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« Doing Something as a Reality | Main | RIP »

12/21/2009

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Steven Augustine


"The Kindly Ones rather early on overwhelmed my own general disdain for history-based fiction not by 'bringing history to life' but by bringing life to history."

Ah, brother! Yes. I was fortunate enough to disable that prejudice, too, Dan, in order to open my head to TKO's head-opener. Agree with your estimation of the limits on Mendelsohn's otherwise not-bad review, as well; I'd go further and suggest that TKO has some bad news for the reader looking for the expected "uplift", in the standard affirmation of humankind's basic nobility, which too many novels, poems, plays and films (et al) have been hawking mercilessly since the dawn of the PC Reich. Littell kicks a TKO-shaped hole in that papier-mâché wall of Niceness (a mural of fluffy bunnies and helpful angels and salt-of-the-earth American Presidents) and I'm hoping a few young writers might crawl through and give us Adults some fresh material to read, one day.

Also, dare we mention how many *jokes* TKO features? Black humor, to be sure, but still funny as hell.

"Taking offense--or finding the novel 'repugnant'--is not a credible aesthetic judgment, and in my opinion most of the negative reviews of The Kindly Ones lack credibility because they were either explicit expressions of distaste of this kind or thinly disguised versions of such distaste masquerading as critique of character and plot logic."

Amen. If kitsch, as Kundera put it, is the denial of shit, we've been up to our necks in a ridiculous phantom absence for far too long.

We had a zesty week-long discussion about TKO starting here (or thereabouts):

http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/the-endless-thread-2-0/#comment-1056

Dan Green

"dare we mention how many *jokes* TKO features?"

Yes we do, and I'm glad you did. It's part of kicking that hole in the "wall of Niceness."

Jacob Russell

Bataille: Literature and Evil

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WiwNekNJGA

Steven Augustine

Great vid, Jacob!

Daniel

I haven't read the book, but this is an excellent discussion so I'm just going to throw a few ideas at people who have read it and see if they stick.

I wonder what the reaction would have been had the narrator been involved in some other atrocity of history, say of the Armenian genocide, instead of the Shoah; it's so hugely meaningful to world culture that we are pre-conditioned -- or is he responding to Arendt perhaps? that evil is not banal at all? One gets the impression that a book like this has a purpose beyond aesthetics, since it is purposefully keeping its distance from beauty. Maybe it is just too late in the age for such an story to be effective. May it also be the case of a reader's point of entry? For a book that intends to be unbeautiful, "plodding", sometimes it makes all the difference to expect that as you enter the narrative.

Jacob Russell

I think one could make a case for the arch-narrator putting Aue through his paces being just that: a seceond-level narrative consciousness, a fictive consciousness, without having to leap out of the novel and see in this the naked voice of the author. The Oresteian mythical overlay is the vehicle for that consciousness, one that Aue himself evokes. Maybe consciousness is the wrong word... as from Aue, it looms more as an Uberweltenschauung vitiating his political beliefs, while at the same time, depriving him of the possibility of imagining anything else, confirming his fatalism and leaving him unable to respond, time after time, with anything but anger and aesthetic disgust to what he clearly recognizes as injustice, .

Dan, in the reviews you've read, has anyone commented on his injury? The case of Phineas Gage is too well known for an obsessive researcher like Littell to have missed. The oddity of his post-war life as an industrial lace maker( and married!) fits this pattern well: that this whole narrative is being told by someone with severe brain damage surely deserves some attention! The character Aue is remembering before he was shot seems rather less robotic in his reactions to the horrors around him... and he takes considerable pains to avoid taking direct action whenever he has a choice--reported without the least hint of self-justification.

Jacob Russell

I've expanded on these thoughts on The Barking Dog... and impelled more and to think that in The Kindly Ones, we are not reading anything close to 'realist historical fiction,' but something resembling a monstrous fable--the darkest of tales from the brothers Grimm, not at all constructed as a representation of historical reality, but as an endlessly suggestive fictive parallel.

Dan Green

Not many of the reviewers make much of the injury. I agree with you it ought to be taken into account in judging Aue's narration.

Steven Augustine

I've noticed that Littell makes an awful lot of jokey jabs about the historical insinuations of Hitler's, Eichmann's and Heydrich's actual (get ready to wrap your heads around this one) degrees of legal or "biological" *Jewishness*: a facet of the larger project to prove that the "Nazis" can't be quarantined, in any real sense, from anything in the Western (or even Eastern) tradition.

From TKO:

On Heydrich:

“One day, I was called in to see the Chief, Reinhard Heydrich. This was my first time and I felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety as I entered his office. Rigidly concentrated, he was working on a pile of reports, and I stood at attention for several minutes before he made a sign for me to sit down. I had time to observe him up close. I had of course seen him many times, during staff conferences or in the hallways of the Prinz-Albrecht-Palais; but whereas at a distance he presented the very embodiment of the Nordic Übermensch, up close he gave a curious impression, somewhat blurred. I finally decided that it must be a question of proportion: beneath an abnormally high, domed forehead, his mouth was too wide, his lips too thick for his narrow face; his hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms. When he raised his little eyes, set too close together, toward me, they didn’t stay in place; and when he finally spoke to me, his voice seemed much too high for a man with such a powerful body. He gave me a disturbing feeling of femininity, which only made him more sinister. His sentences fell rapidly, short, tense; he almost never finished them; but the meaning always remained crisp and clear.”


And on Eichmann:

Eichmann got up, put on his cap, and motioned for me to follow: “Come. I’ll show you.” I followed him to another office. He was, I noticed for the first time, bowlegged, like a rider. “Do you ride horses, Obersturmbannführer?” He made another face: “In my youth. Now I don’t get much of a chance.” (the bowlegs are a possible rickets reference)

***

I returned with Eichmann to his office so that he could explain a few more points to me. When I was ready to go, he accompanied me. In the lobby he made a low bow: “Sturmbannführer, I would like to invite you to my place one night this week. We sometimes give chamber music performances. My Hauptscharführer Boll plays first violin.”—“Oh. That’s very nice. And you, what do you play?”—“Me?” He stretched out his neck and head, like a bird. “Violin too, second violin. I don’t play as well as Boll, unfortunately, so I gave way to him. C…Obergruppenführer Heydrich, I mean, not Obergruppenführer Kaltenbrunner whom I know well, we’re from the same province and he’s the one who had me enter the SS and he still remembers—no, the Chief played the violin magnificently. Yes, really very fine, he had a huge amount of talent. He was a fine man, whom I respected very much. Very…considerate, a man who suffered in his heart.”


***

We conversed a little, then Eichmann led me to the sideboard to show me a photograph framed in black, showing a man, still young, in uniform. “Your brother?” I asked.—“Yes.” He looked at me with his curious birdlike air, particularly accentuated in this light by his hooked nose and protruding ears. “I don’t suppose you ran into him, over there?” He mentioned a division and I shook my head: “No. I arrived rather late, after the encirclement. And I didn’t meet many people.”—“Oh, I see. Helmut fell during one of the fall offensives. We don’t know the exact circumstances, but we received an official notification.”—“All that was a hard sacrifice,” I said. He rubbed his lips: “Yes. Let’s hope it wasn’t in vain. But I believe in the Führer’s genius.”

***

Inspired, I gave vent to a character sketch of my landlady, beginning with her cooking and then going on to other peculiarities. “Stalingrad?” I said, imitating her dialect and voice. “But what on earth were you messing around there for? Aren’t we fine as we are, here? And also where is it, exactly?” Eichmann laughed and choked on his wine. I went on: “One day, in the morning, I went out at the same time as she did. We see someone wearing the star, probably a privileged Mischling. She exclaims: Oh! Look, Herr Offizier, a Jew! You haven’t gassed that one yet?” Everyone laughed; Eichmann was laughing so hard he cried, and hid his face in his napkin. Only Frau Eichmann kept a straight face: when I noticed, I interrupted myself.

****

And various references on the topic from outside of TKO:

"Throughout Hitler's political career, he made several exemptions from his ideology," Brian Rigg writes. "Hitler granted thousands of Mischlinge (partial Jews) exemptions from the provisions of his racial laws."

Heydrich (1904-1942) was one such exemption. Heinrich Himmler was Heydrich's boss. He told his doctor, Felix Kersten, that Heydrich was part-Jewish and that Hitler knew this. Hitler said his "non-Aryan origins were extremely useful; for he would be eternally grateful to us that we had kept him and not expelled him and would obey blindly. This was in fact the case." (The Kersten Memoirs, 1957, p 97.)

In other words, Heydrich was doubly ruthless against Jews to prove his loyalty. Heydrich accepted tasks "which no one else would care to do."

Himmler went on: Heydrich "was convinced the Jewish elements in his blood were damnable; he hated the blood which had played him so false. The Fuhrer could really have picked no better man than Heydrich for the campaign against the Jews. For them he was without mercy or pity." (99)

Joachim Fest writes that Abwehr Chief Wilhelm Canaris was able to resist Heydrich by obtaining "documents proving his adversary's Jewish antecedents..." ("The Face of the Third Reich," p. 105)

Heydrich was in charge of the Einsatzgruppen units, trucks which followed the Wehrmacht and gassed Jews. He set up the system of concentration camps and formulated the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference in Jan. 1942.

Though he died at age 38, Heydrich's list of other "accomplishments" is formidable. Calic credits him with the Reichstag Fire (1933) and the "Night of the Long Knives" (1934) . Fest credits him for fabricating the evidence that led to the purge of the USSR army, and traditional generals in the Wehrmacht. He paved the way for the Anschluss and the piecemeal incorporation of Czechoslovakia. He organized the anti-Semitic pogrom known as "Crystal Night."

The issue of Heydrich's Jewishness revolves around his grandfather. Was his father, Bruno Heydrich, the scion of his mother's first or second husband? Defenders of Heydrich's Aryan purity (like Edouard Calic) say Ernestine Linder's first husband, Karl Julius Reinhard was Bruno's father. But the consensus seems to be that her second husband Robert Suess, a Jew, is Bruno Reinhard's father.

*****

Some of my own (and France's) reflections on the wound stuff in TKO: http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/the-endless-thread-2-0/#comment-1070

(from comment 152-154)

and on twinning: http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/the-endless-thread-2-0/#comment-1097

(comment 157-161)

Steven Augustine

Here's a Hitler-Jewish joke involving Aue's "pineal eye" (pg 466):

"After the introductory speeches, the Führer made his appearance. I opened my eyes wide: on his head and shoulders, over his simple feldgrau uniform, I seemed to see a large blue-and-white striped rabbi’s shawl. The Führer had started speaking right away in his rapid, monotone voice. I examined the glass roof: Could it be a play of the light? I could clearly see his cap; but underneath it, I thought I made out long side curls, unrolling along his temples down over his lapel, and on his forehead, the tefillin, the little leather box containing verses of the Torah. When he raised his arm, I thought I could make out other leather straps bound around his wrist; and under his jacket, weren’t those the white fringes of what the Jews call the little tallith showing through? I didn’t know what to think. I scrutinized my neighbors: they were listening to the speech with solemn attention, the civil servant was studiously nodding his head. Didn’t they notice anything? Was I the only one to see this unprecedented spectacle? I looked at the dignitaries’ stand: behind the Führer, I recognized Göring, Goebbels, Ley, the Reichsführer, Kaltenbrunner, other well-known leaders, high-ranking Wehrmacht officers; they were all contemplating the Führer’s back or the audience, impassive. Maybe, I said to myself, panic-stricken, it’s the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes: everyone sees how it really is, but hides it, counting on his neighbor to do the same. No, I reasoned, I must be hallucinating, with a wound like mine, that’s entirely possible. Yet I felt perfectly sound of mind. I was far from the platform, though, and the Führer was lit from the side; maybe it was simply an optical illusion? But I still saw it. Maybe my “pineal eye” was playing a trick on me? But there was nothing dreamlike about it. It was also possible that I had gone mad."

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