Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Getting The Kindly Ones very wrong

As I don't have the time, I want to respond very briefly to Michiko Kakutani's review of The Kindly Ones. This is the most inept, ill-perceiving review of the novel I can imagine (though one other runs it close). "Aue is clearly a deranged creature," she writes "and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle". Well, that is true only to the extent to which one ignores how Aue's fall between life and death determines the narrative and how we should thereby read it. But, of course, Kakutani speaks from a position of moral and psychological authority. As someone employed by a newspaper that manufactured consent for invasions of sovereign nations with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, she has nothing in common with Max Aue. Clearly.

Even the positive reviews - such as Jason Burke's - miss the point, particularly about the translation. It is unfortunate if predictable that literary editors have so far given the book to people who - as foreign correspondents and military historians - have little or no feeling for the literary context in which this book operates and from which it demands to be read. Soon I hope to post my own review. However, if I don't, keep this in mind, particularly if you've been influenced by The Literary Saloon's negative cheerleading: The Kindly Ones is one of the most intense reading experiences you will ever have.

UPDATE: my review is now posted.


  1. Everyone has been buzzing about this novel for weeks in NYC. Some bound galleys have been making the rounds, so I hear. I've pre-ordered a copy. I'm looking forward to reading it. Thanks for adding some much needed clarity and perspective to Kakutani's rancid review.

  2. Thanks Todd. Buzz isn't always a good thing of course and, before I read it, I was half-expecting the caricature presented in MK's review. I don't understand how it can be described as "a mess" any more than, say, Bernhard's novels can be described as extended rants.

  3. Heh. Your last word reminds me of Geoff Dyer and his frustrated desire to write "a rambling, sub-Bernhardian rant of a novel." (Googling now for Thomas Bernhard rant I see that the word is frequently used to describe his books - often kindly - so the coincidence is not so great.)

    I had not really given much consideration to The Kindly Ones after a publishing person told me it was disappointing. As that was the first time I had even heard of the book, it was a hard preconception to surmount. But I will now try.

  4. The coverage for The Kindly Ones thus far has proved polarizing. I remain but a sixth of the way into the novel and find myself astounded.

  5. Thanks John and Jon. I was astounded too.

    The Literary Saloon continues against the book today I see. My comment needs "to be supported by some -- any ! -- sort of argument and explanation, no ?" Well yes, which is why I'm writing a review with patience rather than bashing one out to feed pap to book-devouring numpties. Perhaps I could give it an A+ instead...

    And, FWIW, I wrote this post in the time I had left before leaving for the Warwick Prize ceremony in the midlands. It's ironic this short post prompted more attention than Littell's beautiful essay on Blanchot I posted on the 14th.

  6. Anonymous2:20 pm

    The Kindly Ones is an important, epoch-defining novel, a novel that cannot and must not be ignored, a novel we have to read and struggle with. It is also an arduous novel, crammed with hundreds of names which is impossible to remember, German words that make you feel awkward, paperwork stuffed into the text with no mediation. Quite often, Littell goes beyond sciolism and parades himself in long tirades and chains of cryptic phrases, as if he were addressing the milieu of historians rather than the common readers, and maybe it's really that way.
    During a stay in Paris, Aue bumps into a book by Maurice Blanchot, Faux Pas, which includes an essay on Moby Dick, an "impossible book" that "reveals itself only through the question it asks". As a declaration of poetics, it is even blatant: Littell is melvillian from the sphyncter to the optic nerve. And if Melville - as Henry Jenkins suggested - wrote the way he did because he was a fan, an enthusiast of whale hunting who wished to describe it in depth, then what is Littell a fan of? Littell is a fan of the 20th century, the "century of steel and fire". To grasp its essence is his obsession, the brown whale he's been hunting for years.

  7. Anonymous2:36 pm

    I don't know a description more striking, more haunting, as the erotic despair of the hero, [Max Aue] that makes me consider that the birth of this book owes much to psychoanalysis and that this would ultimately the reason for its rejection. It will however not consider this as an obscene display of which serve the plot to show the vicissitudes of an erotic end gross facade excuse justifying the desire to distract them. Because of the prevailing tone back on all the work that it becomes unbearable retroactively. Jonathan Littell introduces us to this tragic condition, behind the glossy look with which we present by appearing insensitive to what it involved. For me, literature, the true one, is on the side of Littell. L.B. ( France )

  8. Anonymous4:32 pm

    Many readers who stop to read after the 150th page are addressed to the test often unbearable to be confronted with a horror that was likely to be more than likely.
    To stop on the apparent perversion of Max Aue may hide most of this literary work that exceeds the limits of the novel. The division between good and evil going on inside the psyche of all men, "gray area" as Primo wrote Levi. It must be identified in the character of Max Aue this critical region of the soul where absolute evil opposes the brotherhood.

  9. Anonymous11:15 am

    But, of course, Kakutani speaks from a position of moral and psychological authority. As someone employed by a newspaper that manufactured consent for invasions of sovereign nations with the consequent death of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, she has nothing in common with Max Aue. Clearly.

    Excellent point, Stephen, and applicable to far more reviewers than K.

  10. I am not sure whether the New York Times actually endorsed the invasion of Iraq.

    In any case, I am glad I went ahead and ordered Littel's book after reading MICHIKO KAKUTANI's review, which had me thinking that the book was the literary equivalent to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

    I am 155 pages into the book. It indeed is a disturbing read, given the point of view.

    However Littel's book, so far, is no more graphic than Martin Gilbert's The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, or Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees.



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