Reader reviews for The Kindly Ones

(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
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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.
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[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.
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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.
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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.
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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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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.
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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.
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"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.hhap
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In some ways, it's easy to see why this novel, in the original French, won le prix Goncourt; it's a sprawling, quite obviously heavily-researched (though how accurate the results of that research was is a matter of no small debate), and above all ambitious work, taking as its focus the whole of the Holocaust, and the morals of Greek tragedy as its inspiration.On the other hand, its ambitious nature is also its downfall: in its sprawling desire to include everything, it perhaps covers too much; in its wish to reach the heights of ancient tragedy, it frequently oversteps in its attempts at seriousness and occasionally moves into adolescent pretentiousness. Many of the long digressions onto only marginally related topics would have been better presented had they been shortened or even excluded altogether. (e.g. The long piece on languages in the Caucasus. Appropriate to be coming from a linguist? Perhaps, but we as readers don't need all that detail, and it smacks of Littell including it solely because he researched it and therefore doesn't want to let that effort go to waste.) The same goes for the multiple hallucination sequences, which could have been better served with trimming — though my own biases against extended dream and hallucination sequences are something I acknowledge.Finally, both the plotting and the prose are not enough to sustain the book's nearly 1000 pages. The former frequently drags and meanders to ill-effect, particularly in the opening and longer sections, while the latter frequently comes across as convoluted and over-wrought. (The latter, it should be noted, may be partially a problem with the English translation. I have heard complaints about it, but have never seen the original French. It still doesn't excuse some of the more scenery-chewing characters and moments, however.)So in the end: I admire the ambition, but I'm still not sold on the execution.
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