind James Michener and Leon Uris used to write. It's tricked out in literary drag--allusions, quotations, intertextuality, philosophical discussions--but barely hidden beneath these gaudy rags is a book that Slavoj Zizek might call the "obscene supplement" of Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. And about the novel's oft-mentioned 'obscenity,' its sexuality and scatology, perhaps the best that can be said is that fascism as anal sadism is a familiar and questionable idea, and it hardly merits a thousand-page dramatization. (Reading this novel, one gets the impression that Littell believes the classic psychoanalytic interpretation of fascism is an original idea he thought up one morning while masturbating in the shower.) All of that said, when The Kindly Ones is read as a historical novel, it's not all that bad. The historical reconstructions are well done and utilize the latest scholarship, and the meetings and discussions among SS officers probably come close to the reality of Nazi evil in its banal, bureaucratic form. If readers can overlook all the poorly digested research that the characters disgorge like Aue's many vomited meals, it's a decent piece of historical fiction. But there's really no reason for it to be 975 pages long. It's not War and Peace; it's not even War and Remembrance.