Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Aue and the Gory

What has shocked me in reading the reviews of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones is not so much that they're negative - even positive reviews are often clueless and anyway anything of which Peter Kemp and the intellectual seau de saindoux Andrew Hussey disapproves is worth reading - but their general carelessness, as if the novel had been read through press clippings, as if the experience of 975 pages can be reduced to headlines and blithe summaries dunked in mock disgust. They have reminded me of literary-man-of-the-(knitting)-people John Carey summarising Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a novel obsessed with homosexuality and the French nobility. Even Harry Bagot of Luton could do better than that.

However, bouquets to subdue the stench of literary culture's decay can be found in Ted Gioia's review at Blogcritics, Samuel Moyn's in The Nation (though I think the Zelig comparison is inaccurate), Carey Harrison's at RSB and Daniel Mendelsohn's magnificent review in the NYRB. The latter is particularly welcome as it places the novel in the context of its "Greek ingredients" and French thought in occupied Paris, both of which, Mendelsohn argues, explain why the headline factors of the novel - dismissed as pornography and kitsch by the hacks - are "in fact integral to the novel's moralizing projects".

UPDATE: my review is now posted.

5 comments:

  1. Reading your post has reminded me of Jack Green's "Fire the Bastards!", on the abysmal reception of Gaddis's Recognitions. Green pointed out that many of the reviews appeared to have been worked up from jacket synopses, publisher's press releases, other reviews, and a shared tone of self-satisfied dismissal. The Kindly Ones is obviously a different novel, as are some of the specific "reasons" -- or reflexes -- cited for its dismissal, but apparently the philistinism remains the same. Oh, and the high journalistic standards.

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  2. Good point Edmond. It's online:
    http://www.nyx.net/~awestrop/ftb/ftb.htm

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  3. Interesting as well how so many of the bull-headedly negative reviews talk about scene after scene of torture and murder (comparing the book in more than one instance to American Psycho) when, in fact so much of the violence is at the fringes of the novel - just out of view behind the history, paperwork and bureaucracy.

    I found the book incredibly powerful –

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  4. When can we expect your review of this book? Not trying to get impatient but I am looking forward to it.

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  5. I'm going to try to complete it this weekend.

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