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Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
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A-The Kindly OnesWritten in French by the American-born and Yale-educated Jonathan Littell, The Kindly Ones made headlines in France for being only the second novel in the nation’s history to win both the Grand Prix du Roman of the Academie Francaise and the Prix Goncourt. American and British critics wonder why.

The Story: Sixty years after the end of World War II, Maximilien Aue, the manager of a small French lace factory, decides to write his memoirs. Aue, a former SS officer, has been living under an assumed name since 1945, when he fled his native Germany. During the Nazi era, he inspected concentration camps to ensure the efficiency of the Final Solution, and he rose through the party’s ranks, rubbing elbows with its elite. Despite his success, however, he cannot escape his incestuous lust for his twin sister Una, which propels him into increasingly debauched sexual encounters. As the war turns against Germany and the allies draw near, Aue’s frustrated passion turns to murderous compulsion.
Harper. 992 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 0061353450

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 2 of 5 Stars
"The Kindly Ones is a tawdry, familiar tale in comparison to recent novels that covered similar ground, such as William T. Vollmann’s magisterial Europe Central, which visited, in language that was beautiful and inventive, the same question Littell bothers to a froth: How is evil of such magnitude committed by everyday people? By comparison, The Kindly Ones often reads like a beefed-up thriller; the metaphorical steroids of Greek mythology and intellectual history give it muscles merely for show." John Freeman

Guardian (UK) 1.5 of 5 Stars
"If you have an interest in … the mass of period-specific social and sensory minutiae that comprised the human reality out of which arose, say, the massacre at Babi Yar, or the final death march from Auschwitz; if you care to revive, in your own psyche, the finer points of cannibalism in Stalingrad or the emotional impact on the war-weary Gauleiters of Himmler’s call, at Posen, for total genocide, then this is undoubtedly a book you should read. … By the end, after extended scenes of him having sex with half the furniture in his sister’s abandoned house, we’re left with a pure singularity: a ghoul belonging more to the fictional universe of, say, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho … than the real-world squalor of Nazi Germany." James Lasdun

NY Times Book Review 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The Kindly Ones, for all its aspirations to profundity, is less a moral challenge than a sheer test of endurance. Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously." David Gates

Telegraph (UK) 0.5 of 5 Stars
"No amount of high-toned chatter about Kant or Darwin can disguise the fact that, with its sex ‘n’ fascism horror comic theme, at heart this is a low, conventionally minded novel. … If the translation … of this absurd and odious novel finds an audience in Britain, the reasons to be sad will be clear enough." George Walden

New York Times 0.5 of 5 Stars
"Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones … is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies." Michiko Kakutani

San Francisco Chronicle 0.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s not a free ride, reading this bloated novel all the way through. Aue ends up pursued by the avenging Furies—‘The Kindly Ones’ out of classical mythology—and the reader ends up wanting to vomit. If there is anyone in your Facebook friends list who doesn’t know about the crimes of the Nazis, give them this novel. The punishment fits the crime." Alan Cheuse

Critical Summary

Despite being hailed as a new War and Peace in its native France, The Kindly Ones did not fare as well further west, where critics decried it as "Holocaust porn." Unable to let go of any of his research, Littell strings together hundreds of pages of brutally graphic descriptions of the torture and murder of Jews, interrupted only by Aue’s grotesque sexual dalliances and frequent bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. A clichéd plot, graceless prose, and an awkward translation round out the novel’s flaws. By making Aue a monstrous psychopath, Littell completely destroys Aue’s value in exploring the moral complexities of ordinary people under the Nazi regime. The only soul-searching readers will do is to understand why they picked up the book in the first place.

Supplementary Reading

Europe Central | William T. Vollman: Award Star National Book Award. In this innovative, experimental novel, Vollman explores the human cost of totalitarianism as it shaped the people and politics of 20th-century Central Europe. ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005)