Friday, December 08, 2006

Allusions and caricatures

Andrew Hussey's sideswipe (it can hardly be called a review) at Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes leads to one conclusion: that its success is due to the French public's wish "to read about anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon in a blockbuster ... than to face up to what is happening around them". He means the "wave of anti-Semitism in Paris".

Gosh, who'd have thunk it: literature as escapism? But couldn't one also make the same argument that is also escaping another current phenomenon: a Christian crusade against Islam and the virulent spread of Islamophobia across Europe? After all, the former has so far led to half a million dead in Iraq, possibly half that in Afghanistan, and the latter can be read in newspaper headlines everyday. I admit these figures aren't as clear as Hussey's. He refers to two victims of this "wave". One is even given a name, the other, one of the alleged perpetrators, is not.

Either way, the review doesn't tell us much about the novel in question. Not that the reviewer is terribly interested anyway. He's more concerned with lording it over fuss surrounding the success of the book - a fuss based mainly on smug articles that say things like Les Bienveillantes is "a genuinely popular bestseller - a quality rarely associated with winners of the Prix Goncourt, which have been distinguished in recent years by their tedious unreadability". An example anyone?

Hussey, a teacher of French Literature and Politics at University of Wales in Aberystwyth, does provide a superficial description of the novel itself. The main characters "regularly quote Plato, Sophocles and Goethe to explain their acts. The very title Les Bienveillantes is a reference to the Furies of Greek myth, whom Aeschylus calls the "kindly ones" ("bienveillantes") in an attempt to defuse their anger." So it's more than just a gore fest. But back to the lording:
The point of these high-cultural trappings is to remind readers of the well-worn notion that immersion in European civilisation is no barrier to the worst acts of barbarity. It is this idea that drives the narrative, and so, as the massacres pile up, characters exchange stilted dialogue about the metaphysics of evil. As it's impossible to feel any empathy with Aue [the Nazi officer], who emerges as no more than a narcissistic aesthete with a taste for cruelty, the intellectual posturing appears in increasingly questionable taste: the stench of the real dead is masked by literature.
Aren't you curious that the novel's narrative drive is borne on that apparent opposition? Maybe that's what makes it so different from all those unnamed tedious and unreadable prize-winners. Hussey isn't curious and seems to have a problem with resonant allusions in general, as if the intellectual posturing was Littell's and not his characters'.
Those who have praised Littell point out that he is a student of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Sade - a fact that still confers intellectual respectability in Left Bank circles. These are controversial influences - it is possible to read both Bataille and Sade simply as advocates of extreme cruelty, and Blanchot's anti-Semitic past still provokes debate.
Yes, it's possible to read Bataille and Sade that way, if you wish to reduce them to caricatures. And where would this review be without those? That reference to Blanchot in particular is phrased in a lazy and self-serving way. The debate is only if Blanchot did have an anti-semitic past, a debate that should have ended years ago anyway. Here's the UK's leading Blanchot expert Leslie Hill responding in the TLS to a similar slur:
John Fletcher is quite wrong to allege that the late Maurice Blanchot was "writing virulently anti-Semitic articles before 1939 and even well into the 1940s". Out of the many hundreds of column inches published by Blanchot in the press in the years up to 1940, there are perhaps no more than three or four brief passages signed by Blanchot (though not necessarily all written by him) that, on a severe, retrospective reading (such as the writer was wont to adopt in later life), may be construed as making some limited appeal to contemporary anti-Semitic rhetoric. None, by the standards of the 1930s, is particularly virulent, and all date from 1936 or 1937. More worthy of note is Blanchot's unequivocal condemnation, in May 1933, of the "barbaric persecutions against the Jews" then taking place in Hitler's Germany, which, Blanchot points out, were bereft of all political purpose, other than to create a demagogic, mystifying smokescreen behind which the regime might conceal its political deficiencies. And Blanchot ended his piece, as he would throughout the decade, unlike Robert Brasillach, whom he detested, by warning against the threat that Hitler's militarism now represented for the rest of Europe.
Blanchot's potential literary influence on Littell, an influence that would surely rest entirely on his post-war career, such as to be found in his book Lautreamont & Sade, would make for an interesting piece by someone with a feeling for the rich complexities of French thought and French literature. Failing that, Andrew Hussey.


  1. I would be interested to know whether the reviewer in question has read Yann Moix's novel, Partouz. It's a disquisition by a narrator (who happens to be working his way unsuccessfully through a Parisian swinger's club) on Mohammed Atta, one of the pilots in the twin towers attack, who took the mission on because he had been thwarted sexually.The narrator's premise is that Islam's terrorist attacks are part of a holy war against sexual promiscuity which has reached unacceptable limits.
    I thought as a novel, it resonated intriguingly with what you were saying. On the Goncourt front, it's funny but the vast majority of recent winners have been very accessible, readable writers, like Laurent Gaude, Jean-Christophe Rufin, Jean Echenoz and Paule Constant. The only one of late that I've considered a bit tediously difficult is Pascal Quignard, and people tend to think he's a genius (I've been wrong before and daresay will be again). So I couldn't really go along with the charge of obscurantism.

  2. Anonymous12:34 pm

    These are such important points and themes, Steve, thank you for posting. The generalized and cariactured distortions of the writings of thinkers like Maurice Blanchot in relation to their assumed "anti-semitism" are too often disturbingly allowed, now and in the recent historical past.

  3. Anonymous1:37 am

    Excellent post.



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