The Kindly Ones (Littell novel)
The Kindly Ones Author(s) Jonathan Littell Original title Les Bienveillantes Translator Charlotte Mandell Country France Language French Genre(s) Novel, historical fiction Publisher Éditions Gallimard (France)
Publication date September 13, 2006 Published in
March 3, 2009 Media type Pages 902 pp (French)
992 pp (English)
ISBN ISBN 207078097X (French)
ISBN 978-0061353451 (English)
OCLC Number 71274155 LC Classification PQ3939.L58 B5 2006
The Kindly Ones (French: Les Bienveillantes) is a historical novel written in French by American-born author Jonathan Littell. The 900-page book became a bestseller in France and was widely discussed in newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books and seminars. It was also awarded two of the most prestigious French literary awards, the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and the Prix Goncourt in 2006. As of December 2009 it has been translated into seventeen languages.
The book is narrated by protagonist Maximilien Aue, a former SS officer of French and German ancestry who helps carry out massacres during the Holocaust, but in the end flees from Germany to start a new life in northern France. Aue is present during several of the major events of World War II.
The title Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) refers to the trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies, The Oresteia written by Aeschylus. The Erinyes or Furies were vengeful goddesses who tracked and tormented those who murdered a parent. In the plays, Orestes, who has killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father Agamemnon, was pursued by these female goddesses. The goddess Athena intervenes setting up a jury trial to judge the case of the Furies against Orestes. Athena gives the casting vote which acquits Orestes, then pleads with the Furies to accept the trial's verdict and to transform themselves into "Most loved of gods, with me to show and share fair mercy, gratitude and grace as fair." The Furies accept and are renamed the Eumenides or Kindly Ones (in French Les Bienveillantes).
When asked why he wrote such a book, Littell evokes a photo he discovered in 1989 of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a Soviet partisan hanged by the Nazis in 1941. At the time he had a pharaonic project of writing a 10-volume book, which he gave up after writing the first three. The seeds of The Kindly Ones are to be found in the future fourth volume. He adds that a bit later, in 1992, he watched the movie Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, which left an impression on him, especially the discussion by Raul Hilberg about the bureaucratic aspect of the genocide process.
In 2001, Littell decided to quit his job at Action Against Hunger and started research which lasted 18 months, during which he went to Germany, Caucasus, Ukraine, Russia and Poland, and read around 200 books, mainly about Nazi Germany, the Eastern Front, the Nuremberg Trials and the genocide process. In addition, the author studied the literature and film archives of World War II and the post-war trials. Littell worked on this novel for about five years. This book is his first novel written in French; he published an earlier science fiction book called Bad Voltage in 1989.
Littell said he wanted to focus on the thinking of an executioner and of origins of state murder, showing how we can take decisions that lead, or not, to a genocide. Littell claims he set out creating the character Max Aue by imagining what he would have done and how he would have behaved if he had been born into Nazi Germany. One childhood event that kept Littell interested in the question of the killer was the Vietnam War. According to him, "My childhood terror was that I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam and made to kill women and children who hadn't done anything to me."
Whereas the influence of Greek tragedies is clear from the choice of title, the absent father, and the roles of incest and parricide, Littell makes it clear that he was influenced by more than the structure of The Oresteia. He found that the idea of morality in Ancient Greece is more relevant for making judgments about responsibility for the Holocaust than the Judeo-Christian approach, where the idea of sin can be blurred by the concepts such as intentional sin, unintentional sin, sinning by thought or sinning by deed. For the Greeks it was the commission of the act itself upon which one is judged: Oedipus is guilty of patricide, even if he did not know that he was killing his father.
The book is a fictional autobiography, describing the life of Maximilien Aue, a former officer in the SS who decades later tells the story of a crucial part of his life when he was an active member of the forces of the Third Reich. In the book, Aue accepts his responsibility for his actions in massacres of the Jews, but most of the time he feels more an observer than a direct participant.
Aue starts the war as a member of an Einsatzgruppe in Ukraine, during which he participates in the Babi Yar massacre. He is then sent to the Battle of Stalingrad, but survives. After a convalescence period in Berlin and a visit to France, he is designated for a managerial role for the concentration camps and visits both Auschwitz and Belzec extermination camps. He is present during the Battle of Berlin, Nazi Germany's last stand. By the end of the story, he leaves Germany unscathed. Throughout the book Aue meets several famous Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Adolf Hitler.
- « Toccata »
- In this introduction, we are introduced to the narrator and discover how he has ended up in France after the war. He is the director of a lace factory, has a wife, children and grandchildren, though he has no real affection for his family and continues his homosexual encounters when he travels on business. He hints of an incestuous love which we learn later was for his twin sister. He explains that he has decided to write about his experiences during the war for his own benefit and not as an attempt to justify himself, even though he insists that it took all kinds of men, good and bad, to make up the SS. He closes the introduction by saying, "I live, I do what is possible, it is the same for everyone, I am a man like the others, I am a man like you. Come along, I tell you, I am like you."
- « Allemande I & II »
- Aue describes his life as a member of one of the Einsatzgruppen death squads in Ukraine, particularly in the Crimea and in the Caucasus. He describes in detail the open air massacres of Jews and Bolsheviks behind the front lines (one of the massacres described is the Babi Yar Massacre in Kiev, 1941). Although he seems to become increasingly indifferent to the atrocities he is witnessing, he begins to experience daily bouts of vomiting and suffers a mental breakdown. After taking sick leave, he returns to his unit to discover that a hostile superior officer has arranged that he be transferred to the front line at Stalingrad in 1942.
- « Courante »
- Aue thus takes part in the last days of the battle of Stalingrad. As with the massacres, he is the soldier observer, the narrator rather than the combatant. In the midst of the chaos, violence and starvation, he manages to have a discussion with a Russian political commissar POW about the similarities between the Nazi and the Bolshevik world views and once again is able to indicate his intellectual support for Nazi ideas. He is seriously wounded in the head and is miraculously evacuated just before the German surrender in February 1943.
- « Sarabande »
- Convalescing in Berlin, Aue is awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class by Heinrich Himmler himself for his heroic action at Stalingrad. While still on sick leave, he decides to visit his mother and stepfather in Antibes, in Italian-occupied France. Apparently, while he is in a deep sleep, his mother and stepfather are brutally murdered. Max flees from the house without notifying anybody and returns to Berlin.
- « Menuet en rondeaux »
- Aue is transferred to the Federal Ministry of the Interior headed by Himmler where he plays a managerial role for the concentration camps. He struggles to improve the living conditions of those prisoners, selected to work in the factories as slave laborers, in order to improve their productivity. The reader meets top Nazi bureaucrats organizing the implentation of the Final Solution (i.e. Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Höß, Himmler) and is given a glimpse of extermination camps (i.e. Auschwitz, Belzec); he also spends some time in Budapest just when preparations are being made for transporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The reader witnesses the tug-of-war between those who are concerned with war production (Albert Speer) and those who are doggedly trying to implement the Final Solution. It is during this period that two SS police officers from the Kripo who are investigating the murders of his mother and stepfather begin to visit him regularly. Like the Furies, they hound and torment him with their questions which indicate their suspicions about his role in the crime.
- « Air »
- Max visits his sister and brother-in-law's empty house in Pomerania. There, he engages in a veritable autoerotic orgy particularly fueled by fantasy images of his twin sister. The two SS police officers follow his trail to the house, but he manages to hide from them.
- « Gigue »
- Max travels back to Berlin through enemy Soviet lines with his friend Thomas, who has come to rescue him. Thomas is trying to pass off as a French laborer, knowing that his high SS rank is sure to get him killed if he is caught by Soviet forces. In Berlin, Max and Thomas find many of their colleagues preparing for escape in the chaos of the last days of the Third Reich. Aue meets and is decorated by Hitler in the Führerbunker. During the decoration ceremony, Aue inexplicably bites Hitler's nose, drawing blood and the wrath of Hitler's men, yet he manages to escape through the Berlin U-Bahn subway tunnels, only to encounter his police pursuers again. Though their case has been repeatedly thrown out of court, they're unwilling to accept defeat and prepare to execute him. Barely escaping their clutches when the Russians storm the tunnels and kill one of the policemen, Aue wanders aimlessly for a while in the streets of war-torn Berlin before deciding to make a break for it. Making his way through the heavily shelled Berlin Zoo, he's yet again faced by the surviving policeman. However, his friend Thomas kills the last policeman only to himself be killed by Aue, who steals from him the papers and uniform of a French conscripted worker. We know from the beginning of the book that Aue's multilingualism will allow him to escape back to France with a new identity as a returning Frenchman. The fact that he has managed to survive so many close calls and to escape successfully leads him to end the book with the statement: "The Kindly Ones were on to me."
But in the end, all is not explicitly laid out for the reader; for Littell, in the words of one reviewer, "excels in the unsaid."
He is a former Nazi SS officer. The book is written in the form of his memoirs.
Maximilen Aue's mother was French (from Alsace), while his father, who left his mother and disappeared from their life in 1921, was German. Aue's mother remarried a Frenchman, Aristide Moreau, which Maximilien highly disapproved of. After a childhood in Germany and an adolescence in France, where he attends Sciences-Po, he goes to a German university in order to study law. It is also during this period where he joins the SS.
Aue is a cultured, highly educated, classical music-loving intellectual. He speaks many languages fluently — German, French, Ancient Greek and Latin — and holds a doctorate in law. Despite his French heritage and upbringing, he is, like his father, an ardent German Nationalist that fanatically believes in Nazi ideology, especially in the Final Solution. Even after the war, he is unrepentant of the crimes against humanity he committed in the name of the Nazis. He is extremely attracted to his twin sister Una which led to an incestuous relationship with her when they were children, but ended when they entered puberty. Refusing to truly love any woman other than Una, he becomes a homosexual but continues to fantasize having sex with Una.
- Una Aue / Frau Von Üxküll
Una Aue is Maximilien's twin sister. She is married to the aristocrat Berndt von Üxküll, and although she appears only briefly in person, she dominates Aue's imagination, particularly with his sexual fantasies and hallucinations. She lived with her husband on his estate in Pomerania, but apparently moved to Switzerland with him towards the end of the war. Like her husband, she is critical of Germany's National Socialist regime which that, along with his hatred of their mother and stepfather, and his attraction to her, led to her being estranged from Aue following the war.
- Berndt Von Üxküll
Berndt Von Üxkül is a paraplegic junker from Pomerania and married to Una. A World War I veteran, he fought alongside Aue's father in the Freikorps, describing him as a sadist. He is a composer. Despite essentially agreeing with their nationalist and anti-Semitic ideology, he dislikes and thus distances himself from the Nazis. His name is probably a reference to Nikolaus Graf von Üxküll-Gyllenband, an anti-Nazi resistant and uncle of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg.
- Héloïse Aue (Héloïse Moreau)
Max's mother, who, believing her first husband to be dead, remarried Aristide Moreau. Max does not accept that his father is dead and never forgives his mother for remarrying. Héloïse also disapproves of Max joining the Nazis, which further strains their relationship.
- Aristide Moreau
Max's stepfather who is apparently connected to the French Resistance. Moreau is also the name of the "hero" from Gustave Flaubert's Sentimental Education, a book that Aue reads later in the novel. 'Aristide' is reminiscent in French of Atrides, the name given to the descendants of Atreus (one of his sons is Agamemnon, who is present in The Oresteia).
- The twins, Tristan and Orlando
Mysterious twin children who live with the Moreaus, but are most likely the offspring of the incestuous relationship between Aue and his sister. The epic poem Orlando Furioso is marked by the themes of love and madness, while the legend of Tristan and Iseult tells the story of an impossible love, two themes that can be found in The Kindly Ones.
Other fictional characters
Thomas is Max's closest friend and the only person who appears in one capacity or another wherever he is posted. A highly educated, multilingual SS officer like Max, he is Aue's main source of information about bureaucratic Nazi politics. He helps Max in a number of ways, both in advancing his career as well as rescuing him from his sister's house in Pomerania. He saves Max's life at the end of the novel.
- Hélène Anders née Winnefeld
A young widow whom Aue meets through Thomas while working in Berlin. When Max becomes seriously ill, she voluntarily comes to his apartment and nurses him back to health. While she is attracted to him, as he initially expresses interest in her, due to his feelings for his sister, as well as his homosexual tendencies, he coldly turns her down and away. She leaves Berlin for her parents' house and writes asking if he intends to marry her. She does not appear again in the novel. In the Greek mythology, Helen marries Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon.
- Dr. Mandelbrod
The mysterious Dr. Mandelbrod plays an important role behind the scenes as Aue's protector and promoter with high NSDAP connections, particular with Himmler. He was an admirer of Max's father and grandfather. At the end of the book he is seen packing his bags to join the enemy, offering his services to the Soviets.
- SS police officers Weser and Clemens
A pair of Kriminalpolizei detectives who are in charge of the investigation into the murders of Aue's mother and her husband, they question and pursue Aue as if he were a prime murder suspect throughout the war despite the case being repeatedly thrown out. They play the role of the Erinyes in the novel.
- Dr. Hohenegg
Aue's friend, a doctor interested in nutrition as well as the condition of soldiers and prisoners in concentration camps. Aue meets him in Ukraine during the Nazi offensive against the Soviet Union. They both take part in battle of Stalingrad and successfully escape before the German surrender. They reunite in Berlin, with Hohenegg revealing to Max how he saved his life by convincing doctors at Stalingrad to operate on him and transport him back to Germany, rather than leaving him for dead. He is depicted at different points in the book. He is partially based on Ernst-Günther Schenck, a German physician and Standartenführer.
Littell also includes many historical figures that Max encounters throughout the novel.
- High ranking Nazis: Werner Best, Hermann Fegelein, Hans Frank, Odilo Globocnik, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Albert Speer.
- Other Nazi characters: Richard Baer, Paul Blobel, Martin Bormann, Adolf Eichmann, Rudolf Höß, Arthur Liebehenschel, Josef Mengele, Heinrich Müller, Arthur Nebe, Theodor Oberländer, Otto Ohlendorf, Otto Rasch, Franz Six, Eduard Wirths and Dieter Wisliceny.
- French collaborators: Robert Brasillach and Lucien Rebatet.
- Contemporary writers that have no interaction with Aue: Ernst Jünger, Charles Maurras, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Paul Carell.
- Historians cited by Aue: Alan Bullock, Raul Hilberg, Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Besides winning two of the most prestigious literary prizes in France (Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and Prix Goncourt), Les Bienveillantes was generally favourably reviewed in the French literary press. Le Figaro proclaimed Littell as "man of the year" and the weekly Le Point stated that the book “exploded onto the dreary plain of the literary autumn like a meteor.” The editor of the Nouvel Observateur's literary section called it "a great book." Even though Claude Lanzmann had mixed feelings about the book, he said that "Littell is very talented (...) I am familiar with his subject, and above all I was astounded by the absolute accuracy of the novel. Everything is correct." Pierre Nora called it "...an extraordinary literary and historical phenomenon..."
Initially, Littell thought that his book would sell around three to five thousand copies. Éditions Gallimard, his publishing house, was more optimistic and decided to print 12,000 copies. Word of mouth and the enthusiastic reviews soon catapulted sales to such an extent that Gallimard had to stop publishing the latest Harry Potter novel in order to meet the demand for The Kindly Ones, which ended up selling more than 700,000 copies in France by the end of 2007.
After the book was translated into German, there was widespread debate in Germany, during which Littell was accused of being "a pornographer of violence." Some criticised it from a historical perspective: one historian called the novel a “strange, monstrous book” that was "full of errors and anachronisms over wartime German culture".
United States and United Kingdom
On its publication in English in early 2009, The Kindly Ones received mixed reviews. Michiko Kakutani, the principal book critic of The New York Times, called the novel "[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent", and went on to question the "perversity" of the French literary establishment for praising the novel. In a reply to Kakutani, Michael Korda says that "You want to read about Hell, here it is. If you don’t have the strength to read it, tough shit. It’s a dreadful, compelling, brilliantly researched, and imagined masterpiece, a terrifying literary achievement, and perhaps the first work of fiction to come out of the Holocaust that places us in its very heart, and keeps us there." The British historian Antony Beevor, reviewing it in The Times, called it "a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come," and listed The Kindly Ones as one of the top five fictional books about World War II. Harvard English Professor Leland de la Durantaye writes that "the meticulously realistic main plot of The Kindly Ones is brilliantly organized and written". And The Observer 's Paris correspondent, Jason Burke, praises the book, writing that "The Kindly Ones also owes its success to its quality as a work of fiction. Notwithstanding the controversial subject matter, this is an extraordinarily powerful novel". The Spectator's literary reviewer, Anita Brookner, based on her reading of the novel in the original French, describes the book as a "masterly novel...diabolically (and I use the word advisedly) clever. It is also impressive, not merely as an act of impersonation but perhaps above all for the fiendish diligence with which it is carried out...presuppose(s) formidable research on the part of the author, who is American, educated in France and writing fluent, idiomatic and purposeful French. This tour de force, which not everyone will welcome, outclasses all other fictions and will continue to do so for some time to come. No summary can do it justice".
Sales in the United States were considered extremely low. The book was bought by HarperCollins for a rumored $1 million, and the first printing consisted of 150,000 copies. According to Nielsen BookScan — which captures around 70 percent of total sales – by the end of July 2009 only 17,000 copies were sold.
- ^ a b Garcin 2006
- ^ a b Littell & Nora 2007, p. 28
- ^ Deutsche Welle 2006
- ^ Littell & Nora 2007, p. 31
- ^ a b c d Assaf 2008
- ^ Littell & Nora 2007, p. 27
- ^ a b Littell & Georgesco 2007
- ^ Littell & Millet 2007, p. 9
- ^ Karp 2007
- ^ a b c Mercier-Leca 2007
- ^ Riding 2006
- ^ a b Bremner 2006
- ^ Lanzmann 2006
- ^ Littell & Nora 2007, p. 25
- ^ Littell & Blumenfeld 2006
- ^ Le Figaro 2008
- ^ Mendelsohn 2009
- ^ Mönninger 2006
- ^ Kakutani 2009
- ^ Korda 2009
- ^ Beevor 2009a
- ^ Beevor 2009b
- ^ de la Durantaye 2009
- ^ Burke 2009
- ^ Brookner 2006
- ^ Deahl 2009
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