Besieging the Barbarian
The Kindly Ones
Chatto & Windus, 2009
Natural immunity is one of the great puzzles of epidemiology: for reasons not fully understood, certain small populations seem resistant to HIV, whereas for most people, exposure inevitably means contracting the virus. Max Aue, narrator of Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones, argues that succumbing to the temptation of evil is also a matter of statistical chance: some are born in circumstances of contagion; others are blessedly (and, Aue thinks, self-righteously) immune. “I am guilty, you’re not, fine. But you should be able to admit to yourselves that you might also have done what I did,” he berates the reader. “Always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person.”
By now, dozens of articles have been written on Littell’s fictional memoir of ex-SS officer Aue, first published in French as Les Bienveillantes in 2006 and released in Charlotte Mandell’s English translation earlier this month. Most critics have taken passages from Aue’s prefatory apologia, like the one cited above, to mean that anybody could have been born into Aue’s position, and that therefore Aue is supposed to represent everyone (or at least everyone coming of age in interwar Germany).
Then the scorecards are raised: The Kindly Ones is a daring achievement because it portrays Nazis as credible and possibly sympathetic human beings. The Kindly Ones fails because it continues to make people like Aue into ghouls and perverts, inaccessible to rational inquiry. Or, most smugly, The Kindly Ones fails because it portrays Nazis as plausible human beings, which they’re not. These three categories of response all imply that Aue’s insistent wish to be seen as Everyman (“I tell you I am just like you!” he later cries) must also be Littell’s wish for Aue. In fact, not only will nearly all readers find Aue impenetrably foreign, nearly all Nazis probably would have as well.
Aue’s early life reads like a concordance of psychoanalytic case studies. He was born 15 minutes after his twin sister, whose infant wrist was tied with red string to mark her primogeniture; he was allergic to his mother’s breast milk, but with envious memories of his sister’s nursing; he was abandoned by the father he adored; he was in love with his sister; he was furious with his mother and stepfather for their betrayal of his father’s memory. In another writer’s hands, this background might have become a source for dark comedy, but Littell has Aue dwell on these traumas with such violent longing that the potential for humour usually collapses long before the would-be punch line.
Littell surely does not intend Aue to be a representative sample either of humankind or of Nazism. This is clear from the way that Littell plucks at random from Freudian and tragedian sources. Aue as personnage de fiction is an overt construction, a collage of allusions—a creature we’re neither meant nor able to imagine without simultaneously picturing Littell right there beside him, making him, willing him into being.
Aue’s appearance is only hazily described; precise portraiture is instead reserved for his fixations. Take this statue, Apollo with Cithara, which Aue sees during a brief trip to Paris:
One detail struck me: regardless of the angle from which I looked at his eyes, painted realistically directly on the bronze, he never looked me in the eye; it was impossible to capture his gaze, drowned, lost in the void of his eternity. The metallic leprosy was blistering his face, his chest, his buttocks, almost devouring his left hand. [...] Looking at him, I felt overcome with desire, with a wish to lick him; and he was decomposing in front of me with a calm, infinite slowness.
Aue maintains throughout the novel that we are obsessed with the beings who are nearly our reflections, but not quite: one’s twin sister, for example, or, for Germans, the Jews. The statue that attracts Aue, then, is perhaps another case of near-likeness—like Aue, a fabrication, and increasingly “impossible to capture” because of the leprosy of history.
Littell delights in classical reference, whether implicitly (as in the Oresteia borrowings that critic Dan Mendelsohn traces so well) or explicitly (as in Aue’s repeated use of the adjective “homeric”). Even naming his narrator Aue, so close to the Latin greeting “hail”, suggests continuity between Aue’s impeccable classical education and his daily life in the SS, peppered as it is with Heil Hitlers and Sieg heils.
While Mendelsohn has traced The Kindly Ones’ Aeschylean conceits, the novel’s aspirations to epic form help articulate the difference between Aue and his creator Littell. Whereas Aue fashions himself as a latter-day Achilles, as often antagonised by his supposed allies as by his enemies, a more apt analogy would make Littell, not Aue, the besieger: after a near-thousand page attempt, we feel that Littell has never won access to the core of his character. Littell has imagined Aue as Homer imagined Troy: strong, handsome, almost impregnable. And whereas most readers know from the start that the Achaeans ultimately win, the drama of The Kindly Ones lies in watching its author try a succession of strategies to get inside the character he has somehow envisioned and yet not really known.
The author’s siege on his character, not a simple prurience, prompts many of the grotesque and bizarre sexual and scatological scenes that have garnered so much critical disapproval. They are notably repulsive, overly frequent and far too long, but one can imagine their having been part of the fiction-making process, albeit a part that perhaps ought to have been set aside by the final draft. We can picture Littell, early in writing, wondering how on earth to understand his character and deciding to start with the one thing that every killer, victim and bystander irrefutably have in common: a body. And then, having found that slender and fragile bridge, writing his way into every possible sensation that body might experience or desire. The process may well be helpful to the writer, but the result for the reader is a brutalisation of the notion of empathy: “feeling-in” becomes “forcing-into”.
Because this struggle towards interiority dominates Littell’s efforts, the novel is less convincing as a portrait of an age or a milieu; inflated critical appraisals comparing Littell to Tolstoy and Flaubert will inevitably disappoint readers. But for envisioning one of the most alien and most alienating characters in recent literature and trying doggedly to make him somehow penetrable and recognisable to human understanding, Littell deserves to be commended. A book that tests the limits of our capacity for empathy—even if, in the process, the book and the empathy fail—helps in some small way toward our definition of the human.
Laura Kolbe is reading for an MPhil in American Literature at Jesus College, Cambridge.