The Kindly Ones is a novel entirely shaped by its critical reception. Written in French by the son of the American thriller writer Robert Littell, the novel garnered extraordinary praise in France, where it was called “the new War and Peace”, described as “a monument of contemporary literature” and won the Prix Goncourt. It went on to sell 700,000 copies there. It is noteworthy that the only prize the book has won in the UK is the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, and that it is a historian – Anthony Beevor – whose praise graces the front cover of the British paperback. Critical reception in Anglo-Saxon countries has been muted, and occasionally withering. It is easy to see why.
The Kindly Ones is meticulously researched. There is something sadistic in the relentless unbundling of facts and figures, the insistence on screaming the veracity of the work at all points. This is clearly the point. The Nazi machine was sustained by its technological complexity, by the way its hegemonic systems embraced every aspect of life. Page after page in the book is devoted to analysis of the arcane wranglings of Nazi ideology – over the fate of the Mountain Jews, over the benefits of working the Jews to death rather than murdering them; further pages drip with acronyms elucidating the interplay of SS, army and air force. The novel is wholly successful as a historical document, although even the most studious historian will find that some of these passages begin to drag.
Where the novel falls down, however, is in the portrayal of the narrator, Dr. Max Aue. The Kindly Ones holds itself out as the memoirs of a high-ranking SS officer who has been amalgamated back into society and, as old age approaches, decides to write down his experience of the war. The first pages are an address to the reader, in a voice that is self-consciously intellectual, rather arch and tiresome (following in the tracks of Littell’s po-faced dedication: “For the dead”). This initial address is crucial, because in it Littell sets out his didactic aim for the book – to show us the banality of evil, to demonstrate that we too would have committed atrocities were we, by a series of historical accidents, to find ourselves in the SS in 1940. “This concerns you: you’ll see that this concerns you,” he assures us. “You should be able to admit to yourself that you might also have done what I did.” He then tells us that “There are psychopaths everywhere, all the time,” and goes on to claim that it is not these psychopaths we should worry about, but rather the great abstract powers of state, and the faceless bureaucrats who carry out that state’s commands: “The real danger for mankind is me, is you… I am a man like other men, I am a man like you. I tell you I am just like you!” Aue is not just like us. He is a psychopath. Hence the novel’s thesis fails.
There is a French tendency to confuse graphic pornography and intellectual refinement (cf. Houellebecq) and, whilst some of the criticism leveled at The Kindly Ones in the US press has seemed a little prudish, the degree of sexual deviancy and its predictability is a real problem here. Because it is as if an adolescent has been set loose upon a work of great historical import, scrawling a cock and balls across passages that are otherwise convincing, layering incest upon S&M homosexuality and long, tedious sex dreams. When Aue finally kills his mother and her boyfriend, rather than coming as a shock it merely confirms our view of him as psychotic. “This”, the reader exclaims, “is exactly what I thought Nazis were like. Cartoon baddies, sexual deviants and ruthless killers.”
Littell tries to head off this criticism through the passages of extreme banality when we see Aue’s political wheeling within the Party. We might think that were we ambitious and hungry for fame under such conditions that we too would curry favour with the monsters who populated the SS. But then Aue compares walking on the dead bodies of Jews – which he says are “terribly slippery” – with cockroaches stepped on in a Spanish toilet. He is a monster, and we are not convinced at any point that he is a “normal man” twisted by an evil system into vile deeds. Littell seeks to provide Aue with a physical conscience. He vomits throughout the novel (and is still vomiting when we meet him years later in the introduction) as if his body is trying to rebel against its evil deeds. It is a gesture, and an unconvincing one, at Aue’s humanity.
The final scene in Hitler’s bunker is a pastiche, as if the madness of the narrator has infected the author. Aue, greeted by Hitler as the allied forces closed in, bites the Fuhrer on the nose. The narrator assures us that “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed a word about this episode, nor has Bullock.” It would be funny if the rest of the novel wasn’t so dreadfully earnest, and if the French literary establishment wasn’t so keen for this novel to take its place alongside Tolstoy and Melville rather than James Clavell and Wilbur Smith.
Any Cop?: The French think so. I’m afraid I don’t. Very long, often turgid, and even the excellent historical detail is spoiled by Littell’s scatological obsessions. The Kindly Ones did, however, thoroughly deserve the Bad Sex Award. Show the passage to any sniggering sixteen year olds you know – they’ll love it. A taster: ‘I came suddenly, a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg’…