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Named one of the "100 Best Books of the Decade" by The Times of London

"Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened."

A former Nazi officer, Dr. Maximilien Aue has reinvented himself, many years after the war, as a middle-class family man and factory owner in France. An intellectual steeped in philosophy, literature, and classical music, he is also a cold-blooded assassin and the consummate bureaucrat. Through the eyes of this cultivated yet monstrous man we experience in disturbingly precise detail the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Eichmann, Himmler, Göring, Speer, Heydrich, Höss—even Hitler himself—play a role in Max's story. An intense and hallucinatory historical epic, The Kindly Ones is also a morally challenging read. It holds a mirror up to humanity—and the reader cannot look away.

Topics: France, Germany, Epic, 1940s, Dark, Haunting, World War II, The Holocaust, Nazis, Concentration Camps, War, Genocide, German History, Unreliable Narrator, and 21st Century

Published: HarperCollins on
ISBN: 9780061972966
List price: $11.99
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OFFICE POLITICS IN HELLThe persistent question about the Holocaust is how Germany, such a cultured, civilized nation, could decide--in the 20th century, no less--that the life of the nation depended upon wiping out all of Jewry. Littell confronts this dichotomy through the person of his narrator, Max Aue.Aue is knowledgeable about and interested in art, literature, philosophy and, most of all, classical music. But he is also a mid-level SS functionary and a cog in the machinery of death. He observes and writes reports about the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings, and selections and crematoria in the death camps. He regularly meets with Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer and other big names in the history of the Nazis' genocide.Aue suffers severe gastrointestinal illness from his field work, but he never connects it to the horror of what he observes. He believes in National Socialism and the Final Solution. When he becomes friendly with a linguist who tells him that Nazi racial science is utter hogwash, Aue responds that he has been given something to think about and wishes to return to the discussion, but he is saved from the necessity when his friend is killed. Instead, he continues to plod along in his career path and blandly reports it all to us in this lengthy novel.So what's it all about? I came to the conclusion that, in essence, this is a history of the management of the worst corporation ever. A corporation whose mission is the most spectacularly wrong-headed and horrific thing imaginable---but whose failure to achieve its goal is attributable to those most prosaic banes of so many companies: office politics and the Peter Principle. All the various functionaries spend most of their time squabbling with each other for position or to try to achieve whatever they think the Führer's will is. Since they are all petty men of limited imagination and intelligence, of course it's all a complete schweinerei, as Aue likes to call it.Does that mean this is another novel whose point is the banality of evil? Not exactly. Aue is not just some Aryan in an SS uniform. He is one screwed-up bizarro. He has a sexual fixation on his twin sister, with whom he had childhood incestuous relationship, broken up by his mother and stepfather. He often digresses from his tales of another lousy day at work into lengthy, hair-raising descriptions of violence, repulsive bodily functions and sexual perversions, real and imagined.Littell is not the first author to try to connect Nazism with sexually-related mental illness. It makes a sort of sense. It's somehow easier to understand the Holocaust if we tell ourselves that those Nazis weren't like normal people; they were a bunch of sickos. But I think this detracts from the story.Littell could lose all of the psychosexual and endless scatological stuff and have a much more powerful narrative. Aue's screwed-up psyche gets in the way of Littell's point that there is not, in fact, some bright-line difference between normal, ordinary people and those who can participate in unspeakable horrors. Littell does an excellent job of showing how Germans involved in the genocide become increasingly desensitized and brutalized. It's unfortunate that this, the most powerful part of the book, becomes obscured by Aue's psychosis and his escalating perversity, including a ridiculously over-the-top murder subplot.Still, despite its huge flaws, this is a tremendously ambitious book, well worth reading.more
A monstrous account of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi bureaucrat who participated in it.more
"A new War and Peace ... Never, in the recent history of French literature, has an early work been so ambitious, so masterfully written, so meticulous in its detail or so serenely horrifying."
-Le Nouvel Observateur, taken from the back cover

E€EWhat is this shit?E€E
-A former French resistance fighter on this book, as quoted by Laurent Binet in The Millions

This is a book that could have been. There were brief flashes of fascination, tantalizing ideas, lost in an interminable sea of dreck.

The opening Toccata gives us a few teasing sentences: "y human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." says the SS-Officer, and ends with "I am a man like other man, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you." Now is this a pleasing lie to himself or a plea to persuade? This brings to mind Arendt's study Eichmann in Jerusalem, on how ordinary people can be convinced or seduced to commit great evils and justify them.

But the book turns sour. The chapters with their musical titles of Allemandes, Courante, Sarabande, so on, are played largo in E minor.

It is to be understood, in a book like this, that there is due to be excessive violence. This is, after all, about an SS-Officer in the Eastern Front. It is gruesome, but endurable. And furthermore, I must give credit to the author for doing his research. He apparently got the hierarchy of titles and organizations right, as far as I can tell. And his long information dumps are intensely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of languages and ethnicities of the Caucus, and the absurdity of trying to classify them into Jewish or not-Jewish so they can be exterminated shows the foolish ideal of the Nazi goal of racial conquest.

For those, I give the author credit. And he has had his experience with war and suffering - mainly, volunteer work in the DR-Congo.

But after that, there is little investigation of moral dilemmas at all. Just chronology. Atrocity, extermination, rear-guard action, pincer movement, all become a dull sludge. Only a few cursory fragments, as tempting as they are, give us reason to think. But otherwise it is a catalog of atrocities.

Speaking of sludge, what is it feces and this book? Perhaps it may have been written as a shock factor, but instead of any contemplation or angst at all, we see a more physical psychosomatic reaction. Do something evil? Just poop it out! Your nation and ethos crumbling around you? Put a sausage up your butt in the Siege of Berlin, 1945 and cry thinking about fucking your twin sister!

I'm not saying that feces as a metaphor is inherently bad. Nor does the gratuitous and forced incest make an inherently bad novel, although they can understandably disgust so many readers and either dissuade or titillate so many others. Instead, they are more like a substitute for something more important, as though a long and difficult conversation is being avoided or hidden with more gratuitous shock value.

The author seldom mentions the simmering occupation of France. Only a few mentions, if perhaps at all. If the author spoke of atrocities there, say Oradour-sur-Glane, would the book arouse such prurient interest, visceral recognition of true evil? But that, too, is another omission.

Tant pis. 1 star, not because the whole work is to be discarded (at least, all but the beginning), but because of how much it frustrated and disappointed.hhapmore
This was actually a really good book! It's a daunting read, it's a huge book, but it's worth it! I read the book prior to watching the movie adaptation and although the movie was good, the book was better. The author goes into such detail it opens up the world in the reader's mind. You really feel like your there. And although the vampire child can be repulsive and cold, you can't help but feel bad for her and join on her side.It definitely give a different perspective on the typical vampire story. It's not like Twilight, but it's also not like Dracula. It's somewhere in between. The choice of having the main characters be so young and in some regards very innocent, was a good choice. I absolutely loved this book and couldn't put it down, even though it was huge. I definitely recommend reading the book before seeing the movie.more
The Kindly Ones is an incredibly ambitious book, taking in the whole scope of WWII from the Nazi invasion of Russia onwards, all through the eyes of Max Aue, as SS bureaucrat. And for the most part Littell pulls it off. He has constructed a story which actually keeps you invested as you swing between detailed historical events. But there are criticisms, as is inevitable with a story of this length and scope.The book seems a little unsure of what it wants to be. On one hand it is a thoroughly reseached piece of historical fiction (Littell spent 5 years traversing Germany, France and Eastern Europe to visit the locations in the book). On another it is a study of morality from an ancient Greek perspective. This leads to many references to Greek mythology (the title refers to a Greek myth) such as incest and matricide which often test the readers suspension of disbelief.There are also criticisms which could be made over some of the gratuitous descriptions, not of violence which is to be expected, but of mastubatory orgies and diarrhea episodes.For me, the biggest criticism, however, is that the opening chapter sets out the gambit that you are just like the narrator and that anyone could have found themselves in his shoes.But Aue is anything but ordinary. He has an incestous love for his twin sister to whom he has devoted himself leaving him, to all intents and purposes, gay. He hates his mother and has abandonment issues over his father. This makes it difficult to identify with him in an 'it could have been me' sort of way.But despite these criticisms I would recommend this book. It takes you right into the heart of some of the most hellish times and places in history, such as Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and the prose is so descriptive as to have been compared to the realism of Tolstoy. You will, despite yourself, develop a connection with Max Aue as he kills and then tries to save Jews. Never out of his own convictions or sense of good or evil, but to accomplish his orders to the best of his ability.And that is perhaps the biggest triumph of this monumental piece of prose. I only wish I had the abilty to read it in it's original French.more
My interest in the Holocaust led me to read Jonathon Littell’s novel and overall, I think it works well, as it did what it’s supposed to do (I believe) and get the reader to think about the Holocaust perpetrators on individual, human terms. What’s more, for all its shortcomings, the book consistently allures by putting one inside the mind of Max Aue, who sees the evolving horrors around him through unmovable, guiltless, and understated perception. There’s not much of a plot but a great book doesn’t need much turning to be successful (I’m thinking of Kerouac’s On The Road) and it is long (I estimate 385,000 words), but the simple prose and Mandell’s refined translation let one read fast.Littell obviously reveled in his own research but students of the holocaust will note nothing new with the horrid details. For instance, one memorable passage where Max leads a little Jewish boy to his execution (who wandered from the crowd) is a nicely done elaboration of an anecdote in Kuznetsov’s novel-account "Babi Yar". What does make The Kindly Ones as a keeper for your library, though, is the unworldly landscape (the jacket blurb uses “hallucinatory” –an accurate term that caught on with reviewers), to which Littell transports us through his relentless but subtle observation. As others have noted, moments of brilliance occasionally arise (early in the novel, where Max interviews an old man to determine if he’s Jewish and then has him executed, is as a finely crafted “short story” as you will read).Yes, it's very good but following 945 pages of subtle, engrossing, and intellectual narrative, we have developments (I count seven) that are so implausible and forced, it makes one question if it’s just been one large joke played upon the reader. Warning, plot spoilers follow: A group of rabid children kill Max’s driver while the SS officer Aue and his colleague helplessly watch. Max sadistically murders a male lover in a bathroom. During a medal ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, Max nearly bites the Fuhrer’s nose off. While arrested and being transported, Max is rescued by an errant Russian shell that kills nearly everyone but him. While again fleeing amongst the Berlin ruins, Max runs into a subway tunnel where he suddenly meets up with two detectives that have been pursing him throughout half the book. Here he is again magically rescued by a sudden Russian attack. Max stumbles upon and visits the office of an industrialist-acquaintance whose three amazonian women-servants casually lie murdered in the room. Max runs away to a zoo, but there one of the detectives catches up with him only to be murdered by Max's friend, Thomas, who also suddenly turns up. However, Max then kills that only friend he's had, perhaps just to wear his civilian clothes of escape. In addition to these final absurdities, the book does present a contradiction, of sorts, or perhaps faulty logic by the last line of the first chapter. Here Max states directly that he really shouldn’t be blamed because in the end, he’s very much like you (the reader). At least that's Max's opinion, (probably and hopefully not Littell's opinion). Of course, Max really isn't much like me, you, or even the average German of the 1940s. Yet, in the end, this really doesn’t matter, as it’s not a fundamental to enjoying and (learning from) the involving, haunting, and memorable narrative. In fact, the first chapter (really a prologue) is the weakest, as it’s little more than a Ripley’s believe-it-or-not kind of compendium of Holocaust death statistics.So, a good work, almost masterpiece of a first novel, (Littell’s youthful, punk science-fiction opus notwithstanding). I much anticipate his next book, whatever it may prove.more
I read this novel over last summer - a bit of an odd choice for holiday reading. While I couldn't say that I 'enjoyed' it in the conventional sense of the word, I certainly found it interesting both in what Littell was attempting - the sheer scope and size of his research is mindboggling - and in the way he chooses to do it. He draws out the mythical thread of The Kindly Ones, in what is otherwise a work of brutal realism, in order to present the protagonist's mental decline. This is a major feature of the novel; Littel often uses his painstaking research to demonstrate the strangeness of Aue's world, for example when a colleague speaks for pages and pages about linguistics systems in the midst of chapters on atrocities. I did struggle with it as the narrative becomes more and more commandeered by Aue's descent into utter madness. The extremely unerotic sexual scenes and the fantasy episode make this a hard book to stick with until the end, which is inevitably disappointing. As the whole text is set out as a flashback, we're left wondering how he could possibly conceal this madness in his new life. The book becomes less about the reality of the Holocaust and more spiralling uncontrollably around the obsession of Aue with The Kindly Ones (no spoilers, but if you know what they are you can probably guess). He develops a sort of fatalistic idea of his approaching judgement, which is in his mind not for the thousands of innocents he has helped to kill but for a far more personal crime. We simultaneously condemn him for his blindness and wonder if, as a projection, it is another unpleasant effect of his circumstances - leading us again to question how far he's responsible for his own actions.I've given it 3 stars because, while it is thought-provoking, I honestly don't know who I could recommend this book to, if at all. I don't think it's something I'd read twice. It leaves you feeling that it's fallen short somehow, that justice is not done - but the same is true of history.more
At nearly 1,000 pages and with paragraphs that run to several pages, this was a very difficult book to read. The author, though of American heritage, lives in France and originally wrote the book in French where it won numerous awards and was highly praised. I really wanted to read this book but found it such heavy going that I ditche...d it after getting through about half - and I really never do that, if I start a book and get further than about 20 pages, then I'm committed and will finish it. The subject matter is distasteful (the story of an SS officer who was present at all the 'big' WWII moments - the initial Jewish cleansings, the siege of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Birkenau and he even meets Hitler) but I also just didn't 'get' what the author was aiming for. I think the point of the book was to demonstrate how 'anyone can do anything' given particular circumstances. Littell is not an apologist for the Nazis but he does make the point that war is drudgery, boredom, terror, orders and the gradual desensitising of human feeling - but I get that, I didn't need to read this novel to understand that and I'm not sure who would. I found it interesting that UK reviews praise the book highly while US ones have tended in the opposite direction. I think the translation is part of the problem but it's also a book that once you start to think about it, the coincidences are too much, the failings and depravities of the narrator are too obvious while at the same time the narrator's obvious cultural and intellectual background are also used too often to drive home the message - anyone can do anything. The author has a lot of promise but apparently he wrote the book freehand in a matter of weeks (albeit after years of research) and it showsmore
Written in the form of the memoir of an SS officer, I would characterise this not only as a narrative of the gritty horror of war, but also an attempt to explain (and I think it "explain" rather than "justify") how ordinary people can get caught up in perpetrating something as horrific as the holocaust.It does not dwell on "only obeying orders", but rather on someone who, as a committed Nazi, believes that unpleasant actions, even things which he may disagree with personally and believe to be wasteful and misguided, may be necessary during a time of total war. It is compounded by the aura of the Fuhrer and his claim to represent the Volk. It is made worse by the inhumanity of war. At a time when life is so cheap, particularly on the Eastern Front, soldiers routinely commit such acts of brutality and inhumanity that performing a few more (or a few million more) hardly seems to matter.The narrative deals with more than the killing of Jews. Quite early on many categories of Germans were killed (mentally ill, elderly, etc) to get rid of useless mouths to feed. Behind the lines in eastern Europe people were killed because they might become, or support, partisans and saboteurs. The narrator recognises that not all, in fact not even a majority, pose a threat, but in the fog of war who has the time to really investigate? Easier to kill them all. At times he questions the issue, but not on what might be considered moral grounds. Wouldn't some of the overrun populations be more use to their conquerors if they were assimiliated rather than exterminated? What a waste that so many healthy concentration camp inmates were killed or died due to poor conditions and ill-treatment when Germany was desperate for slave labourers in its armaments factories. No such sympathy for the useless women, children and elderly, though.It's a long book (over 900 pages of small print) and at times it is hard going, not only because of the horror of the subject but also because the writing is a bit turgid in places. There are also long philosophical discussions, some of which are interesting but others not so, and rambling dream sequences when he is wounded, sick or unstable. I'm not really sure what their relevance is, nor that of his relationship with parents and sister, unless it is to emphasise how mad people become in that sort of war situation.It ends as Berlin falls to the Soviet army, with an unexpected twist right on the last page. All in all excellent, albeit not light, reading.more
I never thought I would want to read a 1,000 page (more or less) first-person novel about a Nazi who basically sees the Holocaust in terms of the bureaucratic nightmares it causes. But I cannot put it down.more
One of the most daring books I ever read. Of course it had terrible details, but they are not just there to shock. Littell shows his readers what WWII was like; raw, harsh and inhumane. It is very disturbing to find out that at some points I could feel with the main character. But that is exactly Littells point. It makes you think what you would do in situations like that. Would you be a good person, or would you save your own face, at any cost. Very interesting and thought-provoking.Yes, there are words to describe what happened in those days and Littell found them. Excellent! And I thought the ending was amazing.more
[The Kindly Ones] by [[Jonathan Littell]] (2006,2009)This nearly 1000 page tome is everything you've probably heard about it: gruesome, disgusting, repulsive, difficult to take. It is also gripping, intelligent, informative, insightful, and well-written. It is the story of World War II through the eyes of Max Aue, SS officer. Aue is with the Nazis when they invade Poland; he's at Babi Yar and the Battle of Stalingrad; he's with Eichmann at the concentration camps; he's in Hungary near the end of the war when the Germans proposed "blood for trucks;" and he's in Hitler's bunker in April 1945. When we meet him, in present time, he is a well-respected French lace manufacturer with a past no one questions. He is also unrepenetant.Aue is a cultured and intelligent man, but never a sympathetic character. His personal life mirrors the depravity of the war--he is sexually obsessed with his twin sister and acts out this obsession in homosexual affairs. His mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. And, as you may have read elsewhere, there's a lot of diarrhea, blood, vomit and guts.When Aue is not on the frontlines, he is a bureacrat--a clear manifestation of the banality of evil. His job involves such things as determining how much food a concentration camp inmate should get daily. What is the optimal amount of time to keep a concentration camp inmate alive so as to maximize the benefit of his labor vis a vis the cost of his upkeep? Should Jews get less food than other types of prisoners, since they are destined for execution anyway?There are also endless discussions with "racial anthropologists," linguists, and other experts as to what circumstances make a person or group of people Jewish, which would almost be silly if these weren't life or death matters for the people under discussion. There's even the discussion among the starving soldiers at Stalingrad as they consider cannibalism on whether they should eat a dead Russian or a dead German. If they eat the meat of a Slav or a Bolshevik, won't they become corrupted? On the other hand, wouldn't it be dishonorable to eat a German?Aue is clearly a psychopath. I don't know if all SS officers were psychopaths, or whether some were just temporarily insane. This book isn't The Diary of Ann Frank. You will know whether you can stand to read something like this or not. If you can stomach it, and you want to try to understand how and why the Germans did what they did, it is a book you should read.more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Middle-aged French intellectual Jonathan Littell caused a sensation in 2006 with his infamous The Kindly Ones (finally published in the US for the first time in 2008), a thousand-page historical novel which attempts to take the most complicated look ever at what turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Germans into amoral monsters during the Nazi period of the 1920s through '40s (which, by the way, turns out to mostly be the same things that turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Americans into amoral monsters during the Bush years), chief among these reasons the culture of endless brutal public violence that was perpetuated in those days, said endless violence of which Littell faithfully reproduces in his own book, which is what mainly caused its infamy in the first place. But as I quickly realized when starting to make my way through it myself a few weeks ago, Littell could've actually accomplished this in a tight 300-page manuscript if he wanted; so what this doorstop mostly turns out to be instead is an insanely exhaustive examination of the jumbled bureaucracy that held Nazi Germany together, containing thousands upon thousands of offhanded references to the hundreds of sub-divisions within the party's executive structure and military setup, none of which are explained within the text itself but rather in a dense glossary at the end of the book. Seriously, Littell, you're freaking killing me here.Also, Littell made the unfortunate decision to make our everyman narrator the perpetrator of a whole series of ultra-prurient sexual fetishes as well, references to which the narrator is constantly dropping into his recollection here of the war years, as casually as if he were discussing the weather (take for example his nostalgic reminisces about the solo nighttime forest wanderings he used to be able to take as a child, before mentioning that the main reason he treasures them is because he was able to indulge in his habit of auto-erotic asphyxiation without any interruptions); and this not only dilutes the book's main message (that most evil acts in history are not committed by inherently evil people, but rather normal people put into evil circumstances), but is also something I personally found profoundly offputting and completely pointless as well. The good parts of this book really are good, don't get me wrong, just that they're miniscule and surrounded by dozens of pages of needlessly disgusting or yawn-inducing fluff; and that's why I gave up on The Kindly Ones less than 200 pages into it, and recommend that you not even start it at all.Out of 10: 5.4more
The Kindly Ones, the title of the novel, refers to the Greek goddesses of justice and vengeance. The story in some ways parallels the Greek story of Orestes, but this is not a Greek tragedy, it is a human one, born of the 20th century. In Greek tragedy one looks for the fatal flaw of the character which will lead to his inevitable downfall. But Dr. Maximilian Aue, like most of us, has more than one flaw. Dr. Aue is human caught in human times. His faults are common human faults, fear, ambition, desire for love. In a calmer world or a calmer time Dr. Aue could have led a normal life, but he lived in Nazi Germany, a time when moral strength could easily have led to death; his weaknesses, human weaknesses, kept him alive and made him a participant in the events of the time.Littell's novel is a long sometimes harrowing read. It is not the type of book one should read if one carries the novels one is reading into their dreams, as this book can only cause nightmares. In the opening chapter, which takes place close to the present time, Dr. Aue states that part of the problem of our understanding of those horrific times, is that we monsterize the perpetrators and see only the victims as human. But Aue argues that the perpetrators were equally human, that what happened was entirely done by humans to humans. There are so many novels that have come out of World War II and the Holocaust that it seems hard to justify another. But this novel is important, not because it relives well-known events, but because it vividly portrays how a regular person can be drawn into such evil. The world we live in sees too much in black and white, in the privileged world in which we live we don't have to make decisions like he did. We too easily say what was done was wrong, and indeed it was, but we don't truly know how we would react if we were in the same circumstances, and that, more than anything else is what Littell is trying to get us to understand. This seems to be the type of book that you either love or hate. I have read good reviews of it, and I read the reviews of people who hate it. It was a bestseller in France where first came out, but Barnes & Noble didn't even carry it, and if you look for on their website isn't there. I found it completely by accident while browsing a small independent bookstore in Millerton New York. If you decide to read it you can find it online through Amazon but I would encourage ordering it through a local independent.Jonathan Littell is an American who was raised and educated mostly in France as it says on the dust jacket. He has worked for humanitarian agencies which him for brought him to places of conflict and he has seen the effects of war and genocide. He understands that we cannot deal with what we are unwilling to accept. We too easily say I would never do that, we too easily condemn without understanding, and while condemnation is necessary so to is understanding. With that in mind Dr. Aue tells his story completely, from beginning to end, with no holds barred. Littell is trying to force us to face the fact that the decisions made by Dr. Aue might too have been made by us. It is the cumulative effect of many small decisions that lead Dr. Aue down his path. In the end we must still condemn him, but we also begin to understand him.Dr. Aue is an educated man, he has a degree in law, is well read in the classics of literature, and in philosophy. He is an intellectual National Socialist; he believed in the cause of his party, in the unification of the German people, and the need for expansion. He is also a homosexual. One night when he is arrested in an area known for homosexuals to congregate he is offered a way out by a friend. This friend offered him a position working for him in the SS. It is a position where he is an observer and analyst. He collects data, offers observations, and draws conclusions. It is an easy choice for him to make, but it is only a first step down a path that Germany is leading its people. A number of the reviews that I've read of this work compare it closely with War and Peace, however, the proper Russian novel to compare it to would be Crime and Punishment. This famous work by Dostoyevsky focuses mostly upon the single character of Raskolnikov; and Littell's novel focuses entirely on Dr. Aue. The Kindly Ones is a psychological novel in the same sense as Crime and Punishment. However, while Raskolnikov's issues are eventually resolved Dr. Aue’s spiritual crisis is of a different nature, and his fear of being caught stays with him for the remainder of his life, until finally enough time has passed he feels free enough to tell his tale as not as a justification or rationalization, but rather as an accusation, challenging the reader—would you have acted any differently?Shortly after the war with Russia begins Dr. Aue finds himself in the middle of the Aktion, that is the beginning of the extermination of the Jews. In observing the men who were ordered to carry out the killings he noticed several different types of soldiers: those who refused, those who enjoyed it, those who managed to get through carrying it out, and those who by carrying out went insane. Dr. Aue finds himself occasionally having to carry out some executions, and while in the short term he seems able to deal with it, in the long term he finds himself physically and psychologically breaking down. As a new commanding officer is brought in he recognizes that the state of several of the officers under his command is clearly unsound and Dr. Aue finds himself transferred to a facility where he is able to somewhat recover."From the very beginning, things weren't as I would have liked them: I had resigned myself to that a long time ago (yet at the same time, it seems to me, I never accepted things as they are, so wrong and so bad; at the most I finally came to acknowledge my powerlessness to change them). It is also true that I have changed. When I was young, I felt transparent with lucidity, I had precise ideas about the world, about what it should be and what it actually was, and about my own place in that world; and with all the madness and the arrogance of youth, I had thought it would always be so; but the attitude induced by my analysis would never change; but I had forgotten, or rather I did not yet know, the force of time, of time and fatigue. And even more than my indecision, my ideological confusion, my inability to take clear positions on the questions I was dealing with, and to hold it, it was this that was wearing me down, taking the ground away from under my feet. Such a fatigue has no end, only death can put an end to it, it still lasts today, and for me it will always last."This novel carries many allusions to Greek literature, and like a story in a Greek tragedy, we know the outcome, and the outcome is not nearly so important as how we get there. One reviewer claimed that Dr. Aue's homosexuality was due to his unfulfilled love for his sister; I find this a rather simplistic view as it completely ignores the parts of the book dedicated to Dr. Aue's youth and education, and what he had to endure that time, as well as his own nature and tendencies. Whether or not Aue would have been homosexual had he had a different childhood are irrelevant. It is part of who he is, and in part shapes his story. Toward the end of the book Dr. Aue finds himself alone in the Villa belonging to his brother-in-law and sister. His insanity at this point has completely overcome him and he destroys the inside of the Villa in a rather disgusting manner. And while some reviewers read this as an excuse for Littell to entertain a disgusting type of exhibitionism, again I find that a simplistic view. You can argue that Littell carried it to an extreme and may have drawn it out longer than is necessary, but to deny that there is any meaning in this part of the novel is to deny the role that culture plays in the story itself. Dr. Aue is an educated and cultured individual, and for him to carry out the destruction that he does represents not only his own emotional turmoil and insanity but the insanity wreaked all over Europe by National Socialism; thus Dr. Aue's unhealthy relationship with his sister and brother-in-law can represent what became of German culture and the relation of Germany and the rest of European culture during the second world war.It is impossible for a single review to even begin to cover this novel with anything approaching completeness. It is almost 1000 pages long, and is very dense reading. There is little doubt in my mind that at some point in the future scholars will dedicate themselves to completely studying this work. I will also recommend that this book that this book be regularly taught at the college level in order to help knock young people out of their complacency and black and white thinking. “There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity….”more
This book was a slog. It showed the inside of the mind of a man engaged in some of the most brutal acts you could imagine. I remember one reviewer saying it was like a Nazi "Zelig", and he was right. The protagonist, an SS officer, is difficult to like, but Littell did a magnificent job getting inside his head and letting us explore the perversion all around him,and making the perverted seem absolutely normal. It was very long, and when I got through, I wasn't sure that I had done anything but be voyeur to acts and people that I'd just as well rather not met, even on a page. I remember thinking at the beginning of the book that it really was the masterpiece the Prix de Goncourt said it was -- making the inhuman human. By the end, I have to admit I had lost my initial enthusiasm as Dr. Aue ambled through his life as the implementer of the endlosung - the Final Solution.more
I hated this book so much that I stopped reading it; a thing I almost never do. I agree with the main premise that terrible things are done by ordinary people but I can only take so much decription of all the terrible things done!more
After reading a review, I was so ready to love this book. Alas I read about 90% of it, and was let down from my high expectations. The book is really a historical fiction, not a contemporary novel or thriller. It follows Dr. Aue through his progression and wartime life as an SS officer. It includes atrocities he witnessed, heard about, and occasionally participated in. It included his own musings on morality both much later and mostly concurrent with the events. It dips into just about every form of atrocity, depravity, crime and non-normative life choice. It is not for the faint of stomach.How could the book have been better? First, it could have been a little more taut--they could have cut 40 pages of troop and SS movements through Poland and Russia. Second, the introduction/first section, at first abstruse, becomes a wonderfully well-written intriguing psychological venture--but then that voice disappears and never returns as it plunges almost immediately into the war. Almost like having an appetizer that's better than the entree, speaking as one not enamored especially of WWII historical fiction. Third, it does have, as mentioned elsewhere, construct and other issues with the story of the parent crime tying in with the basic story, and some more relationship parts of the book seem unrealistic. On the positive side, this is perhaps a very realistic look into the life of an SS officer, and seems very well researched.more
I read the reviews of this book in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian, and immediately went to the book store and bought it. I have now read about 500 pages. The book is brilliant and I have already given it a 5 because I cannot imagine how it could be any better. The story is written as a memoir in the 1st person. The narrator, Dr Max Aue, is an SS officer in Germany during the second World war. There are so many aspects of this book that could be discussed in a review. For example, I could write in awe of the linguistic analysis of the languages of the Caucasus by the character (not the main character who is Dr Aue), Leutnant Voss. I was fascinated. This is not merely an intellectual excercise by the author. The debate becomes very real when Voss argues with his superiors, asserting that a Caucasian mountain tribe of about 6.000 people are not Jewish and hence should not be slaughtered. This book is almost 1,000 pages and it is not a light read. Before paying the full price for a newly published book, most people need to consider whether they will actually read it. I have some tips for anyone who is struggling with this vast historical epic. Reading is a private thing and don't be shy about using any aids which will enhance your enjoyment of the book. I am exposing mine in this review. In the first 50 pages of the book I made some notes of the characters who were introduced rapidly and I got out a map to keep with the book. There is a glossary at the back of the book which should be read in detail before starting the book but you don't need to memorize it. As the terms come up and you don't remember them, flip to the back but you really only need to do this for the first part of the book and then you will recognize the most important terms. There is also a Table of German Ranks with approximate American Equivelants at the back. I don't like flipping back and forth too much and I made a list of the most important glossary items and used it as a bookmark. A more efficient method might be to photocopy the glossary and keep it with the book. I don't mean to imply that this book needs to be studied rather than read as an exciting novel. It is an exciting novel but if you are confused about the characters and have lost track of the geography you will tire of the book. There is no need to consult any history books or other sources. Mr Littell's book contains all the history you need and is according to the experts flawlessly researched. I will write more later and keep you up to date.Other recommended and related books in my library:Nine suitcases by Bela ZsoltIf Not Now, When? by Primo LeviStalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Antony BeevorA Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red army: 1941-1945House of Meetings by Martin AmisForest of Souls by Carla BanksHunger by Elise Blackwellmore
So what's all this about then? 900 pages of first-person narration from a SS officer who starts off with an allusion to Villon just to confuse us. There are certainly some good things about the book--it gives a feeling of space as we see a place in a certain aspect at one time of the war and differently a couple of years later--it all rhymes and echoes. And you get a feeling of the bureaucracy of horror--the need to kill Jews as against the desire to extract some work from them, and the ceaseless internecine warfare of different administrations.The question then is: Why is this a novel? In large part, the narrator wanders through scenes of horror without taking much part in them (apart from shooting some Jews at Babi Yar), rather like Andrei Rublev in the film, and his voice is hardly characterised at all. As ever, the reader of novels wants to know not what it would ahve been like to be an SS Officer, but what it would have been like for someone like him/her to be an SS Officer; so our hero is a Greek scholar and would-be literary man. But then again we do not want to feel sympathy with him, so he has an incestuous passion for his sister which means his sex life consists of paying men to bugger him and in fact we get the plot of the Oresteia tacked on to try to make the protagonist more individual or something. Are the two policemen who keep on popping up to ask Aue about his mother's murder the Furies of the title? They should surely be more numerous and more female. And we get Yuri Zhivago's brother Evgraf introduced under the name of Thomas to ensure that Aue gets out of the various plot holes he finds himself stranded in.So this is a first-person recitation of part of the history of Nazi Germany and the Second World War with some literary decoration tacked on. But the history from a different angle was interesting and it kept me reading for 900 pages in a foreign language....But there are some things that keep on worrying me. For a start, children who are brought up together from an early age do not develop sexual feelings for each other, but I suppose ignoring this is a widely-accepted literary device. Secondly, the Greek scholar mananges to avoid saying anything very much about how large a proportion of the Nazi ideology was founded on their ideas of ancient Greece. Thirdly, there are many places where the narrator interrogates suspects or prisoners--and he is himself interrogated when he returns from behind Russian lines at the end--but we never find out how he does it or what it's like. There's the set-piece interrogation of the commissar captured at Stalingrad, but that's more along the lines of an exchange of professional pleasantries.more
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Reviews

OFFICE POLITICS IN HELLThe persistent question about the Holocaust is how Germany, such a cultured, civilized nation, could decide--in the 20th century, no less--that the life of the nation depended upon wiping out all of Jewry. Littell confronts this dichotomy through the person of his narrator, Max Aue.Aue is knowledgeable about and interested in art, literature, philosophy and, most of all, classical music. But he is also a mid-level SS functionary and a cog in the machinery of death. He observes and writes reports about the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings, and selections and crematoria in the death camps. He regularly meets with Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer and other big names in the history of the Nazis' genocide.Aue suffers severe gastrointestinal illness from his field work, but he never connects it to the horror of what he observes. He believes in National Socialism and the Final Solution. When he becomes friendly with a linguist who tells him that Nazi racial science is utter hogwash, Aue responds that he has been given something to think about and wishes to return to the discussion, but he is saved from the necessity when his friend is killed. Instead, he continues to plod along in his career path and blandly reports it all to us in this lengthy novel.So what's it all about? I came to the conclusion that, in essence, this is a history of the management of the worst corporation ever. A corporation whose mission is the most spectacularly wrong-headed and horrific thing imaginable---but whose failure to achieve its goal is attributable to those most prosaic banes of so many companies: office politics and the Peter Principle. All the various functionaries spend most of their time squabbling with each other for position or to try to achieve whatever they think the Führer's will is. Since they are all petty men of limited imagination and intelligence, of course it's all a complete schweinerei, as Aue likes to call it.Does that mean this is another novel whose point is the banality of evil? Not exactly. Aue is not just some Aryan in an SS uniform. He is one screwed-up bizarro. He has a sexual fixation on his twin sister, with whom he had childhood incestuous relationship, broken up by his mother and stepfather. He often digresses from his tales of another lousy day at work into lengthy, hair-raising descriptions of violence, repulsive bodily functions and sexual perversions, real and imagined.Littell is not the first author to try to connect Nazism with sexually-related mental illness. It makes a sort of sense. It's somehow easier to understand the Holocaust if we tell ourselves that those Nazis weren't like normal people; they were a bunch of sickos. But I think this detracts from the story.Littell could lose all of the psychosexual and endless scatological stuff and have a much more powerful narrative. Aue's screwed-up psyche gets in the way of Littell's point that there is not, in fact, some bright-line difference between normal, ordinary people and those who can participate in unspeakable horrors. Littell does an excellent job of showing how Germans involved in the genocide become increasingly desensitized and brutalized. It's unfortunate that this, the most powerful part of the book, becomes obscured by Aue's psychosis and his escalating perversity, including a ridiculously over-the-top murder subplot.Still, despite its huge flaws, this is a tremendously ambitious book, well worth reading.more
A monstrous account of the Holocaust from the perspective of a Nazi bureaucrat who participated in it.more
"A new War and Peace ... Never, in the recent history of French literature, has an early work been so ambitious, so masterfully written, so meticulous in its detail or so serenely horrifying."
-Le Nouvel Observateur, taken from the back cover

E€EWhat is this shit?E€E
-A former French resistance fighter on this book, as quoted by Laurent Binet in The Millions

This is a book that could have been. There were brief flashes of fascination, tantalizing ideas, lost in an interminable sea of dreck.

The opening Toccata gives us a few teasing sentences: "y human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." says the SS-Officer, and ends with "I am a man like other man, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you." Now is this a pleasing lie to himself or a plea to persuade? This brings to mind Arendt's study Eichmann in Jerusalem, on how ordinary people can be convinced or seduced to commit great evils and justify them.

But the book turns sour. The chapters with their musical titles of Allemandes, Courante, Sarabande, so on, are played largo in E minor.

It is to be understood, in a book like this, that there is due to be excessive violence. This is, after all, about an SS-Officer in the Eastern Front. It is gruesome, but endurable. And furthermore, I must give credit to the author for doing his research. He apparently got the hierarchy of titles and organizations right, as far as I can tell. And his long information dumps are intensely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of languages and ethnicities of the Caucus, and the absurdity of trying to classify them into Jewish or not-Jewish so they can be exterminated shows the foolish ideal of the Nazi goal of racial conquest.

For those, I give the author credit. And he has had his experience with war and suffering - mainly, volunteer work in the DR-Congo.

But after that, there is little investigation of moral dilemmas at all. Just chronology. Atrocity, extermination, rear-guard action, pincer movement, all become a dull sludge. Only a few cursory fragments, as tempting as they are, give us reason to think. But otherwise it is a catalog of atrocities.

Speaking of sludge, what is it feces and this book? Perhaps it may have been written as a shock factor, but instead of any contemplation or angst at all, we see a more physical psychosomatic reaction. Do something evil? Just poop it out! Your nation and ethos crumbling around you? Put a sausage up your butt in the Siege of Berlin, 1945 and cry thinking about fucking your twin sister!

I'm not saying that feces as a metaphor is inherently bad. Nor does the gratuitous and forced incest make an inherently bad novel, although they can understandably disgust so many readers and either dissuade or titillate so many others. Instead, they are more like a substitute for something more important, as though a long and difficult conversation is being avoided or hidden with more gratuitous shock value.

The author seldom mentions the simmering occupation of France. Only a few mentions, if perhaps at all. If the author spoke of atrocities there, say Oradour-sur-Glane, would the book arouse such prurient interest, visceral recognition of true evil? But that, too, is another omission.

Tant pis. 1 star, not because the whole work is to be discarded (at least, all but the beginning), but because of how much it frustrated and disappointed.hhapmore
This was actually a really good book! It's a daunting read, it's a huge book, but it's worth it! I read the book prior to watching the movie adaptation and although the movie was good, the book was better. The author goes into such detail it opens up the world in the reader's mind. You really feel like your there. And although the vampire child can be repulsive and cold, you can't help but feel bad for her and join on her side.It definitely give a different perspective on the typical vampire story. It's not like Twilight, but it's also not like Dracula. It's somewhere in between. The choice of having the main characters be so young and in some regards very innocent, was a good choice. I absolutely loved this book and couldn't put it down, even though it was huge. I definitely recommend reading the book before seeing the movie.more
The Kindly Ones is an incredibly ambitious book, taking in the whole scope of WWII from the Nazi invasion of Russia onwards, all through the eyes of Max Aue, as SS bureaucrat. And for the most part Littell pulls it off. He has constructed a story which actually keeps you invested as you swing between detailed historical events. But there are criticisms, as is inevitable with a story of this length and scope.The book seems a little unsure of what it wants to be. On one hand it is a thoroughly reseached piece of historical fiction (Littell spent 5 years traversing Germany, France and Eastern Europe to visit the locations in the book). On another it is a study of morality from an ancient Greek perspective. This leads to many references to Greek mythology (the title refers to a Greek myth) such as incest and matricide which often test the readers suspension of disbelief.There are also criticisms which could be made over some of the gratuitous descriptions, not of violence which is to be expected, but of mastubatory orgies and diarrhea episodes.For me, the biggest criticism, however, is that the opening chapter sets out the gambit that you are just like the narrator and that anyone could have found themselves in his shoes.But Aue is anything but ordinary. He has an incestous love for his twin sister to whom he has devoted himself leaving him, to all intents and purposes, gay. He hates his mother and has abandonment issues over his father. This makes it difficult to identify with him in an 'it could have been me' sort of way.But despite these criticisms I would recommend this book. It takes you right into the heart of some of the most hellish times and places in history, such as Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, and the prose is so descriptive as to have been compared to the realism of Tolstoy. You will, despite yourself, develop a connection with Max Aue as he kills and then tries to save Jews. Never out of his own convictions or sense of good or evil, but to accomplish his orders to the best of his ability.And that is perhaps the biggest triumph of this monumental piece of prose. I only wish I had the abilty to read it in it's original French.more
My interest in the Holocaust led me to read Jonathon Littell’s novel and overall, I think it works well, as it did what it’s supposed to do (I believe) and get the reader to think about the Holocaust perpetrators on individual, human terms. What’s more, for all its shortcomings, the book consistently allures by putting one inside the mind of Max Aue, who sees the evolving horrors around him through unmovable, guiltless, and understated perception. There’s not much of a plot but a great book doesn’t need much turning to be successful (I’m thinking of Kerouac’s On The Road) and it is long (I estimate 385,000 words), but the simple prose and Mandell’s refined translation let one read fast.Littell obviously reveled in his own research but students of the holocaust will note nothing new with the horrid details. For instance, one memorable passage where Max leads a little Jewish boy to his execution (who wandered from the crowd) is a nicely done elaboration of an anecdote in Kuznetsov’s novel-account "Babi Yar". What does make The Kindly Ones as a keeper for your library, though, is the unworldly landscape (the jacket blurb uses “hallucinatory” –an accurate term that caught on with reviewers), to which Littell transports us through his relentless but subtle observation. As others have noted, moments of brilliance occasionally arise (early in the novel, where Max interviews an old man to determine if he’s Jewish and then has him executed, is as a finely crafted “short story” as you will read).Yes, it's very good but following 945 pages of subtle, engrossing, and intellectual narrative, we have developments (I count seven) that are so implausible and forced, it makes one question if it’s just been one large joke played upon the reader. Warning, plot spoilers follow: A group of rabid children kill Max’s driver while the SS officer Aue and his colleague helplessly watch. Max sadistically murders a male lover in a bathroom. During a medal ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, Max nearly bites the Fuhrer’s nose off. While arrested and being transported, Max is rescued by an errant Russian shell that kills nearly everyone but him. While again fleeing amongst the Berlin ruins, Max runs into a subway tunnel where he suddenly meets up with two detectives that have been pursing him throughout half the book. Here he is again magically rescued by a sudden Russian attack. Max stumbles upon and visits the office of an industrialist-acquaintance whose three amazonian women-servants casually lie murdered in the room. Max runs away to a zoo, but there one of the detectives catches up with him only to be murdered by Max's friend, Thomas, who also suddenly turns up. However, Max then kills that only friend he's had, perhaps just to wear his civilian clothes of escape. In addition to these final absurdities, the book does present a contradiction, of sorts, or perhaps faulty logic by the last line of the first chapter. Here Max states directly that he really shouldn’t be blamed because in the end, he’s very much like you (the reader). At least that's Max's opinion, (probably and hopefully not Littell's opinion). Of course, Max really isn't much like me, you, or even the average German of the 1940s. Yet, in the end, this really doesn’t matter, as it’s not a fundamental to enjoying and (learning from) the involving, haunting, and memorable narrative. In fact, the first chapter (really a prologue) is the weakest, as it’s little more than a Ripley’s believe-it-or-not kind of compendium of Holocaust death statistics.So, a good work, almost masterpiece of a first novel, (Littell’s youthful, punk science-fiction opus notwithstanding). I much anticipate his next book, whatever it may prove.more
I read this novel over last summer - a bit of an odd choice for holiday reading. While I couldn't say that I 'enjoyed' it in the conventional sense of the word, I certainly found it interesting both in what Littell was attempting - the sheer scope and size of his research is mindboggling - and in the way he chooses to do it. He draws out the mythical thread of The Kindly Ones, in what is otherwise a work of brutal realism, in order to present the protagonist's mental decline. This is a major feature of the novel; Littel often uses his painstaking research to demonstrate the strangeness of Aue's world, for example when a colleague speaks for pages and pages about linguistics systems in the midst of chapters on atrocities. I did struggle with it as the narrative becomes more and more commandeered by Aue's descent into utter madness. The extremely unerotic sexual scenes and the fantasy episode make this a hard book to stick with until the end, which is inevitably disappointing. As the whole text is set out as a flashback, we're left wondering how he could possibly conceal this madness in his new life. The book becomes less about the reality of the Holocaust and more spiralling uncontrollably around the obsession of Aue with The Kindly Ones (no spoilers, but if you know what they are you can probably guess). He develops a sort of fatalistic idea of his approaching judgement, which is in his mind not for the thousands of innocents he has helped to kill but for a far more personal crime. We simultaneously condemn him for his blindness and wonder if, as a projection, it is another unpleasant effect of his circumstances - leading us again to question how far he's responsible for his own actions.I've given it 3 stars because, while it is thought-provoking, I honestly don't know who I could recommend this book to, if at all. I don't think it's something I'd read twice. It leaves you feeling that it's fallen short somehow, that justice is not done - but the same is true of history.more
At nearly 1,000 pages and with paragraphs that run to several pages, this was a very difficult book to read. The author, though of American heritage, lives in France and originally wrote the book in French where it won numerous awards and was highly praised. I really wanted to read this book but found it such heavy going that I ditche...d it after getting through about half - and I really never do that, if I start a book and get further than about 20 pages, then I'm committed and will finish it. The subject matter is distasteful (the story of an SS officer who was present at all the 'big' WWII moments - the initial Jewish cleansings, the siege of Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Birkenau and he even meets Hitler) but I also just didn't 'get' what the author was aiming for. I think the point of the book was to demonstrate how 'anyone can do anything' given particular circumstances. Littell is not an apologist for the Nazis but he does make the point that war is drudgery, boredom, terror, orders and the gradual desensitising of human feeling - but I get that, I didn't need to read this novel to understand that and I'm not sure who would. I found it interesting that UK reviews praise the book highly while US ones have tended in the opposite direction. I think the translation is part of the problem but it's also a book that once you start to think about it, the coincidences are too much, the failings and depravities of the narrator are too obvious while at the same time the narrator's obvious cultural and intellectual background are also used too often to drive home the message - anyone can do anything. The author has a lot of promise but apparently he wrote the book freehand in a matter of weeks (albeit after years of research) and it showsmore
Written in the form of the memoir of an SS officer, I would characterise this not only as a narrative of the gritty horror of war, but also an attempt to explain (and I think it "explain" rather than "justify") how ordinary people can get caught up in perpetrating something as horrific as the holocaust.It does not dwell on "only obeying orders", but rather on someone who, as a committed Nazi, believes that unpleasant actions, even things which he may disagree with personally and believe to be wasteful and misguided, may be necessary during a time of total war. It is compounded by the aura of the Fuhrer and his claim to represent the Volk. It is made worse by the inhumanity of war. At a time when life is so cheap, particularly on the Eastern Front, soldiers routinely commit such acts of brutality and inhumanity that performing a few more (or a few million more) hardly seems to matter.The narrative deals with more than the killing of Jews. Quite early on many categories of Germans were killed (mentally ill, elderly, etc) to get rid of useless mouths to feed. Behind the lines in eastern Europe people were killed because they might become, or support, partisans and saboteurs. The narrator recognises that not all, in fact not even a majority, pose a threat, but in the fog of war who has the time to really investigate? Easier to kill them all. At times he questions the issue, but not on what might be considered moral grounds. Wouldn't some of the overrun populations be more use to their conquerors if they were assimiliated rather than exterminated? What a waste that so many healthy concentration camp inmates were killed or died due to poor conditions and ill-treatment when Germany was desperate for slave labourers in its armaments factories. No such sympathy for the useless women, children and elderly, though.It's a long book (over 900 pages of small print) and at times it is hard going, not only because of the horror of the subject but also because the writing is a bit turgid in places. There are also long philosophical discussions, some of which are interesting but others not so, and rambling dream sequences when he is wounded, sick or unstable. I'm not really sure what their relevance is, nor that of his relationship with parents and sister, unless it is to emphasise how mad people become in that sort of war situation.It ends as Berlin falls to the Soviet army, with an unexpected twist right on the last page. All in all excellent, albeit not light, reading.more
I never thought I would want to read a 1,000 page (more or less) first-person novel about a Nazi who basically sees the Holocaust in terms of the bureaucratic nightmares it causes. But I cannot put it down.more
One of the most daring books I ever read. Of course it had terrible details, but they are not just there to shock. Littell shows his readers what WWII was like; raw, harsh and inhumane. It is very disturbing to find out that at some points I could feel with the main character. But that is exactly Littells point. It makes you think what you would do in situations like that. Would you be a good person, or would you save your own face, at any cost. Very interesting and thought-provoking.Yes, there are words to describe what happened in those days and Littell found them. Excellent! And I thought the ending was amazing.more
[The Kindly Ones] by [[Jonathan Littell]] (2006,2009)This nearly 1000 page tome is everything you've probably heard about it: gruesome, disgusting, repulsive, difficult to take. It is also gripping, intelligent, informative, insightful, and well-written. It is the story of World War II through the eyes of Max Aue, SS officer. Aue is with the Nazis when they invade Poland; he's at Babi Yar and the Battle of Stalingrad; he's with Eichmann at the concentration camps; he's in Hungary near the end of the war when the Germans proposed "blood for trucks;" and he's in Hitler's bunker in April 1945. When we meet him, in present time, he is a well-respected French lace manufacturer with a past no one questions. He is also unrepenetant.Aue is a cultured and intelligent man, but never a sympathetic character. His personal life mirrors the depravity of the war--he is sexually obsessed with his twin sister and acts out this obsession in homosexual affairs. His mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. And, as you may have read elsewhere, there's a lot of diarrhea, blood, vomit and guts.When Aue is not on the frontlines, he is a bureacrat--a clear manifestation of the banality of evil. His job involves such things as determining how much food a concentration camp inmate should get daily. What is the optimal amount of time to keep a concentration camp inmate alive so as to maximize the benefit of his labor vis a vis the cost of his upkeep? Should Jews get less food than other types of prisoners, since they are destined for execution anyway?There are also endless discussions with "racial anthropologists," linguists, and other experts as to what circumstances make a person or group of people Jewish, which would almost be silly if these weren't life or death matters for the people under discussion. There's even the discussion among the starving soldiers at Stalingrad as they consider cannibalism on whether they should eat a dead Russian or a dead German. If they eat the meat of a Slav or a Bolshevik, won't they become corrupted? On the other hand, wouldn't it be dishonorable to eat a German?Aue is clearly a psychopath. I don't know if all SS officers were psychopaths, or whether some were just temporarily insane. This book isn't The Diary of Ann Frank. You will know whether you can stand to read something like this or not. If you can stomach it, and you want to try to understand how and why the Germans did what they did, it is a book you should read.more
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)Middle-aged French intellectual Jonathan Littell caused a sensation in 2006 with his infamous The Kindly Ones (finally published in the US for the first time in 2008), a thousand-page historical novel which attempts to take the most complicated look ever at what turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Germans into amoral monsters during the Nazi period of the 1920s through '40s (which, by the way, turns out to mostly be the same things that turned a bunch of otherwise boring, middle-class Americans into amoral monsters during the Bush years), chief among these reasons the culture of endless brutal public violence that was perpetuated in those days, said endless violence of which Littell faithfully reproduces in his own book, which is what mainly caused its infamy in the first place. But as I quickly realized when starting to make my way through it myself a few weeks ago, Littell could've actually accomplished this in a tight 300-page manuscript if he wanted; so what this doorstop mostly turns out to be instead is an insanely exhaustive examination of the jumbled bureaucracy that held Nazi Germany together, containing thousands upon thousands of offhanded references to the hundreds of sub-divisions within the party's executive structure and military setup, none of which are explained within the text itself but rather in a dense glossary at the end of the book. Seriously, Littell, you're freaking killing me here.Also, Littell made the unfortunate decision to make our everyman narrator the perpetrator of a whole series of ultra-prurient sexual fetishes as well, references to which the narrator is constantly dropping into his recollection here of the war years, as casually as if he were discussing the weather (take for example his nostalgic reminisces about the solo nighttime forest wanderings he used to be able to take as a child, before mentioning that the main reason he treasures them is because he was able to indulge in his habit of auto-erotic asphyxiation without any interruptions); and this not only dilutes the book's main message (that most evil acts in history are not committed by inherently evil people, but rather normal people put into evil circumstances), but is also something I personally found profoundly offputting and completely pointless as well. The good parts of this book really are good, don't get me wrong, just that they're miniscule and surrounded by dozens of pages of needlessly disgusting or yawn-inducing fluff; and that's why I gave up on The Kindly Ones less than 200 pages into it, and recommend that you not even start it at all.Out of 10: 5.4more
The Kindly Ones, the title of the novel, refers to the Greek goddesses of justice and vengeance. The story in some ways parallels the Greek story of Orestes, but this is not a Greek tragedy, it is a human one, born of the 20th century. In Greek tragedy one looks for the fatal flaw of the character which will lead to his inevitable downfall. But Dr. Maximilian Aue, like most of us, has more than one flaw. Dr. Aue is human caught in human times. His faults are common human faults, fear, ambition, desire for love. In a calmer world or a calmer time Dr. Aue could have led a normal life, but he lived in Nazi Germany, a time when moral strength could easily have led to death; his weaknesses, human weaknesses, kept him alive and made him a participant in the events of the time.Littell's novel is a long sometimes harrowing read. It is not the type of book one should read if one carries the novels one is reading into their dreams, as this book can only cause nightmares. In the opening chapter, which takes place close to the present time, Dr. Aue states that part of the problem of our understanding of those horrific times, is that we monsterize the perpetrators and see only the victims as human. But Aue argues that the perpetrators were equally human, that what happened was entirely done by humans to humans. There are so many novels that have come out of World War II and the Holocaust that it seems hard to justify another. But this novel is important, not because it relives well-known events, but because it vividly portrays how a regular person can be drawn into such evil. The world we live in sees too much in black and white, in the privileged world in which we live we don't have to make decisions like he did. We too easily say what was done was wrong, and indeed it was, but we don't truly know how we would react if we were in the same circumstances, and that, more than anything else is what Littell is trying to get us to understand. This seems to be the type of book that you either love or hate. I have read good reviews of it, and I read the reviews of people who hate it. It was a bestseller in France where first came out, but Barnes & Noble didn't even carry it, and if you look for on their website isn't there. I found it completely by accident while browsing a small independent bookstore in Millerton New York. If you decide to read it you can find it online through Amazon but I would encourage ordering it through a local independent.Jonathan Littell is an American who was raised and educated mostly in France as it says on the dust jacket. He has worked for humanitarian agencies which him for brought him to places of conflict and he has seen the effects of war and genocide. He understands that we cannot deal with what we are unwilling to accept. We too easily say I would never do that, we too easily condemn without understanding, and while condemnation is necessary so to is understanding. With that in mind Dr. Aue tells his story completely, from beginning to end, with no holds barred. Littell is trying to force us to face the fact that the decisions made by Dr. Aue might too have been made by us. It is the cumulative effect of many small decisions that lead Dr. Aue down his path. In the end we must still condemn him, but we also begin to understand him.Dr. Aue is an educated man, he has a degree in law, is well read in the classics of literature, and in philosophy. He is an intellectual National Socialist; he believed in the cause of his party, in the unification of the German people, and the need for expansion. He is also a homosexual. One night when he is arrested in an area known for homosexuals to congregate he is offered a way out by a friend. This friend offered him a position working for him in the SS. It is a position where he is an observer and analyst. He collects data, offers observations, and draws conclusions. It is an easy choice for him to make, but it is only a first step down a path that Germany is leading its people. A number of the reviews that I've read of this work compare it closely with War and Peace, however, the proper Russian novel to compare it to would be Crime and Punishment. This famous work by Dostoyevsky focuses mostly upon the single character of Raskolnikov; and Littell's novel focuses entirely on Dr. Aue. The Kindly Ones is a psychological novel in the same sense as Crime and Punishment. However, while Raskolnikov's issues are eventually resolved Dr. Aue’s spiritual crisis is of a different nature, and his fear of being caught stays with him for the remainder of his life, until finally enough time has passed he feels free enough to tell his tale as not as a justification or rationalization, but rather as an accusation, challenging the reader—would you have acted any differently?Shortly after the war with Russia begins Dr. Aue finds himself in the middle of the Aktion, that is the beginning of the extermination of the Jews. In observing the men who were ordered to carry out the killings he noticed several different types of soldiers: those who refused, those who enjoyed it, those who managed to get through carrying it out, and those who by carrying out went insane. Dr. Aue finds himself occasionally having to carry out some executions, and while in the short term he seems able to deal with it, in the long term he finds himself physically and psychologically breaking down. As a new commanding officer is brought in he recognizes that the state of several of the officers under his command is clearly unsound and Dr. Aue finds himself transferred to a facility where he is able to somewhat recover."From the very beginning, things weren't as I would have liked them: I had resigned myself to that a long time ago (yet at the same time, it seems to me, I never accepted things as they are, so wrong and so bad; at the most I finally came to acknowledge my powerlessness to change them). It is also true that I have changed. When I was young, I felt transparent with lucidity, I had precise ideas about the world, about what it should be and what it actually was, and about my own place in that world; and with all the madness and the arrogance of youth, I had thought it would always be so; but the attitude induced by my analysis would never change; but I had forgotten, or rather I did not yet know, the force of time, of time and fatigue. And even more than my indecision, my ideological confusion, my inability to take clear positions on the questions I was dealing with, and to hold it, it was this that was wearing me down, taking the ground away from under my feet. Such a fatigue has no end, only death can put an end to it, it still lasts today, and for me it will always last."This novel carries many allusions to Greek literature, and like a story in a Greek tragedy, we know the outcome, and the outcome is not nearly so important as how we get there. One reviewer claimed that Dr. Aue's homosexuality was due to his unfulfilled love for his sister; I find this a rather simplistic view as it completely ignores the parts of the book dedicated to Dr. Aue's youth and education, and what he had to endure that time, as well as his own nature and tendencies. Whether or not Aue would have been homosexual had he had a different childhood are irrelevant. It is part of who he is, and in part shapes his story. Toward the end of the book Dr. Aue finds himself alone in the Villa belonging to his brother-in-law and sister. His insanity at this point has completely overcome him and he destroys the inside of the Villa in a rather disgusting manner. And while some reviewers read this as an excuse for Littell to entertain a disgusting type of exhibitionism, again I find that a simplistic view. You can argue that Littell carried it to an extreme and may have drawn it out longer than is necessary, but to deny that there is any meaning in this part of the novel is to deny the role that culture plays in the story itself. Dr. Aue is an educated and cultured individual, and for him to carry out the destruction that he does represents not only his own emotional turmoil and insanity but the insanity wreaked all over Europe by National Socialism; thus Dr. Aue's unhealthy relationship with his sister and brother-in-law can represent what became of German culture and the relation of Germany and the rest of European culture during the second world war.It is impossible for a single review to even begin to cover this novel with anything approaching completeness. It is almost 1000 pages long, and is very dense reading. There is little doubt in my mind that at some point in the future scholars will dedicate themselves to completely studying this work. I will also recommend that this book that this book be regularly taught at the college level in order to help knock young people out of their complacency and black and white thinking. “There was a lot of talk, after the war, in trying to explain what had happened, about inhumanity. But I am sorry, there is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity….”more
This book was a slog. It showed the inside of the mind of a man engaged in some of the most brutal acts you could imagine. I remember one reviewer saying it was like a Nazi "Zelig", and he was right. The protagonist, an SS officer, is difficult to like, but Littell did a magnificent job getting inside his head and letting us explore the perversion all around him,and making the perverted seem absolutely normal. It was very long, and when I got through, I wasn't sure that I had done anything but be voyeur to acts and people that I'd just as well rather not met, even on a page. I remember thinking at the beginning of the book that it really was the masterpiece the Prix de Goncourt said it was -- making the inhuman human. By the end, I have to admit I had lost my initial enthusiasm as Dr. Aue ambled through his life as the implementer of the endlosung - the Final Solution.more
I hated this book so much that I stopped reading it; a thing I almost never do. I agree with the main premise that terrible things are done by ordinary people but I can only take so much decription of all the terrible things done!more
After reading a review, I was so ready to love this book. Alas I read about 90% of it, and was let down from my high expectations. The book is really a historical fiction, not a contemporary novel or thriller. It follows Dr. Aue through his progression and wartime life as an SS officer. It includes atrocities he witnessed, heard about, and occasionally participated in. It included his own musings on morality both much later and mostly concurrent with the events. It dips into just about every form of atrocity, depravity, crime and non-normative life choice. It is not for the faint of stomach.How could the book have been better? First, it could have been a little more taut--they could have cut 40 pages of troop and SS movements through Poland and Russia. Second, the introduction/first section, at first abstruse, becomes a wonderfully well-written intriguing psychological venture--but then that voice disappears and never returns as it plunges almost immediately into the war. Almost like having an appetizer that's better than the entree, speaking as one not enamored especially of WWII historical fiction. Third, it does have, as mentioned elsewhere, construct and other issues with the story of the parent crime tying in with the basic story, and some more relationship parts of the book seem unrealistic. On the positive side, this is perhaps a very realistic look into the life of an SS officer, and seems very well researched.more
I read the reviews of this book in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Guardian, and immediately went to the book store and bought it. I have now read about 500 pages. The book is brilliant and I have already given it a 5 because I cannot imagine how it could be any better. The story is written as a memoir in the 1st person. The narrator, Dr Max Aue, is an SS officer in Germany during the second World war. There are so many aspects of this book that could be discussed in a review. For example, I could write in awe of the linguistic analysis of the languages of the Caucasus by the character (not the main character who is Dr Aue), Leutnant Voss. I was fascinated. This is not merely an intellectual excercise by the author. The debate becomes very real when Voss argues with his superiors, asserting that a Caucasian mountain tribe of about 6.000 people are not Jewish and hence should not be slaughtered. This book is almost 1,000 pages and it is not a light read. Before paying the full price for a newly published book, most people need to consider whether they will actually read it. I have some tips for anyone who is struggling with this vast historical epic. Reading is a private thing and don't be shy about using any aids which will enhance your enjoyment of the book. I am exposing mine in this review. In the first 50 pages of the book I made some notes of the characters who were introduced rapidly and I got out a map to keep with the book. There is a glossary at the back of the book which should be read in detail before starting the book but you don't need to memorize it. As the terms come up and you don't remember them, flip to the back but you really only need to do this for the first part of the book and then you will recognize the most important terms. There is also a Table of German Ranks with approximate American Equivelants at the back. I don't like flipping back and forth too much and I made a list of the most important glossary items and used it as a bookmark. A more efficient method might be to photocopy the glossary and keep it with the book. I don't mean to imply that this book needs to be studied rather than read as an exciting novel. It is an exciting novel but if you are confused about the characters and have lost track of the geography you will tire of the book. There is no need to consult any history books or other sources. Mr Littell's book contains all the history you need and is according to the experts flawlessly researched. I will write more later and keep you up to date.Other recommended and related books in my library:Nine suitcases by Bela ZsoltIf Not Now, When? by Primo LeviStalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Antony BeevorA Writer At War: Vasily Grossman with the Red army: 1941-1945House of Meetings by Martin AmisForest of Souls by Carla BanksHunger by Elise Blackwellmore
So what's all this about then? 900 pages of first-person narration from a SS officer who starts off with an allusion to Villon just to confuse us. There are certainly some good things about the book--it gives a feeling of space as we see a place in a certain aspect at one time of the war and differently a couple of years later--it all rhymes and echoes. And you get a feeling of the bureaucracy of horror--the need to kill Jews as against the desire to extract some work from them, and the ceaseless internecine warfare of different administrations.The question then is: Why is this a novel? In large part, the narrator wanders through scenes of horror without taking much part in them (apart from shooting some Jews at Babi Yar), rather like Andrei Rublev in the film, and his voice is hardly characterised at all. As ever, the reader of novels wants to know not what it would ahve been like to be an SS Officer, but what it would have been like for someone like him/her to be an SS Officer; so our hero is a Greek scholar and would-be literary man. But then again we do not want to feel sympathy with him, so he has an incestuous passion for his sister which means his sex life consists of paying men to bugger him and in fact we get the plot of the Oresteia tacked on to try to make the protagonist more individual or something. Are the two policemen who keep on popping up to ask Aue about his mother's murder the Furies of the title? They should surely be more numerous and more female. And we get Yuri Zhivago's brother Evgraf introduced under the name of Thomas to ensure that Aue gets out of the various plot holes he finds himself stranded in.So this is a first-person recitation of part of the history of Nazi Germany and the Second World War with some literary decoration tacked on. But the history from a different angle was interesting and it kept me reading for 900 pages in a foreign language....But there are some things that keep on worrying me. For a start, children who are brought up together from an early age do not develop sexual feelings for each other, but I suppose ignoring this is a widely-accepted literary device. Secondly, the Greek scholar mananges to avoid saying anything very much about how large a proportion of the Nazi ideology was founded on their ideas of ancient Greece. Thirdly, there are many places where the narrator interrogates suspects or prisoners--and he is himself interrogated when he returns from behind Russian lines at the end--but we never find out how he does it or what it's like. There's the set-piece interrogation of the commissar captured at Stalingrad, but that's more along the lines of an exchange of professional pleasantries.more
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