“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great Neck
Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.
Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.
JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”
GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”
Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.
Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.
The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?
I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.
Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?
After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.
Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.
For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)
That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.
In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.
Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.
It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.
Some of the The Kindly Ones‘ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.
For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.
Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.
Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.
The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:
The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.
After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.
What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.
This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.
Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.
Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:
A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?
How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.
Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,
quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.
Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.
The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.
The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.
The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus‘ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:
The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.
This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.
The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.
Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?
It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.
Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.
Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.
We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones‘ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.
Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?