In Which I Am So, So Glad I Finally Read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In brief, this is the story of a man who was once a Nazi officer, a story of his war; it is a fictional autobiography of an intellectual thrown into the horror of the Second World War. It is the War from ‘the other side’. But it is so, so much more than that.

Dr Max Aue is an intellectual, a successful businessman; and he used to be a Nazi officer. In his introduction he states that he intends to ‘set the record straight’ and that is why he decides to tell his story, but there may be other reasons in play. At times he is brutally frank about what he saw, or did, or was involved with, and one cannot deny the catharsis of a confession.

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The detail of the historical research in The Kindly Ones is astounding. Jonathan Littell spent five years researching and a year writing, and it shows. The real characters, that we know from history, are well rounded and chime with historical accounts (particularly Himmler and Eichmann). The depth of detail displays the bureaucracy, internal politics, and conflicts within the Nazi party that affect so much of what happens during the War. Once you have read about the grim reality of the victims, it is fascinating to gain this perspective into the Nazi regime. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we learn of the inner workings and day-to-day events that make the Party seem almost like a business or a manufacturer. As Max rises within the Party and is privy to more and more of its inner workings, we see that the suffering of the victims is often viewed as a byproduct of the industry the Nazis create.

Max himself is a Freudian nightmare; self-obsessed, filled with self-loathing, fixated on bodily functions and the intricacies of his family relationships. He relates his dreams, analysing them a little and leaving the rest to us. He in an intellectual dragged into a bloody war between what might be good and what might be evil, and he hates both himself and everyone else around him. He is repulsed by human suffering, but also by his own actions. It is unsurprising when he gets ill or has a mental breakdown (both happen more than once).

I could spend a lot of time and words analysing Max and his own unique brand of crazy. He is a deeply real character, a terrible and brilliant person, and you both hate him and love him, mostly out of pity. I greatly admire Littell for his commitment to his creation.

The Kindly Ones is heavy going, not only for its subject matter and the intensity of Max’s narrative, but also because it is over 900 pages long. But, if you have the interest in the history, as well as the philosophy and psychology (there is a lot of both) then it is well worth the time and effort. Like Max, it is terrible and brilliant, and crazy in its own way. My only real criticism is that it was obviously translated by an American and so there is some American phrasing, which is a bit jarring because Max is European, and I, the reader, am English. But really this is insignificant.

I can’t tell you how wonderful this book is. It is not something to be taken lightly, but it is its own kind of masterpiece.

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Originally published as Les Bienveillantes in France in 2006 by Editions Gallimard; then in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2010 paperback published by Vintage (pictured above).

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

After you’ve read it I would recommend getting some background on the Wikipedia page (lots of excellent Greek mythology).

 

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Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek

My apologies that I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve had a really horrendous cold that had me totally spaced out and without energy. And I’m still recovering from it! It hasn’t been very nice. ANYWAY.

Since becoming an official fan of Peirene Press, I’ve had a greater interest in translated literature, and so I was rather eager to try out the new novel from Stork Press, Illegal Liaisons by Grazyna Plebanek. Stork Press ‘[Give] Voice to New Writers from Central and Eastern Europe’, an area I know little about except from my reading about the war. It’s a bit different now.

Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)
Stork Press 2012 edition (image: goodreads.com)

Illegal Liaisons is a book Stork Press are very excited about, and their enthusiasm was infectious. I read the book in a couple of days and was left with plenty to think about once it was over. The press release describes it like this:

A passionate novel of unstoppable physical obsession amongst a group of Brussels eurocrats, Illegal Liaisons offers a fascinating insight into the first Polish generation that is truly ‘free’ [after Communism], but struggles to understand where the boundaries of freedom lie.

Sounds pretty good, huh? Stork Press’s Twitter feed has been testament to how much they enjoyed the novel, and not just because of the intense sex scenes. Ah yes, the sex scenes. In a way these could easily be used to sell Illegal Liaisons, and frankly they are part of its appeal (come on, who are we kidding?). But there is more to this novel than sex. It has a brain, and an agenda, and even a load of gender theory thrown in for good measure. In an interview for Stork Press’s blog which I urge you to read, author Grazyna Plebanek states that she used the story of a married man having a heated affair as a medium to explore gender roles and stereotypes, as well as identities and definitions. The result is an intense and fascinating novel that questions the norm of family life as well the necessity of monogamy and the morality of sex. Reading the interview with her really helped to put a new perspective on the novel and open it up to the reader.

While the sex (and the fantasies about sex) are graphic and very erotic, they are also very psychological. Jonathan is cheating on his wife Megi with Andrea, the partner of one of Megi’s bosses and a regular in their wider social circle. Andrea is a classic ‘other woman’. She is very attractive, and teases Jonathan with her elusiveness, always meeting him on her terms. She also flirts with every man she meets, all of whom are drawn to her and regularly form enraptured circles around her at parties. Jonathan knows she could have anyone she wants. He wonders why she has chosen him. He wonders why he chose her. He wonders when and why his relationship with Megi moved from ‘lover’ to ‘friend’.

Plebanek’s writing is unembarrassed about sex and emotions, and is charged with a deep sadness as well as eroticism. She understands that no relationship is simple, whether it be between friends, lovers, spouses, parents, children – they are all complicated in their own ways. I read about these relationships with wide eyes, trying to take it all in and understand it. After I finished the novel I sat there for a moment and tried to digest what I had just read.

Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)
Grazyna Plebanek (image: bekap.be)

Ultimately, as Plebanek states, the novel tries to show that sexuality is a part of human nature that cannot be ignored, and it is a part of everyday life – the sex scenes are not intended to shock or titillate, they are necessary to these relationships. Plebanek’s choice to write about sex from a male perspective is also very interesting. She states that she:

was curious about the man’s point of view when it comes to passion. It’s traditionally a ‘female thing’, in life, in art. We have Anna Karenina, who helplessly falls in love, but Karenin stays cool. Nowadays men are closer mentally to her than to him, I think.

The aim was to explore modern masculinity in relation to sexuality, and the changing roles of men and women. Megi is the one with the high-powered job that moves the family from Poland to Brussels, while Jonathan is the stay-at-home dad. His traditionally female role leaves him unsatisfied, and Andrea is part of his way of feeling satisfied in his life. But Megi’s role is unsatisfying as well – sporadic sections printed in italics show the reader Megi’s point of view, one that I wish could have been expanded even more. There seems to be a wealth to her character that is left untapped.

While I loved this novel, I ultimately found it quite sad. It is thoughtful, unashamed, brave, and ultimately beautiful.

*

Published on 15th October 2012 by Stork Press. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

On 18th October I will be attending an event hosted by Stork Press at Belgravia Books, at which Grazyna Plebanek will be in conversation with author and critic Maggie Gee. The event is free, and more information can be found here.