Fiction as History (as Fiction)
In an article in the Times, Anthony Beevor calls The Kindly Ones ‘a great work of literary fiction, to which readers and scholars will turn for decades to come’. The review is eminently quotable, of course, but alert readers will have to ask: Really? Scholars?
Told from a point of view both sensationalist and horrifying — that of an SS officer who is an accomplice to all the worst excesses of the war — The Kindly Ones is nevertheless a well-written book. It offers a high style that could easily be a pastiche of Thomas Mann, but goes further than Mann ever did in examining individual guilt in the communal crime of war by describing with chilling meticulousness the criminal acts themselves. Dozens, if not hundreds, of deaths, many gruesome, are given individual attention. The tone is even, the pace stately and measured, the details stomach-turning. From the Commissar Order and the siege of Stalingrad to the Final Solution, tens of pages at a time are dedicated to reproducing conversations in which seemingly intelligent men argue the tertiary particulars of mass murder and enact the most sordid crimes. The writing is in the best taste, it could be argued, and the content the worst.
Some reviewers have argued that because of the book’s opening (‘Oh, my human brothers’), this is a story about how any one could become a Nazi, but the book’s narrator, Maximilian Aue, is a monster, and has been one since long before the war. Forever scarred by the disappearance of his father and his childhood incest with his twin, he begins a make-believe relationship with his sister in which he eats her excrement and has sex with her in a torture chamber. When he is not inhabiting this fantasy, he is an unrepentant murderer who kills not just Jews and other ‘enemies of the Reich’, but both his mother and his best friend for no apparent reason — hardly an everyman.
Readers must assume that in this excess, which is the novel’s defining characteristic, they will find revealed the author’s intentions. One hopes that what seems at first the crassest sensationalism is in fact intended to prove that all sensationalist literature eventually, even unavoidably, leads to this, the Shoah as entertainment: a mirror held up to a society that has forgotten how to police its own self-indulgence and could stand some historical reminders. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that this is not the case.
The most important obstacle to the argument for The Kindly Ones as exegesis on sensationalist literature arises from the pre-eminence the author gives to Aue’s dream life. Despite the facts and figures, the long (often dull) expositive sections on the inner workings and personalities of the Nazi government — despite, in short, a lot of careful research worn not especially lightly — there is embedded in Aue’s fabrications a massive, central, and intentional conceit of falsity and hallucination that leaves nothing untainted, not even the Holocaust itself. Littell shows it is possible to include the details of history to the fullest, most gruesome extent, and yet still dismiss them.
The assault on fact begins about halfway through the book, when Aue is shot during the siege of Stalingrad. From that moment, his story becomes ever more coloured by solipsism and fantasy. He reports, for example, that Hitler gives a public address dressed as a rabbi. Later he will claim to have bitten Hitler’s nose. While recovering from his wounds, Aue meets Dr Mandelbrot, a ridiculous sci-fi character inspired perhaps by the Edgar Rice Burroughs books Aue loved as a child. Grotesquely fat, malodorous, attended by an army of identical Aryan women whose names all start with H, petting his cat like a Bond villain, Mandelbrot orchestrates Aue’s advance through the party from a floating mechanical chair. Such silliness is distressing: as James Woods has rightly pointed out, an unreal monster cannot create real fear, and real fear is what the victims of genocide deserve.
For long passages, Aue holds imaginary conversations and caprophageous dinners with his sister. Again and again, he dreams of being chased through train stations; when the story ends with a surreal hunt along Berlin’s U-Bahn tracks, the reader must accept that what the narrator is experiencing is not real, but imagined: the book is coded to tell us so. In the midst of all this fantasy, the reality he witnesses is unseated: can we believe it happened? Are his accounts of Auschwitz to be trusted, or are we simply dealing, as the story seems to suggest, with the inventions of a madman? Taken together, these questions represent nothing less than a potential reduction to insignificance of the historical circumstances.
How could such a reduction benefit scholars? Note that Beevor’s quote doesn’t seem to imply that The Kindly Ones will be of interest to students of twenty-first-century literature; he is writing, clearly, about historians of the war. Of course he knows better than to imagine that any scholar of merit would prefer a research-based work of surrealist fiction written sixty years after the fact to primary sources, but carried along by his enthusiasm, this is nevertheless what he suggests. He is not alone: Jason Burke, for example, writing in the Observer, praises Littell’s ‘contribution to history.’
Where could they have found such an idea? Littell himself might be one source: it is an approach he encourages in the 80-plus-page ‘Reader’s Introduction’ (almost never mentioned in reviews) which the publisher, presumably keen to direct the manner in which the book would be interpreted, released with the novel. Here, Littell admits that, despite having dedicated the book to ‘the dead’, he is more interested in killers than in victims, and maintains that historians ‘haven’t succeeded’ in giving an account of execution and murder. Littell does give an account of those things — but if Aue is permanently dreaming, then that account makes light of mass murder for a literary effect that is questionable (and not particularly original; many readers will remember it from American Psycho).
This doubly extra-factual approach to the truth is breathtakingly dangerous. How, after all, are we to decide which novels give us better facts than straight history? Based on the author’s biographical background? The size of the advance? Sheer number of pages? How can a book, meanwhile, which knowingly undermines its own factual bases by skewing them with surrealism serve as history in any case? We have a right to be disturbed by the idea that Jonathan Littell has stepped in where historians supposedly fail, or that the fantasy of The Kindly Ones somehow replaces history.
In his criticism of The Great Dictator, Theodore Adorno notes that Chaplin had nothing but the best intentions, but nevertheless considers the work a failure because in the end the depiction does not match the reality. At the moment of its release, before anyone in the US really knew anything about the concentration camps, few people would have looked at it this way. The movie probably could not have been made ‘after Auschwitz’. This tells us a good deal about the time — practically an age of innocence — in which it was created. The nostalgia people feel when watching the movie now is for a pre-lapsarian world.
Of course Auschwitz didn’t end with the liberation of the camps, but in a disconcerting sense it may be ending now. Indeed, it cannot be a coincidence that, just as the generation that lived these events is on the verge of extinction, we are witnessing a sudden explosion of Holocaust and World War II-related books and movies, several of which (see for example the debate over The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) take some liberties with the facts. While authors of such works generally argue, perhaps rightly, that small factual discrepancies don’t matter compared with the larger truth, Littell goes much further towards disenfranchising the historical past: by making his narrator a fantasist, he seems to argue that facts themselves don’t really matter, even as he rattles off a library’s worth.
It would not be unreasonable for readers to assume that Littell’s true interest in the Holocaust is to leverage an otherwise average story about a psychotic with the greatest possible shock value — whatever the ‘Reader’s Introduction’ says to the contrary. Aue is after all strangely untouched by what he sees, except for his digestion (he vomits after his meals, a reversal of the natural order); as a Nazi he is diligent but not especially zealous. The result is that all the reported violence seems to be little more than sadistic self-indulgence, not for Aue’s sake — he doesn’t much mind one way or the other, except as it affects his job performance — but for the reader’s. In a perfect collaboration of artificial gravitas and moral degradation, those who care for such things can tut piously over the crimes of others while enjoying stories of newborns smashed to death.
Practically a dark mirror to Chaplin’s film, The Kindly Ones matches in many ways the terrible reality Adorno talks of, only to dismiss it. While The Great Dictator aimed through charm to raise awareness, The Kindly Ones seems designed through disingenuousness to blunt it — a return to the warm and comfortable womb of emotional detachment, as if to say, ‘yes, maybe it happened – but who still cares?’ Works such as this demonstrate better than anything else that soon the Holocaust will necessarily be freed from a kind of copyright due to expire with its survivors, their once proprietary experience slipping inexorably into the public domain: The Kindly Ones, too, represents its era. If The Great Dictator represented the misguided best of its day — the idea that humour could unseat evil — The Kindly Ones shows us the worst of our own, one in which the horrors of Auschwitz are increasingly to be thought of as no more than backdrop to fantasy.
In Kabbalah, his definitive introduction to Jewish mysticism, the philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem describes the doctrine of shemittot, cosmic cycles across which even the Torah — perceived as a permanent emanation of God — would have different meanings, achieved differently. In terms of how the Shoah is written, read and understood, there can be little doubt that we are witnessing just such a change. Many will find this change difficult, and with reason, but for better or worse it is upon us, and no one makes that point more clearly than Jonathan Littell.