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Jonathan Littell in America

US book-buyers look unkindly on The Kindly Ones

Publishers Weekly in the US has an interesting story about the commercial fate of Jonathan Littell's gigantic fictional tour d'horizon of the killing fields of the Eastern Front in 1941, The Kindly Ones.

As everybody knows by now, when Littell published his novel in French (as Les Bienveillantes) in 2006, it was an immediate and almost unprecedented commercial success, selling somewhere in the region of 300,000 copies in a little over three months, snagging two of the major French literary prizes, and causing the publisher Gallimard to requisition paper earmarked for a translation of the next Harry Potter novel. PW reports that sales of the translation in the States have been puny in comparison. It has sold just 17,000 copies since it was published in March (HarperCollins apparently ordered an initial print-run of 150,000).

The piece goes on to suggest that The Kindly Ones has suffered by comparison with "another novel set during Hitler's reign and published on the same day", the translation of German writer Hans Fallada's 1947 tale of the resistance to Nazism Every Man Dies Alone. It also blames the reviews for the poor sales of Littell's novel, not least Michiko Kakutani's demolition of it in the New York Times. Deploying her flair for destructive precis, Kakutani called the book a "a pointless compilation of atrocities and anti-Semitic remarks, pointlessly combined with a gross collection of sexual fantasies". Ruth Franklin echoed that view in her review in the New Republic, calling it "one of the most repugnant books I have ever read", principally on account of Littell's daring to, as he once put it, "get inside the skin of a Nazi" (the novel is narrated by an SS officer, of extravagant and perverse sexual appetites, named Max Aue).

There was an interesting difference between the reception the novel received in the US and that which it got here in the UK. I reviewed it for the NS back in March. I argued that Littell's central provocation (which Franklin and Kakutani found unconscionable) -putting himself in Max's shoes- was his way of raising fundamental questions about the nature of evil and wickedness:

The novel opens, as it ends, with the narrator buttonholing the reader: "Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." With this malicious apostrophe, Max invites the reader to enter a pact - to accept that he is like us, not an inveterate sadist or psychopath, but an educated and cultured man who had the misfortune to be born in Germany in 1913, rather than the United States in 1967. Consequently, the central aesthetic problem of The Kindly Ones (how to get inside Max's head) is also a moral and philosophical one: is human evil always the work of moral monsters whose motives will always lie beyond our comprehension?

For some critics, it is unforgiveable even to ask that question. And for Littell to have ventured into the "forbidden places" where his narrator takes him is to have allowed himself to be corrupted. He makes evil something human rather than authentically demonic. But what if, in regarding wicked human beings as proxies for supernatural agents, we undermine the principle that we are responsible for our actions, and with it the ambition of the novel to tell the truth about our moral lives? Getting us to ask that question is Jonathan Littell's profound achievement.

And I wasn't alone among reviewers on this side of the Atlantic. Jason Burke, in the Observer, called the novel "remarkable"; according to James Lasdun, in the Guardian, The Kindly Ones "rises impressively, even magnificently, to its own occasions, building out of its fact-crammed but stately sentences (the impersonal prose resembles that of a mandarin memoir) vast and phosphorescent tableaux vivants seething with Dantesque detail." Which latter description does justice, it seems to me, to the novel's extraordinary linguistic textures.