Kindly Ones Keep Us Company

I got a review copy of Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones — a massive, 982-page paperweight of a novel about a (fictional) SS officer during the Holocaust — and didn’t immediately read it. Although the novel won one of France’s major literary awards and was hailed in Europe, it’s still, well, Europe. The American reviews soundly thrashed the thing, calling it bloated and pretentious and severely scatological in its humor. And then there was the size of it:

kindly ones by jonathan littell

Finally, a few weeks ago I sat down to conquer the thing. It actually came at an opportune time: I had to run out of work to go to the doctor’s. (I’d gotten a tick in the middle of winter, and even though I live in Brooklyn, a city without any trees or bushes or nature, I decided I needed to make sure I wasn’t dying of Lyme disease.) I could run down to the medical center and wait for a walk-in. This sounded to me like the prospect of hours with nothing to do. What better time to dig into a monster such as that?

So I had this period of time, roped off, with nothing else to fill it. I dove in and started to read. And I discovered: The Kindly Ones actually is sort of compelling.

kindly ones littellThe story follows the narration of Dr. Maximilien Aue, a man with no pretense of brevity and a truly OCD mind. The story is by turns relentlessly brutal (explosion after explosion, battle scenes in plenitude) and severely nitpicky. When Aue is given the chance to kill Jews, you get the sense that he thinks of it, not as ethnic cleansing or mass murder, but as an innumerably complex problem to solve, and one more thing to analyze. And the man can analyze: he goes off on ten-page digressions about statistical models and mid-20th-century medical culture. Single paragraphs fill pages, and sometimes when you come to a paragraph break, a chorus plays Hallelujah in your head.

It’s cheapening the story to chalk up Aue’s neuroses to the author’s need to portray the hyperactiveness of the German Nazi methodical mind. At the same time, however, reading this book really illuminates the intricacies of someone obsessed with detail, and how the humanity of humanity can get lost in the process. Aue, at various points in the book, destroys his family, embarks on an incestuous relationship with his sister, and argues — regretfully, it seems — that the more accurate tally of Jews killed in the Holocaust is closer to five million than six. There is also the aforementioned scatology: Aue is obsessed with vomiting and bowel movements, both his own and other people’s. One of my favorite lines from Publisher’s Weekly‘s review puts it best: “Nary an anus goes by that isn’t lovingly described (among the best is one surrounded by a pink halo, gaped open like a sea anemone between two white globes).”

It’s not a sympathetic portrait of Nazis by any means. But it’s a thought-provoking one. I don’t know if I’d actually want to read this book given the choice between it and, oh, just about any other book about the Holocaust (or not) out there. But for those with the curiosity — and the time to spare — it’s an intriguing perusal.

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