Littell Interview with Samuel Blumenfeld
Interview by Samuel Blumenfeld with Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones, winner of the Prix Goncourt and the Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française.
Le Monde, November, 17, 2006 (Le Monde des Livres)
This success will take time to understand.
Three months ago, Jonathan Littell didn’t exist. Not in the public eye, at any rate. The dazzling success of his novel The Kindly Ones, which culminated with the Prix Goncourt on November 6, has transformed this unknown person into a public figure. Media curiosity—which to his credit he has not remotely solicited, and has even shunned—has ascribed to Littell several lives and several identities. The most outrageous rumors have done the rounds: that his Gallimard editor, Richard Millet, wrote The Kindly Ones, or else perhaps his father, the novelist Robert Littell…. From Barcelona, where he lives, Littell decided to talk to Le Monde des Livres about his novel.
Q: Looking back, what kind of reception did you anticipate for The Kindly Ones?
It happened stage by stage. I was already thrilled when my agent, Andrew Nurnberg, told me that he liked the novel and thought he might be able to sell it. Even more so when it was taken on by Gallimard; my entire literary education stems from their backlist. Over and
above that, I wasn’t expecting much. I put five years of work into the book, at my own expense. I never thought I would make that money back. I thought it might sell between three and five thousand copies. Gallimard was hoping for a little more, but I was sceptical. Then, quite unexpectedly, everything exploded.
Q: How do you explain this success? I discussed it with Pierre Nora at the end of September, when sales reached the 150,000 mark. He made an interesting comment: “At this level, it is neither the author nor the publisher who can understand—it takes a historian.” We discussed the reasons for the book’s success at great length, without arriving at any answers. There were two main theories. The first has to do with Nazism and the French relationship with that period in history. The other relates more to literature: For several years, Gallimard had been noticing a thirst for long, novelistic, intricately structured books. In any case, this success will take time to understand. How the book is received in Israel, America, and Germany, for example, will help us to understand what has taken place in France.
Q: Have you recognized yourself in the various portraits that have appeared in the press?
Not at all! Some of them were complete nonsense. I have been stunned by French journalists’ ability to make things up. I have discovered lots of things about myself. Apparently, I survived a massacre in Chechnya. Astonishing. They must have just typed my name into Google and read The New York Times articles which mention an incident—
in no way a massacre—that I experienced in Chechnya. In the French version, it sounded as if I had had to crawl out of a ditch from beneath a heap of bloody corpses! Fact-checking doesn’t seem particularly popular in France. And I’m talking about simple facts: Apparently I have worked in China, am married, live in Belgium, speak German, and have a French mother. None of which is the case. I didn’t feel like playing the celebrity game because I don’t like it. I am particularly fond of Margaret Atwood’s comment: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.”
Q: You have written another book, Bad Voltage, a science fiction novel set in the catacombs and never published in France. What is the relationship between this first book and The Kindly Ones?
The Kindly Ones isn’t quite a real second novel. Between the two I wrote other books which are still in a drawer, where they belong. I have sometimes wished Bad Voltage was never published, but I was trapped in a contract and didn’t have the money to break it. I was 21 years old; it was a youthful folly. I have never tried to hide that novel, but I don’t shout about it either.
I started thinking about The Kindly Ones when I was 20 years old. Richard Millet, my Gallimard editor, wanted to call The Kindly Ones a “first novel,” but I refused. In the end we hit on the phrase “first literary work” for the back cover.
Q:You are represented by an agent, which is still very rare amongst French authors. Why?
My father has been writing professionally for 35 years. In the Anglo-Saxon literary world if you want to publish a book, you look for an agent first. So I never thought to do anything else. This French notion of sending your manuscript direct to a publishing house is foreign to me. I do understand that it worries some people in France, where a delicate balancing act ensures that certain books are published which would never be elsewhere. That system has a cost. In France, barely any authors make a living; the entire chain profits from the book, except the writer.
Q:As soon as it came out, The Kindly Ones was praised to the skies; the loftiest comparisons were drawn. Were you flattered or freaked out?
Neither. Let’s take the comparison between my book and War and Peace. The people who make it haven’t read my book properly, or Tolstoy either, for that matter. They are different kinds of literature. Firstly, in War and Peace there is peace, whereas in my novel there is only war. And then there’s a whole other level of complexity in Tolstoy’s novel, an infinitely superior to-and-fro between war and ordinary life.
The subject matter of The Kindly Ones is much narrower: genocide over four years, with a few deviations here and there. It’s not the same scale. More profoundly, there is the concept of literary space explored by Maurice Blanchot. When you’re inside it, you never know that you are. You can be sure you’re writing “literature” but actually fall short, or be tormented by doubts although literature has long been present. A book by a crazy person can prove to be literature when that of a great writer is not, for ambiguous and hard to explain reasons. One is always full of doubt. One doesn’t know. I think Tolstoy and Vasily
Grossman were also full of doubt. Definitely Grossman, anyway. His stated ambition was to write as well as Tolstoy, but I’m sure he said to himself as he finished his book that he wasn’t worth Tolstoy’s little finger. The concept of literary space renders notions of quality invalid.
A very badly written text can prove to be great literature, while another, despite being very well written, is not. One has to judge each book according to its own purpose and standards, rather than in relation to other books. That’s why I don’t like literary prizes. They naturally tend to pit books against each other. But books are never against each other. I sent a letter to Antoine Gallimard in which I explained that I am not in competition with other authors. My book stands against itself, against the standards it sets itself—which it will of course never satisfy.
Q: How would you define those standards?
A book is an experience. A writer asks questions as he tries to make his way through the darkness. Not towards the light, but further into the darkness, to arrive at a darkness even darker than his starting place. It is most certainly not the creation of a preconceived object. Which is why I have to write in one go. Writing is a throw of the dice. You never know what’s going to happen when you write. You try to set everything up as well as possible, and then you start. Once you’re at the writing stage, you think in words, not with your brain. It comes from a different place. The writing progresses, until you arrive at a place you never anticipated. That is why I am quite willing to accept the criticism that I made mistakes with this novel, that I did false or unacceptable things. Because I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I did, beforehand, but the final result is something else entirely.
Q: How do you experience this final result? Are you happy with The Kindly Ones?
That’s not the right question. One would get further by thinking about the initial concept. Perhaps I can reply with a quotation from Georges Bataille: “The perpetrators have no voice, or if they do speak, it is with the voice of the state.” Perpetrators do speak—some of them at great length, even. They even give one the actual details of precise events. The way the Treblinka camp was organized, for example. Eichmann doesn’t lie in his trial. He tells the truth. When I refer to a real voice I’m talking about a voice that reveals the depths of the hell it describes, as Claude Lanzmann managed with the victims in Shoah.
I discovered Bataille’s words after I had finished the book; they provided retrospective illumination. When I started, I expected to find in the perpetrators’ testimonies things I could use. Between these and all the killers I had met in my professional life—in Bosnia when I worked on the Serbian side, in Chechnya with the Russian army, in Afghanistan with the Taliban, in Africa with the Rwandans and Congolese—I thought I would have something. But the more I read the perpetrators’ texts, the more I realized they were empty. I would never get anywhere by sticking with classic fictional recreation, with the omniscient author, mediating as Tolstoy does between good and evil. The only option was to put myself in the perpetrators’ shoes. And I knew that place. I had hung out with killers. I started with what I knew, which is to say myself, with my own ways of thinking and seeing the world, and decided to put myself in the shoes of a Nazi.
Q: But this is not your average Nazi—he is unrealistic, and not necessarily believable.
I agree. But a sociologically credible Nazi could never have expressed himself as my narrator does, would never have been able to shine a spotlight on the men surrounding him in the same way. Those who really existed, such as Eichmann and Himmler, and those I made up. Max Aue is a roving X-ray, a scanner. He is not, indeed, a plausible character. I was aiming not for plausibility but for truth. You cannot create a novel if you insist solely on plausibility. Novelistic truth is a different thing from historic or sociological truth.
The issue of the perpetrator is the main issue the historians of the Shoah have been exploring for the last 15 years. The only remaining question is the motivation of the killers. Having read the works of the great researchers, it seems to me that they have hit a brick wall. This is very clear with Christopher Browning. He has created a list of potential motivations and has no way of arbitrating between them. Some prioritize anti-Semitism, others ideology. But in the end, they don’t know. The reason is simple. The historian works from documents, and so from the words of the perpetrators, which are themselves an aporia. And where can one go from there?
Q: What are the historians’ reactions to your book that have most affected and, thus, most stimulated you?
Some have raised interesting issues about interpretative errors. One historian commented that I had wrongly interpreted the relationship between the SD (the SS’s secret service) and the Gestapo, by portraying the SD men as more ideologically driven than the brutish Gestapo police. It may be that with this, as with other things, I made a mistake. It’s a novel. When Vasily Grossman describes Eichmann in Life and Fate, his description is completely wrong. But this in no way diminishes Life and Fate. Grossman saw Eichmann as a massively powerful superman, lording it over everything. This impression resulted from the materials he had access to at the time. It is inaccurate, but does that matter?
When Claude Lanzmann comments that my perpetrator is implausible, and also unsavory, he is right. Except that there would never have been a novel if I had chosen an “Eichmann” as narrator. Lanzmann’s fear is that people’s only access to the Shoah will be through my book. The opposite is true. Sales of books by Raul Hilberg and Claude Lanzmann have increased since the publication of The Kindly Ones. Lanzmann and I start from the same question to arrive at different, irreconcilable conclusions. Both are true. Our discussion is not yet over.
Q: Will there be a film adaptation of The Kindly Ones?
No. The rights are not for sale. I think it would be impossible to adapt this book into a film.
Q: Who is going to undertake the English translation of your novel?
We are looking for a translator with whom I will collaborate. I do not want the English to be merely a translation. There is a tone to discover, that the translator may not find immediately.
Q: This issue of language caused another commotion in relation to your novel, which has been reproached for containing Anglicisms. Would you agree that behind these reproaches lies a stuffy conception of the French language, which attempts to fossilize something that by its very nature is constantly evolving?
My novel does contain Anglicisms! Lots! I speak two languages, so of course they infect each other. Albert Thibaudet did a superb study of Flaubert which shows the influence on him of Norman provincialisms. To start with this was considered a problem, but Flaubert used it to create something beautiful. Each person has their own linguistic peculiarities. Alain Mabanckou has coined some beautiful phrases that stem from the way Africans speak French. His expressions may seem strange or outmoded, but they are superb. It’s interesting to note that this year, several literary prizes were given to non-Francophone writers. Nancy Huston is English speaking. As with me, French is not the mother tongue of Mabanckou. In Britain, the greatest writers have long been Indian, Pakistani, Japanese. Thanks to them, the language is becoming richer.
Interview by Samuel Blumenfeld
Article published in the November 17, 2006, edition of Le Monde des Livres