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Rationalising the irrational

The German translation of Jonathan Littell's corpse-littered SS novel, "Les Bienveillantes," has had the feuilletons tripping over one other to tear it apart. Here are just a few of the charges leveled.

Die Zeit 14.02.2008

"Littell favours, as he informed Pierre Nora, a 'structuralist' or 'functionalist' observation of Nazism, which also abandons the question of individual responsibility as a 'return to standard narration'. The problem of extermination, he says, is best universalised or 'de-judaised'. Herein lies the novel's core paradox," writes literary critic Irish Radisch: "If author and narrator believe that the individual and his inner world is irrelevant to the explanation of the German crime, then a novel which entrusts itself entirely to this personal interior perspective is pointless. His book should contain structural connections, functional processes and document examination, not soul searching. But Littell cannot decide between the two (which is why his novel is so bloated) and he never manages to convincingly combine the two. Shoving the perpetrator into the centre, boosting him intellectually and at the same time showing his innocence in the ancient sense of the world: this is the stuff of legends. This is over-inflating the perpetrator like a kidnap victim with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. It's verging on heroic saga. But why on earth would we want a Nazi hero now?"

And for social psychologist and memory researcher Harald Welzer: "In the overwhelming tension between the novel's conspicuously absent quality and the hype surrounding it, Littell's "Les Bienveillantes" ("The Kindly Ones") represents a new level in Nazi fascination, it is a heady cocktail of facts, violent pornography and upright, educated citizen in the form of the protagonist Aue. This mixture does nothing but affirm the horror," writes Harald Welzer, "and the only interesting thing about it is that Littell has not delivered a novel in the classic sense, but an unending narrative of things he presumably believes are facts. (...) Nothing in this book provides anything new, either in terms of style or content. His image of the perpetrator preserves the character of abnormality so painstakingly deconstructed by research, and this is why at the end Aue has to bite the Führer's nose. The Holocaust as a panopticum of folly? Debate in this country progressed beyond this point long ago."

Neue Zürcher Zeitung 23.02.2008

"Perpetrator research, as pursued by historians such as Ulrich Herbert and Michael Wildt over the past decade has provided us with a much deeper and nuanced understanding of the executors the Nazi genocide," writes historian Christoph Jahr. "Its just lazy thinking to picture the murderers as failed desperadoes on the margins of society. The four-hundred or so members of the inner circle of the Reich Security Central Office, the terror centre of the Nazi state, were mostly young, educated men with bourgeois backgrounds who combined a radical world view of the world with an eagerness to act. Max Aue, doctor of law, fits this image in many respects, although he has been exaggerated into an ideal. But Littell is way behind in his perpetrator research. His protagonist, a fascinating black demon who converses with friend and foe in Ancient Greek while confidently pacing through the history of western philosophy and is equally at home talking about music and art, has nothing to do with your average mortal. Aue is world away from the 'normal men' who carried out the Holocaust as Christopher Browning described with such precision."

Berliner Zeitung

"Why has Jonathan Littell's novel 'Les Bienveillantes' provoked so much meaningful murmuring," asks Burkhard Scherer. "Two suspicions spring to mind: Corpse-filled literature tends to provoke a sort of knee-jerk reverence as if criticism would interrupt the peace of the dead; and secondly, there is the aspect of intimidation prose, the sort that is peppered with sensitive particles of learning and woe betide anyone who stumbles past one of them and misses the whole point. I will quote from one of the early-bird reviews from the German-language quality feuilletons: 'After my first reading, I didn't trust myself to say with certainty whether or not everything was connected at a still deeper level. After reading further, this reporter can confidently say, in the words of the poet Robert Gernhardt [sadly non-rhyming in translation -ed] "My God this is rich in associations! I think I'm going to be sick.'"

Frankfurter Rundschau

Inspired by the criticism (see our feature "Evil Dead") leveled by Georg Klein that the book lacks the 'style of evil', Ina Hartwig compares Littell with the French poetes maudits. "In the writings of de Sade and Bataille murder itself is linked with lust. And lust - this would be one of the criteria for 'the style of evil' – becomes the ruling principle. But even in moments when his drives kick in, Littell's hero Max Aue is still himself. In full control and with a morceau of self irony, he concludes: 'And so I decided, my arse full of sperm, to join the secret police.' Morality is not warped into amorality, but the ruling criminal law is deceived, outwitted."

Der Tagesspiegel 16.02.2008

Gregor Dotzauer emphatically rejects the claim that Jonathan Littell's novel is "singular in its imagining of the madness of National Socialism from the perpetrator perspective." "The lucid sobriety of Primo Levi's Auschwitz reports and essays was an unswerving attempt to do precisely this, and the fact that it failed time after time is the crux of its enduring truth. Levi's rationalising of the irrational differs fundamentally from Littell's. For one thing Littell constantly fences in Aue's boundary-hopping morality with dusty old perversion patterns from the psychoanalytical attic. And for another, he allows his first-person narrator no time to think about all the shooting, hanging and beating that he constantly encounters."

Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 24.02.2008

Writer and cultural scientist Klaus Theweleit devotes an entire page of the FAZ on Sunday to venting his anger at the book's critics. One thing he cannot understand are the accusations that the novel is badly written. "I mean what were people expecting? Something written with Thomas Mannian distance? Literary polish? Precisely that would have been a crime. I expected something dreadful and got something dreadful. It took me 700 pages to realise that this is the only way it can work: with this way of writing, in this pseudo intellectual style which (supposedly) separates Dr. Max Aue from the average SS brute, because – and you only need to hear Himmler's Posener speech from October 1943 to understand: this linguistic conglomeration which Jonathan Littell creates – which does and must pain the reader – hits the nail right on the head." - let's talk european