“Simply astounding. . . . The Kindly Ones is unmistakably the work of a profoundly gifted writer.” — Time A literary prize-winner that has been an explosive bestseller all over the world, Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones has been called “a brilliant Holocaust novel… a world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and force,” and “relentlessly fascinating, ambitious beyond scope,” by Michael Korda (Ike, With Wings Like Eagles). Destined to join the pantheon of classic epics of war such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, The Kindly Ones offers a profound and gripping experience of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.
SignatureReviewed by Jonathan SeguraWritten in French by an American, this was the hot book of Frankfurt in 2006 and won two of France's major literary awards. A couple of years and a reported million-dollar advance later, here it is in English. Is it worth the hype and money? In a word, no. Dr. Max Aue, the petulant narrator of this overlong exercise in piling-on, is a rising star in the SS. His career helped along by a slick SS benefactor, Aue watches the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the Ukraine, survives getting shot through the head in Stalingrad, researches and writes dozens of reports, tours Auschwitz and Birkenau, and finds himself in Hitler's bunker in the Reich's final days. He kills people, too, and is secretly gay a catcher and tormented by his love for his twin sister, Una, who now rebuffs his lusty advances. He also hates his mother and stepfather. As he claims, "If you ever managed to make me cry, my tears would sear your face." But after nearly 1,000 pages, Herr Doktor Aue, for all his alleged coldness and self-hatred and self-indulgent ruminations, amounts to nothing more than a bloodless conduit for boasting the breadth of Littell's research (i.e., a nine-page digression on the history of Caucasian linguistics). The text itself is notable for its towering, imposing paragraphs that often run on for pages. Unfortunately, these paragraphs are loaded with dream sequences marked by various unpleasant bodily functions, a 14-page hallucination where a very C line-like crackpot cameos as "Dr. Sardine" and dozens of numbing passages in which SS functionaries debate logistical aspects of the Jewish Question. Also, 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"). Most crippling, however, is Aue's inability to narrate outside his one bulldozing, breathless register, and while it may work marvelously early on as he relates the troubles of trying to fit the maximum number of bodies into a pit, the monotone voice quickly loses its luster. In the final 200 or so pages, Berlin is burning, the Russians and Americans are making rapid advances, Hitler is nearly assassinated and SS brass are formulating their personal endgames. But, alas, this massive endeavor grinds to its conclusion on a pulp conceit: two German cops, against all odds, are in hot pursuit of Aue for a crime he may or may not have committed.Littell's strung together many tens of thousands of words, but many tens of thousands of words does not necessarily a novel make. As the French say, tant pis.Jonathan Segura is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly and the author of Occupational Hazards.
Customer ReviewsSee All
I found myself caught up in the prime character with thorough intrigue and marveled how well the author constructed the swirling atmosphere of the declining days of Hitler's Germany.
While I couldn't put the book down, I grew to dislike the main character as he was terribly self indulgent and self centered, but at the same time, I was very drawn to the history as it was happening.
Without divulging the ending, I thought it could have been played better as it simply ends with a bizarre act with no further cause.
Spectacular in its breadth, scope, intent and achievement
This book reads as though written by a master historian crossed with a poet. Intense, thorough, brilliant, the work is not to be missed. A lyrical beauty pervades the prose, which suggests that the dreadful subject matter is subsumed in said beauty. This is not the case, however. Rather, the author has imbued his work with beauty to enhance the terrible notions underlying the work.