Sunday, March 15, 2009

The huge difficulty of dying: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In 1938, living in Paris and short of money, the little known writer Samuel Beckett agreed to translate de Sade's Les 120 journées de Sodome. He confided in his friend Thomas McGreevy about concerns for his career if he was associated with such a book even though he believed it transcended its reputation.
The obscenity of surface is indescribable. Nothing could be less pornographical. It fills me with a kind of metaphysical ecstasy. The composition is extraordinary, as rigorous as Dante’s.
Soon after, of course, the war began and the project was abandoned. Beckett escaped to an unoccupied zone while de Sade's novel proved to be an insufficient realism. For this reason alone it is difficult to comprehend let alone accept the implications of Beckett's appreciation. It would mean that the pleasure he took in reading unrelenting descriptions of sexual violence and cruelty is in effect no different to that gained from reading Jane Austen, another of Beckett's favourites at the time and, by his own account, no less pornographical.

What's more, his rapture and comparison of de Sade to Dante suggests that compositional rigour manifests divine power. As readers, we are close to omnipotence, elevated from the trials and duties of worldly existence, able to create and destroy at will. Literary pleasure is thereby in itself independent of human community; a singularity become universal. Even as it evokes fraternity, the unique gift of art tends toward tyranny. What is to be done?

One of those attracted to the gift was a young Franz Kafka. Aged 21, he sought to resist the ease of solitary power. Writing to Oskar Pollack, he expressed a self-desftructive literary manifesto:
I think we ought to read only books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn't wake us like a blow on the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good God, we would be just as happy if we had no books and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.
Is Les 120 journées de Sodome such a book? Perhaps. But where does this need for axe-like books lead us? Eighteen years later, having written many of his greatest works, Kafka recognised the darkness in the initial romance:
Writing is a sweet and wonderful reward, but for what? In the night it became clear to me, as clear as a child's lesson book, that it is the reward for serving the devil. This descent to the dark powers, this unshackling of spirits bound by nature, these dubious embraces and whatever else may take place in the nether parts which the higher parts no longer know, when one writes one's stories in the sunshine.
This is why Kafka ordered Max Brod to burn his manuscripts, not out of extreme literary scrupulosity or modesty, though these too are close to the writer. Kafka, like Beckett, had counted upon literature to nourish an otherwise emaciated life: "Writing sustains me," he says in the same letter, "but is it not more accurate to say that it sustains this kind of life?".

If Kafka is right and writing is - however hyperbolic it might sound - in unwitting service of the devil, then what is the alternative: not writing? What would it mean for the individual striving for what is apparently beyond words to turn away from art yet still seek to defrost the frozen sea? An answer is presented in Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones. What has so far been received as an historical fiction examining the psychology of genocide is also, and perhaps more significantly, a reiteration of Kafka's revelation.

When we meet Maximilien Aue he is a respectable business and family man, a manufacturer of lace somewhere in France. Before that, however, he tells us he was a Nazi intelligence officer working inside Hitler's imperial war machine. In order to remain alive and free he has had much to conceal. Now, as we begin to read this book - his memoir - he is a writer too. What has caused the break in cover, the end of silence? At first, Aue claims to want to reveal "how it happened" and that his will be an edifying story, "a real morality play" in which we will learn something about the Holocaust, and of course he and his book has been judged accordingly. Yet, as we prepare ourselves for the long repetition of a story we know so well from other sources, the warning from history, the ease with which respectable men become savage killers, Aue moves further back:
If after all these years I’ve made up my mind to write, it's to set the record straight for myself, not for you. For a long time we crawl on this earth like caterpillars, waiting for the splendid, diaphanous butterfly we bear within ourselves. And then time passes and the nymph stage never comes, we remain larvae – what do we do with such an appalling realization?
This then is a personal story rather than Aue revealing his universality. As is soon made clear, he is no Everyman; nobody ever quite is. Even at this later stage in life, Maximilien Aue is still himself alone, crawling through life, waiting to fly. Suicide, he admits, is an option and imagines a hand grenade against his chest: "And then at last happiness, or in any case peace, as the shreds of my flesh slowly dripped off the walls." But no, he hasn’t chosen suicide despite its promises. He's writing instead. Why? It was a question asked in their own lives and in their own ways by both Beckett and Kafka, and both were appalled yet still compelled to continue. In Aue's case, the answer has a history as long as his life: "Ever since I was a child," he says, "I had been haunted by a passion for the absolute, for the overcoming of all limits". From that time, he dreamt of becoming a great pianist with "cathedrals at my fingertips, airy as foam" and then wanted "above all else to study literature and philosophy". But circumstances conspired and he became a doctor of law instead. Undisclosed at first is another outlet for his passion, perhaps because it involves a deeper heartbreak.

The only person he has ever loved, he says, is his twin sister, Una. Their incestuous relationship ended before adulthood yet persists in Aue's inner life. He dreams of returning to the time when they were inseparable, swimming as one in the sea, their parents absent. She dominates his thoughts and behaviour. He claims to have had exclusively homosexual encounters since solely in order to submit to penetration, to be Una even as he remains himself; a repetition of transcendent love. Of course, this threatens serious repercussions in the ranks of the Nazi Party which regards homosexual behaviour a crime. Yet the Party plays a similar role in Aue's life. Its ideology also presents itself as a form of overcoming, a transcendence of the limits of the self, an ascent into the Lebensraum of the world at large. To achieve this it too demands submission to the penetrating will of another, the Führer. Aue is prepared to do whatever it takes, whether this means transgressing Nazi law or by following its orders to the letter.

His narrative is arranged in seven long chapters each with a musical title. It opens with Toccata, a rhetorical flourish, and then continues with Allemande I & II in which Aue is posted to the Crimea in the Ukraine and, as the title suggests, links arms with his fellow Nazis to pursue occupation and suppress resistance. This includes arranging and carrying out mass executions of local civilians. As readers, we experience these through Aue's eyes alone - we are not introduced to Jewish victims but see them from a distance, almost as if Aue is writing one of his official reports. Their suffering is beyond description. Yet, rather than mollify the reader's anguish, Aue's objective narrative style deepens it. We have no sentiment to assist us beyond the experience. Despite also feeling disgust, Aue claims to have got through the experience himself by holding to the belief that the massacres are necessary for the long-term Nazi goal. However, it should be emphasised that such events against civilians are relatively rare in the novel and that Allemande I & II is taken up mainly by the intrigues of SS politics and his research projects into the ethnicity of the various populations in the Caucasus. The latter involves long, engrossing digressions with no violent disturbances. It means that when, after eighty pages or more, we return to the clearings in which thousands of Jews are to be slaughtered, we are provoked into feeling the dizzying absence of inevitability, the removal of the comforts of teleology. It is a peculiar horror considering it is a familiar subject in our culture.

Indeed, there are many passages in the book in which terrible things happen that serve no apparent purpose beyond their cumulative power. Many events are not resolved later in the novel and so leave the reader stunned and seeking some kind of release from meaninglessness. For instance, Aue joins a patrol in which a Ukrainian peasant woman is shot by accident. However, before she dies, her unborn child is saved - cut from her womb and wrapped in a shawl - by a German soldier, only then for an indifferent officer to dash the baby’s head against a wall, furious that effort has been spent on a peasant's life. One expects a lesson to be drawn, for ramifications, but the telling of the event is all that remains. However, for all Aue’s ability to distance himself, this ease of killing does begin to have an impact. His body insists on vomiting and expelling diarrhoea. Also, his mind begins to pursue an understanding:
This was what I couldn't manage to grasp: the yawning gap, the absolute contradiction between the ease with which one can kill and the huge difficulty there must be in dying.
What can he mean? As a Nazi, such difficulty is surely beside the point, which is the destruction of Germany's enemies. In defending his intellectual concerns, Aue insists it is vital "to comprehend within oneself the necessity of the Führer's orders", otherwise one is "nothing but a sheep, a slave and not a man". There is a contradiction here too as rational consent to such necessity must also lead to the same condition; it is in the nature of submission. The problem that has been revealed is that submission is always incomplete; there is always the yawning gap. Submission is as impossible as death: "even with the rifle at the back of your head or the rope around your neck, death remains incomprehensible, a pure abstraction, this absurd idea that I, the only living person in the world, could disappear. Dying, we may already be dead, but we never die, that moment never comes, or rather it never stops coming".

Aue cites a need to understand the abstraction as the reason for not requesting a transfer to more traditional war zones. He prefers to remain to seek the "sensation of rupture" brought by the executions, the "infinite disturbance" of his whole being. All the same, like any addiction, the more he attends, the less he feels. If we set aside the impulse to dismiss this as Sadistic delight, we can see that Aue too is enduring the huge difficulty of dying. So why is he fascinated by this space opened between life and death?

While searching for a cure or an answer, Aue expresses admiration for the capacity of the Nazis' adjudged enemy to internalise its beliefs. "When the Jew submitted to the Law, he felt that this law lived in him. National Socialism had to be that too: a living law." Such measured respect for ancient religion over fresh ideology is telling and will resurface elsewhere. It suggests in effect Aue's only means to achieve the desired state is to take Nazism toward its logical fulfilment: that is, to accept obliteration. It means he must die alongside those being killed. But how? It's a question that runs deep throughout this overwhelming novel.

Later on in the Caucasus campaign, it becomes clear the issue extends beyond the particulars of the war. Aue is leading Jewish men toward a forest clearing where his soldiers are preparing a trench. Before the slaughter can begin, they find that the Soviets have been there before. Already there are mass graves in the forest. Wherever a new trench is begun, more bodies appear, each with a bullet in the neck. The officers are agitated, the soldiers dig another trench and the Jews look on and wait. Here is the absolute contradiction in a literary tableau: the living and the dead confronting each other, both intimately close and infinitely distant; neither close nor distant enough. The reader, already discomforted by the horror of the scene and, if not certain, then aware of its likely accuracy to the historical record, is now as impatient as the officers for it to be over. The reader becomes a Nazi and the horror is thereby situated beyond disposable titillation. That said, the scene does seem to be too convenient, too literary, an adaptation of the historical record into a drama for the more discerning voyeur. The scene might also stand as a correlate of The Kindly Ones' literary bloodline: yet another work of fiction about the Nazis devoured by a greedy market, yet another distressing reminder of the Shoah, as if this work of leisure is also disturbing graves in order to kill nameless thousands yet again. Surely there something pathological in the demand for such cruel repetition. Setting aside repugnance in the forest, it does remain necessary to the reader’s experience of this infinitely terrible time before and after an event, a time in which dying persists. It might also be asked: how can the absolute contradiction be recognised by the reader without the means also appearing contrived and distasteful?

The length of the novel, however, works against such impressions. A reviewer might seize extraordinary scenes such as this to present the kernel of the novel, but it is an unfortunate deceit. The primary experience of The Kindly Ones is similar - even at less than a third of its length - to that of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Proust's novel cannot be reduced to the scenes involving the Petite Madeleine and the uneven paving stone. One could not add even the lesbian sado-masochism at Montjouvain and the debauchery of the Baron de Charlus without losing the intense sensibility of the narrator, nor how our exposure to these four headline events is framed by the rest of the novel in which innumerable characters and events propel the reader forward in fascination. This is why reading the novel is necessary to move beyond its superficial context.

In his search for lost time, Marcel recovers it by chance. The power of an event or an experience is recovered or unveiled for the first time when he least expects it; intellectual control is subverted. Yet, whereas Proust's novel maintains intellectual control in presenting these revelatory moments, Aue's search for lost life demands that the narrative style itself changes to accommodate the meaning of that loss. After the cool, objective style - presented in beautiful clarity by Charlotte Mandell's translation - Aue continues his task of dying by divesting himself of mastery just as he divested himself of control in sexual encounters and in military service.

From the relative comforts of Ukraine, Aue is "sent to join those already dead" at the siege of Stalingrad. He is not so much frightened as intrigued. The conditions are terrible: lice live under uniforms, food is scarce and diarrhoea once again punctuates daily existence. Aue explores the frontline and experiences for the first time being under attack. Suddenly realism descends into pages of dream-like reveries involving Una and dirigibles. This is where the novel seems to be shedding its documentary narrative progression, testing the reader's expectations and patience. When we are returned to a controlling consciousness, the narrative is thereby infected with the danger of its loss; we are now always on the edge of darkness. It descends again during a period of recovery from the surrealist ordeal as Aue visits his mother and step-father in the south of France. Soon it will overwhelm him as well as the novel.

After the miasma of the front line, Aue retreats to Berlin and becomes deeply involved in Nazi bureaucracy. He has meetings with Himmler, Eichmann and Mandelbrot, a grotesque fictional player right out of Kafka. He attends a musical soiree at Eichmann's home and watches as the bureaucrat plays the violin: "his eyes rivetted to the score; he didn't make any mistakes, but didn't seem to understand that that wasn't enough". From here, despite the calm of imperial offices, that lack of understanding takes its toll. Aue's life and Germany's war begin to unravel. Illness and Allied air raids encroach on the social whirl and a traditional romance with a local girl is threatened; the vengeance of the Furies - the kindly ones of the title - is revealed.

One last time Aue encounters the huge difficulty of dying by visiting first an underground factory and then Auschwitz itself, both populated and run by the living dead. Given leave by Himmler's bomb-damaged ministry, he turns his attention to Una, "the thought of whom never releases me and leaves my head only to seep into my bone, the one who will always be there between the world and me". He travels to Pomerania where she and her crippled composer husband live. But their mansion is empty and thereby becomes a stage for Aue's final attempt to submit, to close the distance. It's a bizarre chapter particularly as the reader had been very aware of the Russian advance and expecting Aue's escape to be the focus of the narrative.

His return to Berlin maintains these expectations but by now it is too late and the kindly ones have swamped Aue's mastery, turning a sub-plot mystery into a Kafkaesque comedy. It is a difficult loss for the novel to bear and gives the impression of a failure on the novelist's part. However, there is one particularly unlikely scene involving the Führer himself that ends any doubt. It is clear we are at the end, when the huge difficulty of dying is finally over. Only not quite. Even as the kindly ones wreak their power, there is an excessive moment, a residual space in which dying never comes. We recognise the condition; it has been with us all along and has never been silent. Indeed, the absolute contradiction sustains Maximilien Aue; it inaugurates his narrative. Had he not fallen into the yawning gap between life and death, he would not be writing this account of the war and we would not be reading it. The reader, his accomplice, is thereby also sustained. But then what kind of sustenance is it?


  1. Oh, this looks good. Your post, I mean, not the book (although: of course, of course). I am going to refrain from reading it until I have time to sit down and pay attention. ETA about six weeks at current extracurricular activity levels.

  2. Anonymous2:53 pm

    This got a spectacular panning in the Sunday Times. Unjustified, I take it, in your view?

  3. Yes, if it needs to be spelled out: unjustified. However, it's to be expected from the source.

    TS Eliot's observation still holds.

  4. Anonymous10:04 pm

    As you mention translation and The Kindly Ones, I thought you would be interested in a translation journal by The Kindly Ones translator into Hebrew:

  5. Great work! thanks for this post.

  6. Anonymous8:25 am

    The book exhausted me, although I reached the end. The oppressive nature of the theme dragged me down too much while reading it and I was glad when I could put it back on the shelf and look outside at the spring sunshine. Maybe I'll put it on ebay.

  7. A sublime dragging I'd say.

  8. My comments on the book are at On your review, it should be said that whatever merit the present book has, and it has some, it does not have the one which marks Proust: the intelligence of every sentence in it.

  9. Good historical fiction



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