The Kindly Ones in America
By BENJAMIN POLLAK
Since its publication
in the beginning of March, Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones has been the subject of glowing praise and
bitter criticism. Originally published in France in 2006 as Les
Bienveillantes, it received wide critical
acclaim, winning two of France’s most prestigious literary awards, the Prix
Goncourt and the Académie Française’s
Grand Prix du Roman.The Kindly Ones is the fictional memoir of Max Aue, a high-ranking
SS officer who was involved in the brutal massacre at Babi Yar, the Battle of
Stalingrad, and the final days of the concentration camps. Extending nearly
1,000 pages, Littell’s epic brings the stunning brutality and the bureaucratic
intrigues of the SS to vivid life.
How did you first become interested in translating The Kindly Ones?
I first heard about Les Bienveillantes from a French friend, I think, soon after it came out in France. I was suspicious of it at first because it was selling so well—I'm usually leery of bestsellers. Then a publisher (not HarperCollins) asked me if I'd be willing to write a reader's report of the book a week before the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2006. I said I'd be happy to, but the publisher decided they'd bid for the book without a reader's report, and I thought that was that.
Then in March 2007 Terry Karten, an executive editor at HarperCollins, asked me to submit a 15-page translation sample, from the first chapter and from a section later on in the book, in "Allemandes I and II." My submission was then sent anonymously (along with five or six other submissions) to Jonathan Littell, Littell's agent, the head of HarperCollins, the editors at the UK publisher of the book, and the Canadian ones. Apparently they all liked my translation. It's interesting that the selection was done anonymously, because Jonathan Littell and I ended up having a lot of things in common: he is an avid reader of Blanchot, as I am, and he had even translated some of the same texts by Blanchot and Genet (when he was still in university) that I had translated. He also likes Flaubert and Proust, whom I've also translated.
The Kindly Ones has an unusual linguistic back story. Littell, an American who lived for many years in France, chose to write the novel in his adopted language rather than in English. Is there something inherently French about the narrative or the way it’s told?
Actually Jonathan was three when his family moved to France, so he grew up speaking French; I think he feels more comfortable writing in French than in English. Also, French is the language of his literary mentors, like Proust, Genet, Sade, Bataille, Blanchot. And of course Flaubert: Jonathan wrote a “Letter to my Translators” in which he asks his translators to preserve his use of the imperfect tense as much as possible (instead of replacing it with the more common past historic); Flaubert used the imperfect in much the same way, to make the story more immediate, to make the reader feel as if the events were happening now, or in the recent past. As if the story were ongoing.
That’s very interesting. It reminds me of the provocative words with which the protagonist, Max Aue, ends the first section of the book. After alluding to his career in the SS, he says, “I live, I do what can be done, it’s the same for everyone, I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Are we, the present day readers, implicated in the “ongoing” story?
We are not like Aue but we are all unfortunately too much like the people that Aue is working with—ordinary people doing their job, following orders. That’s how we are implicated. It is the genius of the book, I think, to make us see how the Nazi bureaucracy works from within, from an insider’s perspective, not from the victim’s point of view. Because of his sensitivity, and his perversion, Aue himself is an Ishmael, exile, outcast, and because he’s an outcast he’s able to look dispassionately at the world around him, and to provide an objective narrative of events like Babi Yar and the forced marches out of Auschwitz. What’s more, Aue’s private perversities mirror the public ones being perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and they increase as the war progresses and the atrocities worsen.
A lot of reviews I’ve read seem to mistake Aue for Littell, and they blame Littell for distorting the “banality of evil” through Aue’s character. But I think that’s the novel’s strength: Aue, as a fictional ruse, is able to report the actual events and people around him, and to show how easy it is to be drawn into mass murder and indiscriminate killing. It’s easy for us to say we’re not like Aue, but who of us can say we wouldn’t have done what he did, in his place? Who of us can say we’re not like the eminently ordinary Eichmann?
As The Kindly Ones’ translator, you are also its ambassador to American readers, as well as other readers of English. What kind of intervention do you hope the novel will make in America’s Holocaust memorial culture?
I’ve been disappointed to see how many Jewish reviewers (David Herman at thejc.com among them) see only “pornography and violence” in The Kindly Ones. As Samuel Moyn points out in his lengthy and thoughtful review of the book in The Nation, there’s actually very little violence in the book—most of it occurs in the early sections of the book, when Max witnesses some of the mass slaughter at Babi Yar, and is forced to take part in it as an officer. But as Laura Hodes (who wrote a very intelligent review of The Kindly Ones in the Forward) points out on her blog, these violent scenes are things that actually occurred in the Holocaust; it’s the Holocaust that’s disgusting, “not any prurience intrinsic to the fiction.”
Also, Claude Lanzmann has been quoted extensively as denouncing the book as “a poisonous flower of evil,” but actually after Lanzmann met Littell he became an ardent defender of the book, saying “Littell is very talented. I am familiar with his subject, and above all I was astounded by the absolute accuracy of the novel. Everything is correct. The names of the people and the names of the places. I told myself that the only two people capable of understanding the book from beginning to end are Raul Hilberg [the late American historian who wrote the magisterial The Destruction of the European Jews] and me.
As to the “pornography,” it’s no more pornographic than Bataille or Genet. The English novelist Carey Harrison, in his review of the book at ReadySteadyBook, points out that in his private perversities Max mirrors the public perversities being perpetrated by the Nazi state; as Samuel Moyn writes (in The Nation, again), “the novel’s true premise is not that Aue is like other perpetrators. It is that he stands for Nazism as a whole.” Dismissing The Kindly Ones as merely pornographic comes down to dismissing the Holocaust as pornographic, which in a sense it was.
One thing I think The Kindly Ones does better than any other book about the Holocaust I’ve read is delve into the intricacies of the Nazi bureaucracy, and examine from an insider’s perspective how the killing machine worked (or didn’t work). Littell’s five years of research for the book shows in his intimate knowledge of all the different Nazi organizations; he exposes the lack of communication, and cooperation, between these groups brilliantly when we see Max’s exasperation in Hungary at his inability to save Jews for forced labor as Eichmann is glibly sending them off to be gassed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, The Kindly Ones, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out in his
brilliant review in the recent New York
Review of Books, is a modern-day morality play. As Aue is faced with ever
more ambiguous moral dilemmas, the reader is forced to face them with him, and
to wonder what s/he would have done in his place. It’s easy to dismiss Aue as a
monster at the end, but would we have been any different, if we had been forced
to see and do the things he has seen and done? The Kindly Ones is a deeply unsettling book, and its strength lies
in its not providing any easy answers. It haunts us in a way a matter-of-fact
history book on the Holocaust might not do.