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.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster