Question for Readers

March 13, 2009

There are numerous books with controversial subject matter, material that some readers might find questionable or even objectionable. This has been the response of some early American critics of The Kindly Ones. Yet Jonathan Littell’s novel was a tremendous bestseller in Europe, where it received widespread critical acclaim and several top literary prizes.

What do you think accounts for this difference between the European and the early American reception of the book? How might having had the war and the Holocaust take place on one’s own soil affect a reader’s outlook? Imagine a novel about 9/11 from the terrorists’ point of view. How might readers on either “side” of this event react to such a book?

The Kindly Ones as satire

March 12, 2009

In a very interesting review posted at,  Ina Friedman writes:

The Kindly Ones is a satire on the Nazi endeavor, a matter in itself so black and so exaggerated that one can be forgiven for missing the trick Littell is playing.

And like all satire worth its salt (think Voltaire or Swift), it plants a seed of suspicion that something of us may be mirrored here – that “in a given set of circumstances,” in Aue’s words, we too are capable of growing hardened and indifferent to what may once have seemed outrageous and of surrendering ourselves to the flow, that the arrogant Aue may have had a sliver of a point when he declared at the start that “this concerns you.” And we read on, and on, essentially in a quest to dispel those disturbing thoughts, without realizing, of course, that the degree to which we succeed is in inverse proportion to the degree we deserve to.”  Read more.

USA Today Article

March 12, 2009

Read about the polarizing debate about The Kindly Ones at USA

Overview at New York Magazine

March 11, 2009

For an amusing overview of reviews so far for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, take a look at this article at New York Magazine.  Reviews are sorted into three categories: “Kindly,” “Mean,” and “Ambivalent.”

A Historian’s Perspective

March 11, 2009

Reviewed by Peter Fritzsche (Department of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), February, 2009, at H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online:

“Aue (main character) is an obvious composite, a technique that enables Littell to introduce readers to the stages by which the precise machinery of murder was discussed and implemented, technical and moral barriers were overcome, and the ‘Final Solution’ was scaled to all of Europe. Moreover, Littell does so with an extraordinary ability to provide historical citation that is both scrupulously accurate and gripping…Littell pushes Aue from site to site in order to unsettle readers’ consciences and to disrupt the distance they have gained by historicizing the Holocaust. In the end, then, The Kindly Ones cannot be simply rejected as scandal against representation or as the kitsch of voyeurism. Its perpetrators do speak.” Read more.

NPR Interview

March 10, 2009

In a piece about The Kindly Ones on Weekend Edition, Frank Browning gives us a rare interview with the author, Jonathan Littell. Listen to it here.

Daniel Mendelsohn Review

March 9, 2009

Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books:

“The large success of the book…has much to do with a striking technique he employs throughout, which is to integrate…scenes of high horror…with quotidian stretches…weaving together the dreadful and the mundane in an unsettlingly persuasive way…I think that Littell might say that precisely because we are by now inured to representations of Nazi evil in literature and especially in film, he needs to break new taboos in order to make us think about evil, about a life lived in evil and a mind unsentimentally willing, even eager, to accept the ramifications of that choice.” Read More.

Blogcritics Review

March 9, 2009

Ted Gioia at Blogcritics has written an interesting review that focuses on what he calls Littell’s “bureaucratization of evil.”

“If Hannah Arendt grabbed our attention by calling attention to the ‘banality of evil’ from this chapter in history, then Littell is the writer who shows us ‘the bureaucratization of evil.’ This is no small achievement. The institutionalization and bureaucratization of genocide must stand out as the most horrific development of the twentieth century, yet it is also the most difficult to portray in literary form. We grasp the Holocaust in small pieces, but how can a storyteller muster not just the courage, but more specifically the narrative structure, to grab on to the larger tragedy?” Read more.

New York Times Book Review

March 7, 2009

Here is a sampling from the David Gates review:

“While ‘The Kindly Ones’ may have a Nabokovian narrator — obscurantist in his erudition, hyperspecialized in his sexual tastes — its exhaustively researched historicity and documentarian realism clearly derive from “War and Peace.” It would take a writer of unimaginable genius to work these opposed tendencies into a coherent whole — and Tolstoy himself might have thought twice before trying to write fiction about the Holocaust. (Though, being Tolstoy, he would eventually have rolled up his sleeves anyhow.) Since nothing can rival the monstrosity of the historical record and the eyewitness accounts, the novelist may choose to put the focus on the individual, whose private concerns, however dire, will seem dinky in the context of what happened to six million individuals (not counting the always insufficiently anguished perpetrators). Or the novelist can try a knight’s move into the absurd — as Littell has done in episodes like the narrator’s odd encounter with Hitler — but it’s ultimately just an artful dodge. Absurdity may be disorienting, but brutality is absolute.
You can’t blame Littell for failing an impossible self-assignment. Nor can you fault a young novelist with a world of information, erudition and ambition for taking it on.”

Read the rest of the review.

Win a signed copy of The Kindly Ones

March 6, 2009

Very Short List is giving away 30 signed copies of The Kindly Ones. Win a chance to read the book everyone is talking about!