I recently wondered what I would think about Jonathan Littell’s big new novel The Kindly Ones, an intentionally repulsive exploration of the genocidal Nazi personality that won big awards in France and has now been published, with high expectations, in an English translation. At this point, I’ve consumed so many articles about the book that I may not need to read it at all. For instance, I perused Carey Harrison’s thoughts this morning, and Daniel Mendelsohn’s this afternoon.
As the author of the family Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, Mendelsohn’s appreciation for Littell’s novel seems to carry extra weight, and as an expert in classic literature he is well qualified to explain its careful references. Mendelsohn helpfully lays out significant parallels to Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, and brings not only Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Flies but also Herman Melville’s Moby Dick into the mix. An excellent read, but can I now be excused from reading Littell’s 992 page book? I think I get the main idea now, and I wonder if there is much more to get.
Since I carry my own recurring obsession with the topic of genocide, I can’t approach a book like The Kindly Ones without bringing some baggage. If I understand correctly, Littell’s intention with this novel is to shove our face in horror, and to shock us by presenting a credibly intellectual and well-adjusted “hero” who is also an unapologetic Nazi and a maniacal sadist. That’s fine, but I’ve already read dozens of books about the Holocaust (Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke was, for me, the most important recent work, William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich the most essential history, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man and Art Spiegelman’s Maus the most emotionally resonant stories, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil the best philosophical treatment). While I’m all for burying genteel faces in horror, my own face has already been buried plenty.
I also find it inexplicable that we continue to romanticize and rhapsodize about the European Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s as if it were unique when in fact genocide is so prevalent, so common, so cheap around us. For instance, a vicious, carefully orchestrated holocaust rages in the Sudan right now, as we blog, as we twitter. Reviewers of Jonathan Littell’s novel talk about the murder of children and grandmothers, but communities including children and grandmothers are being ground into nonexistence today in Darfur, and very few people seem to think anything can be done about it.
It’s ironic that the Holocaust has become such a cottage industry — shelves in bookstores, museums in cities around the world — even as “holocaust denial” grows into its own odious cottage industry, taking root from the Vatican to Iran.
I think there’s plenty more to be said about the meaning of genocide in the modern world, but I’m not sure I need to read a 992-page indulgence in fictional evil when I can read articles like this, this, this, this or this in today’s New York Times.