Guilty pleasures

<strong>Les Bienveillantes</strong>

Jonathan Littell <em>Editions Gallimard, 903pp, £17.50</em>

The smooth round of Parisian literary life is punctuated by fierce arguments that accompany the handing out of the big literary prizes each autumn, in a season known as la rentrée littéraire. These prizes cover pretty much all genres and tastes - indeed, there are so many that the really distinguished thing, according to Parisian cynics, is to avoid being shortlisted for any of them. But editors, publishers and, most of all, writers still depend on them. Since big advances are scarce in French publishing, this is a rare opportunity to make some money, and to enjoy a moment in the media spotlight that could turn an obscure author into a "bestseller du jour".

It is all the more surprising, then, that this year's major prizes - the Grand Prix de 'Aca démie Française and, more prestigious still, the Prix Goncourt - have been carried off by a first-time novelist who is an outsider on the Parisian literary scene and an American to boot. The upstart writer is Jonathan Littell, a 39-year-old Yale graduate and son of the spy novelist Robert Littell, who lives in Barcelona and is bilingual in English and French. The novel in question, Les Bienveillantes, is a 900-page epic that tells the story of the Holocaust from the point of view of a young homosexual SS officer. It is also a genuinely popular bestseller - a quality rarely associated with winners of the Prix Goncourt, which have been distinguished in recent years by their tedious unreadability.

The grip of Les Bienveillantes on the French public imagination stems in large part from its subject matter: the novel purports to be the memoirs of the young Nazi Maximilien Aue, tracing his journey from junior officer and faithful servant of National Socialism in the late 1930s, through the horrors of the eastern front, where he supervises death squads, towards the catastrophe of the Final Solution.

Aue is a consultant on "efficiency" in the concentration camps, and he tackles the logistics of mass murder with the same dispassionate intelligence he brings to bear on the rest of his tangled life. He justifies his homosexuality on the grounds that he hated and was hated by his mother. He is locked into an incestuous love for his sister, with whom he quotes Proust and Shakespeare as a kind of substitute for sex. Otherwise, the tale is peppered with accounts of rough-trade gay adventures, some of them fantasy and others apparently real.

But it's not all sensational. Aue and other characters regularly quote Plato, Sophocles and Goethe to explain their acts. The very title Les Bienveillantes is a reference to the Furies of Greek myth, whom Aeschylus calls the "kindly ones" ("bienveillantes") in an attempt to defuse their anger. The novel is also structured in a highly mannered (and irritating) form - sections are divided into musical movements ("toccata", "sarabande", and so on).

The point of these high-cultural trappings is to remind readers of the well-worn notion that immersion in European civilisation is no barrier to the worst acts of barbarity. It is this idea that drives the narrative, and so, as the massacres pile up, characters exchange stilted dialogue about the metaphysics of evil. As it's impossible to feel any empathy with Aue, who emerges as no more than a narcissistic aesthete with a taste for cruelty, the intellectual posturing appears in increasingly questionable taste: the stench of the real dead is masked by literature.

For these reasons, Les Bienveillantes has attracted criticism from both the left and the right. The Franco-German historian Peter Schöttler pointed out factual inaccuracies and described the novel as a "strange, monstrous work". Other critics (most notably Claire Devarrieux in the left-wing daily Libération), worried about the real status of this kind of "docu-fiction".

Those who have praised Littell point out that he is a student of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and Sade - a fact that still confers intellectual respectability in Left Bank circles. These are controversial influences - it is possible to read both Bataille and Sade simply as advocates of extreme cruelty, and Blanchot's anti-Semitic past still provokes debate. But the really big moral question posed by Les Bienveillantes, wrote Samuel Blumenfeld in Le Monde des Livres, is: who has the right to make fiction out of the Holocaust?

Despite the controversy, the novel's appeal is easy to explain. The French are every bit as obsessed with the Second World War as the British - except that, in France, beery triumphalism is replaced by an endless debate about what is really meant by "resistance" or "collaboration". Les Bienveillantes, a study of the moral complexities of recent history presented in the comforting style of a 19th-century roman-fleuve, was always a potential hit with a French readership still fascinated by their own potential for wickedness.

Littell's novel is not the most interesting or original of the books published in the rentrée littéraire 2006 (for me, this would probably be Dans la Foule by Laurent Mauvignier, an account of the Heysel disaster of 1985 from the point of view of football fans), but in some ways it is the most timely. Disturbingly, its success has been accompanied by yet another wave of anti-Semitism in Paris. Last summer, the mainly Jewish district around rue des Rosiers was menaced by gangs of black and Arab youths who called themselves Tribu KA. Blaming Jews for their own wretched existences in the suburbs of Paris, they came to the area to parade around with baseball bats, calling for death to the Jews and beating up anyone they could. The violence culminated in the kidnap and murder of a young Jew, 19-year-old Ilan Halimi.

In mid-November, supporters of the football team Paris Saint-Germain surrounded a young Parisian Jew - a supporter of the same team - outside a McDonald's in the Porte de Saint-Cloud district and, shouting "death to the Jew", began kicking him into the ground. They did not disperse until one of their number was shot dead by a policeman (who was black). It seems that it is easier for the French public to read about anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon in a blockbuster such as Les Bienveillantes than to face up to what is happening around them. This may well be what happens when you confront reality with the kind of bad fiction which, for all its claims of historical and philosophical authenticity, reveals nothing but the evil of banality.

Andrew Hussey's "Paris: the secret history" is published by Viking

This article first appeared in the 11 December 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: not too late