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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 Oct 6, 2009
ISBN: 9780061972966
List price: $11.99
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(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: 5.4read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
[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.read more
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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(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: 5.4
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
[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.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
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 shows
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