The novel is discussed in the latest issue of History Today. I have pasted the complete article here because otherwise you can only view the first couple of paragraphs. Note how it says towards the end that the novel is triggering a major revival of interest in books about the Holocaust.
I do hope our rather tetchy moderator doesn't remove this post. He's given me grief for posting educational materials on this forum before, but, as was the case on those earlier occasions, I strongly believe that this information is of interest to the revisionist research community, particularly researchers concerned with the broad question of how Holocaust 'education' is placing increasing emphasis upon fiction, presumably because the so-called primary sources are much too embarrassing to encourage people to read.
History Today February 2007 Volume: 57 Issue: 2 Pages 5-6.
Tobias Grey discusses the impact of a controversial historical novel that has become a literary sensation in France, and asks some French-based commentators and historians for their reactions.
'Imposteur …’ ‘genie …’ ‘farceur …’ Jonathan Littell attracts French epithets the way other writers do free lunches. Six months ago nobody in France had heard of this thirty-nine-year-old American-born novelist whose only previous literary output was a little read sci-fi novel written when he was twenty-two. Now his name and that of his novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) – a Dante-esque plunge into the daily toil of an ideologically confused SS officer – is on everyone’s lips.
Over 900 pages long and full of unsettling descriptions of the Holocaust, Les Bienveillantes (the title of which refers to the Erinyes of Greek myth), has become an unlikely bestseller. It has already shifted well over 400,000 copies in France alone. An English translation is planned for spring 2008.
Littell’s tale is told through the eyes of a cultured, homosexual senior SS officer, Maximilian Aue, part of an Einsatzgruppen serving on the Russian front, during the years 1941-44. Aue is eventually tasked with stepping up the German war effort through increased Jewish labour, an under taking which is doomed to failure. Along the way he runs into, and up against, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess and, in the final pages, Hitler.
Littell takes his cue from Hannah Arendt by stressing the banality in his protagonist’s make-up. ‘I am a man like anyone else,’ says Aue. ‘I am a man like you ...’ Later Aue remarks: ‘Like most people I did not ask to become an assassin. If I had had my way ... I would have gone into literature.’
‘I was thinking Les Bienveillantes would sell between 3,000 and 5,000 copies,’ Littell told Le Monde in one of his rare interviews. ‘Gallimard [Littell’s French publisher] hoped for a bit more. I was very sceptical. Things turned out quite differently, it was totally unexpected.’
The novel’s overriding critical success has helped. Sales were further boosted in November when Littell, who is bi-lingual and wrote Les Bienveillantes in French to emulate his literary heroes Flaubert and Stendhal, became the first American ever to win France’s prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
‘It’s a curious literary happening because the book’s success has not been brought about by television or other media attention but as a result of word of mouth and the written press,’ the Paris-based Spanish writer Jorge Semprun, a former prisoner at Buchenwald and a member of the Goncourt jury, told History Today. ‘I think it’s created such a lot of interest in France because this question of the extermination of millions of Jews has rarely been treated in the novel form. In the past it’s a subject that has been tackled by historians like Raul Hilberg. But it’s the first time that a novelist has attempted to tackle the question of the Holocaust in such fine detail. It goes to show that the novel is better suited than any other form of literature in drawing attention to history.’ [!]
Such a statement will no doubt have many historians gnashing their teeth. In fact those who have been most dismissive of Les Bienveillantes in France are academics.
The day after Littell won the Prix Goncourt, the historian Edouard Husson described Les Bienveillantes ‘as a massive practical joke’, going on to add, ‘The very idea that anyone can become an exterminator, in the way that Jonathan Littell sets down, just serves to relativize Nazi warcrimes.’
Claude Lanzmann, who made the seminal documentary on the Holocaust, Shoah (1985), was initially disappointed by Littell’s decision to dwell so much on ‘the horror and décor of death’, has gradually come around to the author:
‘When I first read Littell’s book I read it very quickly because I had to write some thing about it. It was a very difficult book for me to read in every way, a book which hurt me to read. I wrote an article in Le Journal de Dimanche which was quite critical of Littell but with time I realize he also deserves a lot of praise’.
‘There are some magnificent things in this novel especially on a narrative level, almost visionary… the way he describes Kharkov and the Jews who were hung from the buildings and the balconies, the image of the young girl dangling from the finger of the statue of Lenin. Also the way he resurrected Babi Yar [where the largest single massacre by the Nazis took place in September 1941] about which almost nothing is known is extraordinary. The more I think about it the more I think that Littell was justified in writing this novel.’
Littell, who is Jewish, has stated that it was while watching Lanzmann’s Shoah, that he first got the idea of writing about the ‘bureaucracy of a genocide’. In a curious way, Les Bienveillantes and Shoah are companion pieces. In Shoah the SS are notable by their absence (on several occasions Lanzmann tried but failed to get footage of surviving high officials in the Einsatzgruppens), with the stress much more on the victims and survivors of the Holocaust; in Littell’s book the SS are practically the only voices we do hear. Taken together a fuller picture emerges.
Littell took four years to research his novel and a matter of months to write it. The book begins as German forces make their first in roads into the Ukraine and continues as they push south into the oil-rich Caucasus and eastwards into Stalingrad. It was familiar territory for Littell who spent several years working for humanitarian organizations in this part of the world.
As part of his research Littell interviewed some of the last Jewish survivors of the Nazi pogroms in the Caucasus. He also read voraciously: the works of Hannah Arendt, Raul Hilberg and Franz Neuman, as well as books by Germany’s new wave of historians like Ulrich Herbert, Dietrich Pohl and Suzanne Heim, and Ian Kershaw’s biography of Hitler.
‘What was interesting about the criticism levelled at Littell by historians was that it had nothing to do with the accuracy of his research and documentation because there is nothing to find fault in it,’ said Lanzmann. ‘For me there’s only one criticism that really stands up and that’s that an SS would at least have had a smattering of German culture which Aue does not; he only has a French culture. I met Littell and I was very surprised when he told me he didn’t speak any German.’
Lanzmann’s biggest fear concerning Les Bienveillantes was that it might impinge on the work of historians repres enting the Holocaust. But it seems the opposite is true: far from overshadowing history, Les Bienveillantes has reawakened interest. French sales of Hilberg’s The Destruction of European Jews and Shoah have risen notably since Les Bienveillantes was first published in September 2006. Meanwhile influential magazines like Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Point have devoted whole issues to looking back at Nazism. In November Curzio Malaparte’s novel Kaputt (1944), which perhaps most resembles Les Bienveillantes both in subject matter and nihilistic tone, was given a new French edition.
Some commentators point to the disappointing lack of French novelists prepared to put recent history under the microscope as Littell has done. ‘The huge success of Les Bienveillantes shows there’s a public out there which is not being satisfied by French writers,’ said Semprun. ‘Most of today’s young French writers are navel-gazers, interested in nothing more than writing about their own problems. It’s a kind of egotistic naturalism which is endemic of a deeper French malaise. Just take a look at last year’s literary prize-winners: most are writers who have chosen to write in French as opposed to their native tongue: Littell for the Goncourt, Nancy Huston for Le Prix Femina etc ... These novels are far more outward-looking than most of those written by the French themselves.’
This article leaves me with many questions and observations. Here are a few:
1. Why does a Jewish-American writer write a novel about the Holocaust in French? Why not write it in his native language? Why is it being translated into English rather than being written afresh by the author?
2. What is the point of making the character of the SS officer a homosexual?
3. Note that, like the White Hotel, it centres on Babi Yar, which is described as the 'largest single massacre by the Nazis.'
4. Note that it says that almost nothing is known about Babi Yar.
5. Note the statement that the book is extremely detailed.
6. Note that the author spent four years researching it.
7. Note that he doesn't know any German.
8. What 'humanitarian organizations' are working in the Ukraine and the Caucasus?
9. Should revisionists start writing novels, perhaps?