Reviews - What do customers think about Les Bienveillantes?
Stunning, Repulsive, Disturbing and a Must Read Jun 28, 2008
Jonathan Littell's novel, if a novel it is, provides more questions than answers, more doubts than assurances and plenty more fears and anxieties than any book I have read for many years. I have just read the Hebrew translation of this book, whcih has not appeared in English yet. I do not share the claim, in fact I despise it, made by some prominent Israeli critics, who argued that the book should not have been translated into Hebrew and that it should not be read by Jews or Israelis. I do share, though, with many readers, the disturbing and uneasy feelings that the book brings to the surface, and I suspect that some of my feelings relate directly to being Jewish and an Israeli.
Much as I try, I cannot ignore the fact that this particular book was written by a young Jewish writer (American-French). Jonathan Littell, in an interview with an Israeli leading newspaper claims that he does not feel Jewish and that his Jewishness is by no means the source for his decision to write the book from the point of view of an SS officer in Nazi Germany.
Surely it is not a coincidence that while reading the book I could not stop thinking about the fact that it was not written by a German but by a Jewish American-French writer. In my opinion it is an essential element in the attempt to grasp the magnitude of this novel, its messages and meanings to readers in the fist decade of the 21st century, more than 60 years after the Sencond World War and the Holocaust.
The book is powerful and effective. One can hardly stop even when one is repelled, disturbed and taken aback by the detailed, uncompromising and explicit narrative. I am left with questions, and a distinct feeling that I have not figured out half of what the writer meant. More than any book in recent years I am traumatized and obssessed by it, and unlike the writer - I have no Bienveillantes to sooth me or to put an end to this nightmare. It is a stunning, repulsive, nauseating,haunting, amazing, disturbing, agonizing book,and I suspect that these are exactly the reactions the writer wanted to extract from his readers, and perhaps this is why this book is so totally absorbing and a compelling read.
Virtuosity without a soul May 16, 2008
One wonders how this novel will be rated by English readers when it comes out sometime soon. On the one hand, it tells at great length the story of the Russian campaign to the encirclement at Stalingrad, it describes the nuts and bolts of the concentration camp economy and the conflicts between production (Speer and the Army) and racial annihilation (the SS and particularly Eichmann), it narrates the final thrust against Berlin and it features cameos from everyone from Hitler to Speer, from Junger to Himmler, from Eichmann to Höss. Those parts of the book will probably be loved by the AngloAmericans, who share with everyone else an interest (an obsession) with WWII. On the other hand, it also describes, in meticulous detail, the "hero"'s repulsive sexual preferences (which include coprophagy, meaningless homosexual acts and incest with his twin sister), his multiple murders (all of which, with one exception, victimized friends, family and harmless bystanders) and his odious worldview (at no point does a character, or even the narrator himself, show the obvious inconsistencies at the heart of the Nazi worldview, all the arguments happen within the Nazi mindset- this is a novelty, but not a refreshing one). Worst of all, Max gets away with it and doesn't repent at all. He loves no one and seems to derive his enjoyment from continuing to live in spite of being worthy of annihilation.
The sheer magnitude of the task and the immense erudition that the author displays in this book have led some critics to hail this as a great novel. I don't think this is the case. A 900+ page novel in which the "hero" doesn't change or evolve, where he doesn't seem to learn from his actions, where he does not develop strong attachments of any sort, where he moves across vast landscapes and meets dozens of major and minor characters but where few develop to a point where they are memorable (there are a few exceptions: a linguist whose expertise in languages is used to determine the racial origins of peoples, a demolition man who suffers because he would have preferred to build rather than destroy, but they are few and far between), is in my view a flawed enterprise. It is a magnificent endeavor, but it doesn't really satisfy the reader (or this reader, at any rate). I'm sorry to say so, but the book seems to me like one of the musical executions of classical composers by SS-men to which Aue repeatedly refers: technically profficient, but soulless.
Also, as the story progresses it becomes less and less believable. Why Klemens and Weser, the policemen who investigate two murders of which Aue is accused, continue to turn up to haunt him even to the very end of the War is never explained- obviously the reason is tied to the title of novel, but it doesn't make sense. Why Thomas Hauser always works so hard to help such a cold fish as Aue is never clarified. One would have expected such a sharp operator as Hauser not to have bothered with Aue. The scene with Hitler is farcical and it is completely unbelievable that Aue would manage to walk out from the bunker after it happened. This is not to say that the book is unenjoyable. For the first five chapters I found it hard to put down, I was spellbound. The sixth chapter (Air) I thought was vile, and the last one quite unsatisfactory. In the last two chapters, one soldiered on and was glad to be done with it. Like other long novels (and Nazi Germany), this one went out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Les Bienveillantes -- thriller, historical novel, horror story Mar 20, 2008
Les Bienveillantes is for the brave reader. Written by the American Jonathan Littell, son of the veteran thriller writer Robert Littell, Les Bienveillantes -- the term is roughly translated as "The Kindly Ones," the terrifying cognomen for the Erinyes, the vengeful Furies who pursue the blood-guilty in Greek myth and drama -- is the memoirs of one Max Aue, who joined the Nazi SS as a young man and served in it diligently through the twelve years of Adolf Hitler's supposed Thousand Year Reich. The book is a brilliantly researched blend of history, nightmarish picaresque adventure and Gothic horror tale. Aue is, by his own account, a monster. Haunted by but unable to escape his role in the methodical slaughter of the Jews of Eastern Europe, Aue is also a successful careerist eager for advancement and a psychically crippled sexual misfit. And it must be added that Littell has given his Aue a sense of humor. It's disquieting to read a book about the Nazi terror written in a fluent, compelling but somehow Americanized French. The unease, I think, is intended. We are not meant to believe that the horrors of totalitarian statism and Holocaust are the exclusive property of any one nation. They are not. Les Bienveillantes has won the Prix Goncourt. Reading it, I wondered if the melodrama wasn't too heavyhanded and the portrait of Max Aue too overdrawn. But I don't think they are. The book deserved its prize.
Dark, perverse, bloody and compulsive reading Mar 18, 2008
I read this book about a year ago and it still has me obsessed. I keep checking to see when the english translation will appear. Apparently a translator has been chosen (according to a website I saw). It is not easy to read - about 900 pages with few breaks - and the subject is hardly appealing. But it certainly kept me riveted for weeks. After reading several reviews of the book, not all positive, I realized that I needed and wanted to learn more. I watched Claude Lanzmann's classic film "Shoah" and read Vasily Grossman's novel "Life and Fate." The former is certainly a better account of the holocaust and the latter a better treatment of the eastern front in general and the battle of Stalingrad in particular. Both are excellent and well recommended, but I think Littell's book will also, ultimately, be regarded as a classic.
Profound and devastating Oct 10, 2007
Jonathan Littell's "Les Bienveillantes" takes the reader through all the circles of the 20th century Inferno of Eastern Europe during the second world war. It may be read on one level as the modernist version of Dante's masterpiece: an architecture of the darkest places in the modern soul. The anti-hero begins as an idealist; his idealism leads him step by step into becoming a monster. Alas, he has no wise Virgil to guide him through the tortured landscape in which he finds himself. Like de Sade, he challenges us to justify our ethics and principles in the face of their definitive negation. I have often wondered how normal everyday middle class Germans could have become cogs in the Nazi death machine; this book provides an explanation.
Hopefully, an English translation will be available soon. I highly recommend this book to those with a passable knowledge of French. The prose is not overly difficult for an intermediate-level student.