It seems to me that almost all of the reviewers who found fault with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones--some of them quite harshly--failed to take sufficiently into account the effects and implications of its origin in the first-person narration of its protagonist. They made the mistake of imputing to the author, or to the author's "intentions," ideas that are properly confined to the discourse of the narrator.
The first step in a critically generous assessment of a work of fiction has to be to engage with the work on its own embodied terms, as far as those terms can be apprehended by the discerning critic. When a novel or story is presented as a first-person narrative--related either by the protagonist or some other subsidiary or observing character--this ought to be a sign that the account we are given is rooted in the perceptions, the language, and the assumptions of the narrator. All first-person narrators are to this degree "unreliable," although some third-person narrators might be unreliable as well (if such a narrator hews especially close to the perspective of the characters on whose behalf the narrator essentially speaks) and sometimes reliability is mostly irrelevant. Especially when a character is as self-involved, not to mention self-deceived, as Maximilien Aue, the true-believing Nazi SS officer who narrates his war experiences in The Kindly Ones, any critical commentary must acknowledge that "meaning" or "theme" (and even at times "style") are conditioned by the limits of the narrator's perspective.
One has to assume that in creating a narrator with such extreme limitations as Dr. Aue, Littell is fully aware of building in a space for ambiguity and uncertainty, of presenting us with a character whose every utterance has to be considered potentially compromised by context. One might assume further that Littell is posing to readers an explicit challenge precisely to scrutinize the text in this way, not to take it as the author's own account of Nazism or to judge it by standards inappropriate to the kind of work it is. Thus when Laila Lalami complains that the reader of The Kindly Ones is not "drawn into the narrative by the beauty of the language, a masterful use of point of view, or an intriguing personal life against which the monstrosity of the main character could be highlighted" (Los Angeles Times) she implies the novel would be less objectionable as a portrait of a "monster" if instead of its "plodding style" it employed beautiful language, unified the point of view so that the narrator seemed less dissociated, or made Aue's personal life more "intriguing" and less repellent. She is asking it to be something other than itself, something less troublesome.
For a text authored by an SS bureaucrat to exhibit "beautiful" language would defy belief even more considerably than does Aue's ability to show up at every important stage of the Final Solution, which Lalami describes as "unrealistic." If ever a novel justifies a "plodding style," The Kindly Ones is it, since it so accurately reflects Aue's bureaucratic soul. I confess I do not find this novel lacking "a single narrative consciousness" as Lalami sums up her problem with Littell's handling of point of view, although I agree that Aue's narration does modulate in tone. This seems to me, however, a consequence of the fact that Aue's "narrative consciousness" inherently veers from "confessional" to "argumentative," etc., not that this fragmentation is a flaw in the use of point of view. Narrative consciousness is finally unified by Aue's particular kind of fragmented consciousness, although even if we found only disunity in the expression of point of view, I'm not sure why that in itself should be regarded as an aesthetic failure. It could be argued that "unity" of consciousness in fiction is actually a false representation of actual human consciousness, which is likely much more disunifed than we want to think.
That Maximilien Aue's "personal life" is so distasteful as to make his story doubly monstrous was a common reaction among reviewers of The Kindly Ones. David Gates asserts in his New York Times Book Review assessment that "Aue is simply too much of a freak, and his supposed childhood trauma too specialized and contrived, for us to take him seriously," while Michiko Kakutani adds that "Aue is clearly a deranged creature, and his madness turns his story into a voyeuristic spectacle." Ruth Franklin scoffs that the novel's "utterly persuasive evocation of depravity" could be taken "as a sign of achievement" (The New Republic).Franklin's review in particular evoked the critical queasiness stirred up by Littell's novel, with its widely quoted remark that "This is one of the most repugnant books I have ever read." She further contends that "there is something awry in this book's unremitting immersion in Aue's worldview, without any effort--direct or indirect, latent or manifest, philosophical or artistic--to balance or counteract it in any way." Melvin Jules Bukiet in The Washington Post claims similarly that it is "not that a reader necessarily seeks a lesson, but fiction and nonfiction ought to approach the subject as more than an opportunity to wallow in the worst humankind has to offer," and these two comments most explicitly reveal the incomprehension with which so many American reviewers of The Kindly Ones reacted to the narrative constructed by its protagonist.
Both Franklin and Bukiet implicitly testify here to the success with which Littell has given over the novel to his protagonist's Weltenschauung, a word Aue himself uses frequently, even if they also find that aesthetic act objectionable. In my opinion, a novel could do worse than engage in an "unremitting immersion" in its character's worldview, or, for that matter, "wallow in the worst humankind has to offer." That the critic found himself wallowing seems an indication that Littell has indeed created a compelling "narrative consciousness" that brings us uncomfortably close to an unsavory character with a repulsive worldview, not to mention overwhelming psychological problems.
Does an author have a responsibility to "balance" a character's unpleasant views or behavior with normative gestures, either "latent or manifest," indicating the author disapproves of the character's opinions and actions? Surely no reader believes that Littell does approve of his character's actions, so the perceived problem here must be that exposure to a character like Maximilien Aue will unduly soil the sensibilities of the reader. But surely no one expects readers to be converted to Nazism or sadomasochism through Aue's account of himself, either, so one must conclude that Franklin's and Bukiet's dislike of an "unremitting immersion in Aue's worldview" has been converted into a general critical requirement that bad people as depicted in fiction must be "counteracted" by a "philosophical or artistic " effort to meliorate their evil. One suspects that, despite his protestation that we don't necessarily need a "lesson" from such a novel as The Kindly Ones, Bukiet would prefer that its unmediated access to the point of view of a morally compromised protagonist be placed in a more didactically clear context as a corrective to "wallowing."
What is going to focus our attention on "the worst humankind has to offer" if not, at least occasionally, fiction? Is this a subject that ought to be ignored or forbidden? Why not write (or read) a novel that allows a Nazi SS man to speak of his experiences as witness to and participant in the attempted extermination of Jews and any other undesirable people? For such a novel to be successful it will almost necessarily offend and disturb some readers, but that is the consequence of attempting the work in the first place. 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.
The major accomplishment of The Kindly Ones is the author's thoroughly successful ventriloquism of Dr. Aue, a performance that requires we abide this character in all of his true-believing, sadomasochistic, murderous horror or else the effort is subsumed into the usual safe moralizing provided by "balance." Balance would only produce a cop show-like view of evil, which is comfortably softened by the presence of reassuring outrage at human perfidy. It could be argued that this sort of easy portrayal of the conflict between decency and depravity is false to the actual content of evil, a sentimentalized response. It seems to me that, precisely to the extent Littell has avoided "balance," he has given us a more persuasive representation of evil, something that we must experience for ourselves in its half banality, half degeneracy through Aue's recitation. Only this "unremitting immersion" gets us anywhere near the reality of evil.
Some reviewers focused their criticism of The Kindly Ones more on its deficiencies of plot than on a moral repugnance toward its narrator. Lalami observes that "like Forrest Gump, [Aue] conveniently manages to be wherever the most significant events of the war take place, at the time in which they take place, and to interact with all the relevant figures of Nazism," a plot progression which Zak M. Salih describes as "a collection of the Nazi regime's greatest hits" (City Paper). Peter Kemp further complains of the "pitiless prolixity" with which Aue tells his story and doubts "Aue's prodigious capacity to recall in profuse, minute detail all that was done and said. . . " (The Times). That a fussy bureaucrat like Maximilien Aue would remember his actions in great detail--that he might even have records of them--doesn't seem that far-fetched to me, but the question of whether Aue knows too much brings us back to Aue's status as narrator. Perhaps he does too conveniently recall the details of his wartime experiences. As far as I know, no one has questioned the accuracy of the historical details in which Aue's fictionalized story is embedded, but of course there is no way to "verify" the details of the fictional story. Ultimately, it really makes no difference: these are the things that were "done and said" that Aue wants us to know, and the impression they leave about him is presumably the impression he wants to leave.
The same is true of the plot developments that place Aue at so many of the crucial events of the war's waning years. Perhaps Aue is manipulating the historical record in order to give himself a role in all of these events, but again it doesn't really matter. The self-portrayal that emerges is the one Aue must intend. That this portrayal is a damning one suggests either that Aue is (consciously or subconsciously) submitting himself for judgment or that his particular involvement in the Final Solution is to be taken at face value. The former is not impossible, especially given his willingness to reveal all of his psychosexual problems as well. However, accepting that Aue happened to be in a position to witness so much of Nazi Germany's dissolution, at least for the purposes of the novel his fictional existence makes possible, doesn't seem to me such a difficult concession. His presence at the decisive stages of this process could just be, in fact, the reason he decided to write his memoir, following up on the less comprehensive accounts of other ex-Nazi colleagues.
Whatever degree of artifice Littell has brought to the plot of The Kindly Ones--at least that part of the plot devoted to chronicling the extermination program as it leads Aue from the Ukraine to Hitler's bunker--I found it riveting. Unlike some commentators who concluded that through the recounting of these events with their frequent expressions of dismay with the program and its methods, Littell was attempting to "humanize" Dr. Aue, I found the portrait of SS officers manifesting a degree of struggle with the task they'd been assigned a compelling alternative to the usual image of Nazis as unambiguously malevolent. To this extent, a character like Aue is humanized, but this only makes his and his fellow officer's actions more appalling, since they arise from recognizable human beings rather than caricatures. Some of these actions, such as the Babi Yar massacre, are hard to take, but their depiction commands attention.
One element of the novel's narrative structure does threaten to become overly artificial. Overlain on the story of Aue's war journey is a parallel association with Aeschylus's Oresteia, featuring Aue as Orestes (a device similar to the "mythic method" of Joyce's Ulysses). Ultimately these parallels might be a little too neat. Daniel Mendelsohn does a good job of teasing out the implications of this strategy in his NYRB review of The Kindly Ones (the title being a direct reference to the "furies" of Aeschylus's play, who are transformed at the end of the play into "kindly ones"), and while I agree with Mendelsohn that Littell employs the strategy skillfully, I can't agree that the problem it causes is that, in portraying Aue as "a sex-crazed, incestuous, homosexual, matricidal coprophage," it works against the historical portrayal of Aue as a "human brother." I just don't perceive any effort on Littell's effort to affirm Aue as a "human brother," as opposed to simply a "human being," and it does not make him into something other than a human being to imply, metaphorically, that Aue is a man pursued by his own sort of "furies."
What makes me less enamored of the mythic method as employed in The Kindly Ones is precisely that it threatens to disrupt our "immersion" in Aue's fictional memoir, that it intrudes on the performance of Aue's narration a different kind of performance, one that makes us too conscious of the author--Jonathan Littell--as the puppeteer pulling Aue's strings. For an exercise in point of view like The Kindly Ones to work most efficaciously, it ought to commit itself fully to the discourse of the narrator, and in my opinion the narrative doubling introduced by the Orestes story detracts from that commitment.
Unless. In his review of the novel, Paul La Farge comments that "If it were only Aue making himself out to be Orestes, you’d dismiss the gesture as an unjustified but understandable bid for sympathy, but it’s Littell who puts Aue through Orestes’s paces, as if to give credence to Aue’s assertion that 'in this [life] I never had a choice,' that his free will was curtailed by 'the weight of fate''' (The Believer). Of course it is finally Littell "who puts Aue through Orestes's paces" in that Aue is the narrator of the novel Littell has written. In this sense, Littell puts Aue through all of his "paces." But there's nothing really to prevent us from attributing most, if not all, of the allusions to the Oresteia to Aue himself, either through the many direct references he makes or through both the additions and omissions (such as the episode in which he kills his mother and her husband, which he subsequently can't remember) he brings to bear on the story he wants to tell. If Aue attempts a play on our sympathy through these allusions--"I never had a choice"--we can accept it as such without believing his resort to this grandiosity actually absolves him of blame.
I'm not really sure I fully embrace this interpretation. The heavy-handed allusiveness may just be an aesthetic mistake, a secondary flaw we have to countenance while otherwise acknowledging the narrative power of the novel as a whole. 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.