What We Deny

Africa Classics Fiction History Jewish Politics
I recently wondered what I would think about Jonathan Littell's big new novel The Kindly Ones, an intentionally repulsive exploration of the genocidal Nazi personality that won big awards in France and has now been published, with high expectations, in an English translation. At this point, I've consumed so many articles about the book that I may not need to read it at all. For instance, I perused Carey Harrison's thoughts this morning, and Daniel Mendelsohn's this afternoon.

As the author of the family Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn's appreciation for Littell's novel seems to carry extra weight, and as an expert in classic literature he is well qualified to explain its careful references. Mendelsohn helpfully lays out significant parallels to Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy, and brings not only Jean-Paul Sartre's The Flies but also Herman Melville's Moby Dick into the mix. An excellent read, but can I now be excused from reading Littell's 992 page book? I think I get the main idea now, and I wonder if there is much more to get.

Since I carry my own recurring obsession with the topic of genocide, I can't approach a book like The Kindly Ones without bringing some baggage. If I understand correctly, Littell's intention with this novel is to shove our face in horror, and to shock us by presenting a credibly intellectual and well-adjusted "hero" who is also an unapologetic Nazi and a maniacal sadist. That's fine, but I've already read dozens of books about the Holocaust (Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke was, for me, the most important recent work, William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the most essential history, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Art Spiegelman's Maus the most emotionally resonant stories, and Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the best philosophical treatment). While I'm all for burying genteel faces in horror, my own face has already been buried plenty.

I also find it inexplicable that we continue to romanticize and rhapsodize about the European Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as if it were unique when in fact genocide is so prevalent, so common, so cheap around us. For instance, a vicious, carefully orchestrated holocaust rages in the Sudan right now, as we blog, as we twitter. Reviewers of Jonathan Littell's novel talk about the murder of children and grandmothers, but communities including children and grandmothers are being ground into nonexistence today in Darfur, and very few people seem to think anything can be done about it.

It's ironic that the Holocaust has become such a cottage industry -- shelves in bookstores, museums in cities around the world -- even as "holocaust denial" grows into its own odious cottage industry, taking root from the Vatican to Iran.

I think there's plenty more to be said about the meaning of genocide in the modern world, but I'm not sure I need to read a 992-page indulgence in fictional evil when I can read articles like this, this, this, this or this in today's New York Times.
10 Responses to "What We Deny"

by ed on

Mendelsohn's Blanchot interpretation is ridiculous -- the result of a man desperately attempting to apply his classical background and his apparent "expertise" to find meaning in a text that may very well be cruder and more straightforward than the intellectuals intended. It is an assertion just as out-of-touch with humanity as suggesting that nobody reads in the subway.

Hey Ed -- well, I felt much more satisfied by Mendelsohn's interpretations -- his was the first article that made me feel I understood what the author was probably trying to do. So, will you be reading this book?

by steve on

Aue isn't "a maniacal sadist". Which review gave you this impression?

Also, remember in Proust when Marcel discusses "great books" - how one can never imagine a book that has been described as great. Until one reads it is merely a compilation of other great books one has read.

Also, why would you need Ulysses to experience Dublin, or Moby Dick to learn about whales? Get some travel books and a David Attenborough DVD, that'll sort it!

As for books with varying opinions about the Holocaust, the public buys them or they'd be pulp. Sorry to state the obvious.

Steve, since you've read the book and I haven't, I'll take your word for it on "maniacal sadist". Sorry, but I did think I had gathered that from several articles I read.

And just to be clear, I am absolutely not suggesting that others should not read this book, or that there is any good reason not to read this book. This is just meant as an explanation of why I've decided I won't be reading it -- not because I think the book is worthless, but because I am selective about which books to spend time on, and based on the reviews I've read I just don't think this one makes the cut for me. Time is scarce, and I have yet to read Bolano's 2666!

by Cal Godot on

The most amusing thing to me with all this Kindly controversy: the majority of the people insisting that we should read the tome won't actually read or finish the book themselves.

Someone should chart the eternal recurrence of these literary "controversies." Seems to me like they're being manufactured at a somewhat regular interval. Why, it seems only yesterday that I was supposed to be indignant about fragmented Frey, then before that I was morally required to read about the Lovely talking Bones of a dead child. I think we're on some kind of artificial cycle here. (I'd start the revolution but I don't have time...)

Littell's novel, titled Les Bienveillants in French, was a huge deal when it came out in France, and it won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. It was everywhere in the bookshops, and I think it did quite well commercially. What's interesting is Littell is half-American half-French. He was born in NYC, speaks English and French, but elected to write his novel in French.
Malheuresement je ne l'ai jamais lu - unfortunately, I never read it.

by steve on

"Mendelsohn’s Blanchot interpretation is ridiculous"

There speaks an expert! Mendelsohn quivers in face of such intellect.

If I want ridiculous displays of ineptitude in the search for meaning, I go to Bat Segundo.

by ed on

Steve: The true ineptitude here is your paucity of comprehension and literary taste, along with your own incurious braying. Since you're so committed to mindless ejaculation (Aue naturale, indeed), send me your address and I'll be sure to send you the forthcoming Holocaust-themed issue of Hustler. I assure you it has plenty of references to Herodotus and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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