Friday, July 16, 2010

'The Kindly Ones' Jonathan Littell

The story of one man’s soul, even the pettiest, can be more interesting and instructive than the story of a whole nation…

Historical knowledge is the knowledge of what the mind has done in the past… the historical process in which man creates for himself this or that kind of human nature by re-creating in his own thought the past to which he is heir.

Je suis le mensonge qui dit toujours la verite.
Jean Cocteau

Part 1: Penetrating the Mystery of the Holocaust

The meaning of the Holocaust and of the other acts perpetrated under the Third Reich has troubled thinkers and sensitive people since these horrors were first revealed. The central philosophical and humanitarian questions of the post-war period were: How could they have happened? What would I have done? What does it mean for our humanity that others of our kind were capable of this?

Hannah Arendt famously saw in it the banality of evil and a lack of proportion in the drive towards consistency. George Steiner agonised over the relationship between our higher civilisation and our lowest instincts, bemoaning the fact that those responsible for the worst nightmares were also the most highly cultivated and civilised, and that the possession of the highest culture was no guard against the capacity to commit the lowest depravities. Dawidowicz saw in it a master plan of hatred put in place from the beginning to eradicate Jewry, and an expression of the most virulent anti-semitism. Hilberg and his school have documented exhaustively the gradual stages towards the Total Solution, helped in their endeavour by the meticulous record keeping of the Nazis. (Other, lower life forms, bottom feeders such as David Irving and Richard Williamson, have denied the whole thing, one would like to imagine, out of a refusal to acknowledge that humanity is capable of it.)

Littell’s novel is another attempt to answer these questions, one that draws primarily on the resources of literary fiction rather than historical reconstruction or philosophical argumentation. Like Collingwood and Lermontov, Littell sees in the symbolic imagination (guided by historical accuracy) a method for understanding the events; and his novel may be read as a sustained attempt to penetrate this dreadful mystery through the power of literature, by recreating it in his own thought and ours.

The Protagonist

Littell gives us the fictional memoirs of Dr Max Aue, an SS officer, a human being, a ‘hero of the time’. Aue is one of the most fascinating, complex and appalling characters in recent literary fiction. An intellectual –with a special interest in literature- who adores music, respects language and its power, a scholar, a professional jurist, an amateur of culture in the original meaning of the word, a memoirist of perspicacity, sensitivity and candour, if not reliability, as he readily admits - after all, he is only human- and a master of highly seductive prose; and a bureaucrat. Aue is not a killer – at least not to begin with- but a recorder.

His various missions throughout the course of his career include studying the psychological effects on the killers of mass murder, untangling the various racial and linguistic mixtures of the tribes of the Caucus region so that only the right people are liquidated as Jews, studying the effect of siege and bombardment on ordinary soldiers, and maximising the logistical efficiency of the selection and transportation of slave labour to further the war effort. His job is to study and write reports, to reflect, to advise.

His career takes him to the German advance into Southern Russia, the Ukraine and the Caucasus in 1942, the battle of Stalingrad, the implementation of the Final Solution in Poland and Hungary, the Russian advance into Germany in 1945, and the fall of Berlin. This allows Littell to examine what happened in all the significant theatres of the European war as well as the main operations of the SS through the eyes of one man, a representative, a composite of all those who were there and left their records, an everyman, allowing us to see how one man’s soul responds to the crucial events of WW2, and to present a partial answer to the question: how could he do it?

Various possibilities are put forward. Aue describes how Nazi ideology -and its corruption of the language- infected all involved. Passive constructions, noun forms and euphemisms began to proliferate in public and official discourse, and Aue notes the depersonalizing effect this had, the abnegation of responsibility this made possible: one managed if not completely to eliminate verbs at least to reduce them to useless (but at any rate decorative) appendages, and that way… there were only facts, brute realities either already present or waiting for accomplishment. The corruption of our most human attribute –language- allows for the corruption of the better part of our natures, a prophetic warning if ever there was one.

Another possible answer lies in the sheer muddle of the quotidian, how the millions of small decisions made by thousands of people all pursuing separate ends, created a critical mass. It is well known that this agglomeration of decisions took place in the context of a policy of confusion regarding the chain of command within the SS, which left party functionaries and officers competing against each other, and against different departments. At the same time, there was a climate of deliberate vagueness regarding orders. The notion of the Fuhreprinzip gave upper level officers considerable freedom in implementing their own solutions to problems, as long as they could intellectually justify them as following the will of the Fuhrer. Aue shows us how this works at the level of the human: as Eichmann gets more experience, he also gets better at his special task, and naturally, wants to show off this expertise and be rewarded and recognized.

Meditations on the nature of humanity; or, how humanity encompasses the inhuman

Aue’s grim -and probably accurate- conclusion seems to be that we are only capable of such cruelty because it is a part of our humanity. 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…Aue tells us, and the first sentence, a quote from Villon, Oh my human brothers resounds throughout the book, uniting reader and narrator in their common humanity.

Aue reflects that the weak are a threat to the strong, and invite the violence and murder that strike them down. This of course sounds like a callous and inhuman shifting the blame onto the victim, and it takes one of Aue’s colleagues, Dr Wirths -responsible for selection at Auschwitz- to clarify what Aue means: the SS guard doesn’t become violent or sadistic because he thinks the inmate is not a human being, on the contrary, his rage increases and turns into sadism when he sees that the inmate, far from being a subhuman as he was taught, is actually, at bottom, a man like him, after all….the more the guard strikes, the more he’s forced to see that the inmate refuses to recognize himself as non-human.

Aue’s twin sister Una later complements this thought, by killing the jew we wanted to kill ourselves, kill the jew within us, kill that which in us resembles the idea we have of the jew. It is perhaps human nature to kill that within us which we hate, to project that on to the other, and to then kill that. We hate that which we most resemble.

For Aue, the possibility for depravity must be acknowledged as lying within us, not something extra, something outside, something alien. Only by recognizing it as part of our nature, can we guard against it.

Part 2: The Legacy of French Humanism

This humanist conclusion is not only Aue’s, but also Littell’s. The totality of humanism is symbolized on the one hand in the way the novel emphasizes the corporeality of the body; and on the other hand, in the way it interacts with the humanist tradition in French literature.

The Body

The novel is full of harrowing detail –all of it documented as real- of Nazi atrocities against the body. There is a lot of blood, of course, and a lot of shit.

Shit is a key theme in the book, not just to add verisimilitude to the descriptions of malnutrition, minimal hygiene, the squalor of the camps, bowel- loosening terror at the point of death, dysentery and the IBS that Aue suffers from, but also as an indicator of our human nature. The extent of our civilization, at a very low level of symbolism, can be judged by the way we (are allowed to) manage our necessary human excrement. In one of key images, the inmates of Auschwitz on their forced marches back into the Reich are forced to shit while they walk, like horses, their very last vestige of human dignity stripped away. Those who squat by the side of the road to shit are shot. In his dreams, Aue dreams of shit flowing from the bodies of those he loves.

In addition, there are detailed descriptions of food, the lack of it, the rations given to the soldiers at Stalingrad, the gruel given to prisoners, the great banquets of the Nazi conferences, the effects of hunger.

Sexuality of all kinds is part of human nature, and Aue’s sexuality as a passive homosexual, makes the link with sex and shit, putting the anus at the center of human pleasure and pain. His incestuous sexual relationship with his twin sister, which may or may not be a fantasy, is also part of this theme, as is masturbation, of which Aue does a lot, especially in moments of great stress.

In addition to this examination of sexuality, Aue registers our human fascination with death, the cessation of the body: I was finally beginning to perceive that no matter how many dead people I might see, or people at the instant of their death, I would never manage to grasp death, that very moment, precisely in itself.

The French Tradition

This importance of the body is only one of the ways in which the novel interacts with the tradition of French humanism.

Rousseau posited that man’s true nature was noble and that civilisation is the source of corruption, positing a basic dichotomy between man's nature, and his civilisation. Littell shows this dichotomy to be false in the overall project of the novel, and specifically in the incident of the feral children Aue, Thomas and their driver encounter in the forest during the chaotic Russian advance.

Montaigne told us in detail of his bowel movements, his sexual proclivities, his appetites, his relations with his wife and friend, describing his body as well as his mind and library to give us the complete human being.

Rabelais emphasized the body and its pleasures as a way to approach the mystery of God.

Genet, Rimbaud and Verlaine turned foul into fair and celebrated perversity with ravishing descriptions of transgressive sexual behaviour and sonnets addressed to the arsehole.

Cocteau and Genet are key influences in the hallucinatory sequence when Aue is on leave in his sister’s chateau: the image of twins locked in a huge dark room living out their fantasies has echoes of Les Enfants Terribles, and the febrile descriptions of humiliation could have come directly from the pages of Genet: And humiliation in one form or another never let go of me, a sense of the mad vanity of my gestures, but this humiliation and this vanity too placed themselves at my service, and I profited from them with an evil, limitless joy.

Aue reads Stendhal, Flaubert, medieval French poetry; and his adventures in Pyatigorsk, the town where Lermontov was stationed and where he set A Hero of Our Time, threaten to descend into a replay of what happens to Pechorin in that novel.

Part 3: Mythical and Musical Structures

The novel is underpinned by two symbols of the highest moments of Western civilisation: Greek myth, and the work of Bach.


Similar to the way Cocteau used myth in his investigations of political fate (in this case the Oedipus myth) in La Machine Infernale, Littell bases his personal biography of Aue on the myth of Orestes, his murder of his mother, his friendship with Pylades, and his relationship with his twin, Iphigeneia.

Littell uses this myth to show how some of the baser elements of human behaviour have been present from the beginning of Western culture, and are therefore inextricably bound up with civilisation.

At the same time, Aue’s last act in the novel is so shocking, is such a radical destruction of this myth, that it becomes a symbol of the way that the Nazi atrocities were a transgression of human and cultural norms.


For educated Europeans, then and now, the pre-eminent cultural figure, beyond politics, beyond class and nation, beyond taste, is Bach. Aue and Thomas encounter a musician playing Die Kunst der Fugue in a deserted village church in their flight from the Russian advance; Aue, in his lowest moment in Stalingrad mourns the fact that he might die without hearing Bach again; and a child pianist is murdered when he can no longer play Bach.

The novel is organised into 7 sections, with each section given the name of a Baroque dance movement, forming a suite, of the kind used by Bach. Baroque composers- including Bach- freely chose from the range of available forms to put together dance suites. Bach’s English and French Suites, for example, use various combinations of allemande, sarabande, courante, gigue and rondo minuet. In the novel, the prose style and subject matter of each section is based on one of these dance forms.

➢ The first section is a Toccata, a free flowing form, fast and virtuosic, rather like a prelude, in which Aue introduces himself and reflects on some of his experiences, and presents some appalling maths.

➢ Then follow Allemandes I and II (Allemande means 'German' in French), a formal dance in regular rhythm. In this section of the novel, Aue describes in measured, objective and clinical prose his experiences in the Einszatsgruppen, and the highly structured conference on language in Pyatigorsk.

➢ A Courante follows, a fast, running dance, in which Aue describes the chaos and fear of the Kessel at Stalingrad, his wounding, and the strange visionary sequence which follows it.

➢ Then comes the Sarabande, a slow, stately dance, in which Aue describes his convalescence, his leave, his reunion with his sister and her composer husband. It’s in this section that the long conversation about music – Bach, Wagner, Schoenberg, and the French Baroque school specifically- occurs. In this section also, Aue returns to his childhood home and his mother. It is in this section that the reader begins to doubt Aue’s sanity and reliability as a narrator.

➢ The next section, a Menuet en rondeaux, a fast, highly structured, dance movement ('menuet' is related to the word 'minute') details Aue’s return to active service in the SS where he is posted to the camps, his meetings with Eichmann and Speer, and his work in the minutiae of the logistics of efficient killing and slave labour. 'Rondeaux' means 'return', and a rondeaux menuet is a form in which two themes alternate. Here, Aue’s disrupted and possibly insane internal life alternates with his descriptions of his work. Aue’s clinical and highly structured prose begins to fracture, linguistic obscenities –especially the word ‘fuck’- erupt into the text for the first time, and the sentences begin to meander. In this section, Aue is under investigation for the mysterious death of his mother and her husband by the Laurel and Hardy figures of the two policemen Weser and Clemens.

➢ The next section, perhaps the most astonishing, is Air, which means a solo song, removed from the social world of the dance, a form in which melody predominates over rhythm, and a form which was not often included in the classical suite. In this section, Aue is on leave and convalescing in his sister’s chateaux. The prose is at its most dreamlike, meandering and fractured, the images of sex and food predominate here, and there is huge ambiguity as to what is really happening and what Aue imagines is happening. The whole section stands out as different from what is around it, like the voice of Aue’s subconscious finally bursting forth.

➢ The final section is a Gigue (jig), a fast and contrapuntal form, based on folk rhythms. In this section, Aue and Thomas and their driver journey through a landscape reminiscent of Bosch and the Thirty Years War; the fall of Berlin is described; and Aue’s final terrible act is committed. The pace is fast, the suspense gripping and the pages turn as the novel draws to its conclusion.

Now, this all might sound a bit gimmicky, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it would be. But Littell handles these underlying structuring devices with such subtlety and they are such an organic and artistic part of his whole project, that they become an indispensable means for showing how the great achievements of human creativity in literature, myth and music have the same source as our creativity in depravity and cruelty.

Littell's Acheivement

The problem with fictionalised renderings of WW2 and the Holocaust is that the compelling and horrific nature of the subject matter may mask an indifferent literary skill. There is the danger that writers and books of the second rank become elevated to and unfairly perceived as first rank. If we are not careful, it’s easy to ascribe our intense involvement, our sense of awe, as readers of this kind of work, to the skill and vision of the writer, rather than to the momentous and terrible reality of the events described, as for example, Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. The Kindly Ones, however, is no such book. Littell’s huge achievement is to turn his account of one fictional man’s involvement in history into a profound and lasting masterpiece, a meditation on the eternal aspects of human nature, both the lofty and the low, and the power of literature to illuminate it.

This concerns you, you’ll see that this concerns you.

1 comment:

Eric said...

A very fine review of a long and in many ways difficult to grasp novel. Your points on the structural elements are particulary useful, I think, and go some way to explaining a sense of dislocation I experienced at some points while reading.

While I agree that this is an excellent novel - and any attack that focusses on 'excess' is surely misguided - I do think that Vollman's 'Europe Central' is both better as fiction (comparing the structures of these two works does seem to make me think that Littell is a bit stagy in his musico-narrative correlations) and as a 'record' of the horror of man. And for the holocaust straight-up, the first (?) chapter of Grossman's 'Life and Fate' surely has it beat. A train driver who wishes the cattle-cars would be washed out back in Berlin instead of in Auschwitz so he would have time to make the pub before closing goes even straighter, I should think, to what evil is than any of Littell's elaborate scenes of torture.