- By Steven EnglundSteven Englund is the author of Napoleon: A Political Life (New York: Scribner, 2004). He is director of studies at the School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris.
Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones)
By Jonathan Littell
904 pages, Paris: Gallimard, 2006 (in French)
To be free is to be a servant" was a saying in the Third Reich, and Maximilian Aue, the narrator of a new French memoir, exemplifies its truth. For though he lives in ostensible freedom in the France of the 1980s, he is in thrall to his bad conscience and the memories of his past. Aue’s former job and rank — a legal scholar and a lieutenant-colonel in the Nazi regime — made him a Geheimnisträger — a "carrier of secrets."
And Aue reveals many of those secrets to the reader in the roughly 900 pages of Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones). With considerably more resistance, he also reveals them to himself; for as reflective and intelligent as he is, he is also desperately self-deluding. The secrets are horrific, to be sure; this massive work amounts to a lengthy lamentation of personal and public crimes, of psychopathologies and alienation. Still, if Les Bienveillantes is a work of genius — and it is — it is not due to the hammer blows of horror repeatedly delivered. It is due to the methodical exploration of one of the Third Reich’s most idealistic servants’ intricate descent into madness.
Yet the story of Max Aue is not some long-lost Nazi diary. It is one of the greatest accomplishments of postwar fiction. Max is the creation of an American author born 22 years after World War II ended. He is the 39-year-old Jonathan Littell, the French-raised, Yale-educated son of the American writer and journalist Robert Littell. And no one who meets the protagonist in Littell’s pages will forget Aue’s evolution from public sociopath to sadomasochistic, incestuous, bisexual psychopath.
In four decades of living on and off in Paris, I have never seen a book create such a stir in France as has Les Bienveillantes. In just a few months, it sold 600,000 copies — comparable to a sale of 3 million in the United States (more than The Da Vinci Code in its first three months). For a rumored $40,000 advance, Gallimard, France’s leading publisher, has already grossed millions.
But money is the least of it. The book has garnered France’s two leading literary prizes (including the Goncourt) and has been on everybody’s table and tongue for months. In part, this attention is due to Littell’s claim to have written his magnum opus by hand in 120 days. He’s also generated controversy for introducing Anglo-Saxon marketing customs (including a literary agent) into French publishing’s closed garden, where no author has made big bucks since Jean-Paul Sartre. (Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, wrote a huffy editorial castigating Gallimard for agreeing to Littell’s agent’s terms, which included the "shocking" condition of retaining the foreign rights for his author.) But the main reason Littell has garnered so much attention is that this American (whose first book was written in English) chose to write the work in the language of Flaubert. That choice has tickled the French, as well it should: Their language has not produced a genuine literary work of this length, penetration, and power since Proust.
Littell has said he wanted to produce a close and hard look at a sensitive, intelligent man’s engagement, his self-swallowing, into the unique, the gargantuan, the thoroughly unlikely Holocaust. But he also succeeded on another count: He makes you forget Jonathan Littell entirely, and instead lose yourself for dozens of hours in the mind of his book’s apparent creator — in all his layered thinking, self-delusion, and erudition. The former SS officer deploys a vast range of citations from poetry and prose in six languages. Throughout, his narrative is set off by long, riveting, and plot-bearing ruminations on ideology and philosophy. Which is to say, Littell is no Tolstoy for the ponderousness of his extra-plot philosophizing, even if he is Dostoyevsky for the depth of his characterizations.
The revelation of Aue’s past — the book focuses on about 40 months from 1941 to 1945 — sees him play subordinate but significant roles as an intelligence officer in the Ukraine, at Stalingrad and Auschwitz, and in Berlin. His story takes bizarre turns — often shocking and horrifying, but also occasionally funny, as when Aue remarks, "I have often said that war and a prostate are God’s two gifts to a man to compensate him for not being born a woman." Throughout, he interacts with a range of characters, including several Nazi vips: Eichmann, Himmler, and even Hitler.
Aue’s gaze is potent and beguiling, though, and it does render his central conceit that he is the reader’s "brother" all the more fascinating and disturbing. He claims to be this not in a chummy or intimate way, for he is distant and narcissistic. Rather, he intends to be our "brother" in daily and lifelong disillusionment and servitude. And like us, his brothers, he is fundamentally sympathetic; he stands somewhere on the human continuum between good and evil. Although he reduces the camps to the "reductio ad absurdum of everyday life," for example, he has himself half-convinced that his main problem is ingenuousness: "I never ceased deliberately swallowing the worm, then being surprised when my guts were yanked out of me by the hook," he recalls.
But Aue never comes close to climbing off the hook he has impaled himself upon, for his evil is anything but "banal," as he refers to the horrors of the Holocaust; it is polymorphous and perverse, profound in its ratiocination and writhing. Here was a young man who imbibed deeply of the supposed perfect clarity of ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer, and now, 10 years in, all around him he sees careerism, corruption, incompetence, and — worst — ambiguity.
The latter is clearest in Aue’s inability to conclude what he "really thinks" about Jews. In a particularly revealing passage, he wonders if their eradication won’t actually be good for them: "Just so, spilling their lives, like throwing rice at a wedding, will teach them how to be generous, will teach them war. And the proof that this is already happening, that the Jews are learning their lesson, is Warsaw, Treblinka, Sobibor, Bialystok, where Jews have again become warriors; they’ve become killers like us. I find that beautiful. We have created an enemy worthy of us."
Things change, though. In the midst of a losing war, Aue asks: "How dare the Nazi elite bog itself down in vulgar Jew-killing? … Should the Nazis’ objective be the vulgar killing of people? Shouldn’t it be, more cleanly, the control of populations?"
And so on, as Aue descends into madness. For the sake of his "mental hygiene," Aue claims he does not feel guilty. "God made me for love," he writes at one point. Of course, that is merely self-delusion. As pages fly by, we continually encounter scenes that horrify Aue even as he insists they don’t. After the hanging of a young female partisan, Aue wonders if the girl climaxed as she died, or indeed if she had ever climaxed. Later, his wife acquires a disagreeable black cat, which, though it dislikes him, sleeps curled up on his chest. It lies on him "like a stifling weight, so that in my sleep I start to dream that I am being asphyxiated under a pile of rocks. And with my memories, it is rather the same."
The last paragraph of this magnum opus cinches the guilt and the self-ignorance, while explaining the book’s classical Greek title (from the Aeschylus play, The Eumenides). Having just committed yet another shocking personal crime against a loved one, Aue sits alone in the bombed-out Berlin zoo, the Russians arriving in the distance. In a Gatsbyean vein, he laments, "I was sad without much knowing why. I felt the weight of the past like a blow, the pain of life and of inalterable memory. I sat there alone amidst the bodies, with the dying hippopotamus, with a few ostriches and all the [human] cadavers, alone with time and sadness and the pain of memory, the cruelty of my existence and of my future death. The Kindly Ones [Les Bienveillantes] had found me."
Thanks to the gifts of his young creator, Maximilian Aue lives: He belabors his points, bedazzles his superiors, bedevils his adversaries, and in his untoward but moving moments of innocence and naïveté (false and real), he beguiles his readers even as he numbs and repels them. But withal he lives. That is Littell’s accomplishment; it is a masterpiece.