March 09, 2009



I read the German translation of The Kindly Ones, and wasn't all that impressed. However, it's interesting to me that the two most talked about books of this (and last) year both involve numerous, highly detailed forensic accounts of horrendous violence carried out on a mass scale. I'm thinking, of course, of Bolano's "2666" and Littell's "Les Bienveillantes". This is an interesting literary trend. Are we going back to the catalogue of ships in the Iliad?

The main problem I have with Littell's book is just that writing about the Holocaust is like condemning child abuse. It's an easy way to seem that you're tackling a great subject, about which nothing more can really be said. I think Littell took the lazy man's way out by picking this subject.

Bollano, on the other hand, cannot be accused of this. Also, in "2666" the intellectual preoccupations are much more successfully, and maturely, integrated into the story line.

Not that we have to judge Littell against Bollano. It's just those are the two books that are chasing each other around in my mind right now.


Niall, just a good faith question here (not picking a fight, in light of our recent exchange), but are you suggesting that the Holocaust shouldn't be written about in fiction, that it's a fait accompli that it's lazy and easy? Or merely that you found Littell's execution lazy and/or easy? Just wondering because one could infer that you're saying that everything that can possibly be said about the Holocaust has been said (hence the child abuse comparison) and now it's just preaching to the choir. Curious to hear more.


FWIW, I think the Nazi-thing is a red herring presented by reviewers too wrapped up in hype or constrained by word limits to see what's unique about TKO.

I wonder what would impress Niall instead.

And why on earth does he spell Bolano like that?


Mark -

I'm saying is that the enormity, irony, implacability and horrifying intimacy have already been amply mined in literature, and often by those who themselves experienced the Holocaust. It is not an orphan subject in literature or memoir or nonfiction or philosophy.

Which means that if you are going to write about it, you have to have something novel and/or interesting to say on the subject. The temptation, particularly for a new, young writer, is to attach him/herself to the prefabricated seriousness of the Holocaust to get attention for their work, which is what I think Littell has done.

It's hard enough to see how one could add in a meaningful way to Holocaust literature, though also easy to see that someone who could do that would be supremely talented indeed. That person would not be a 22 year old, for whom the Holocaust was nothing more than a Big Theme to be played with.

This is also where Bolano is superior to Littell. Bolano writes about the realities of Latin American experience that have found few literary voices, and which he has himself experienced first hand, and to which he brings an original perspective and touch.

It's perhaps sad to have to note that writing about the Holocaust is like writing about divorce and adultery in the suburbs of New York. A subject so thoroughly exploited that it's difficult to find a way into its depths and intricacies.


Steve -

What in your opinion is unique about Les Bienviellantes, if not its treatment of the Holocaust?

And I spell Bolano's name incorrectly because, as an end-stage software geek, I have a terrible time getting anyone's name right. Though I am of course open to correction and chastisement on that score.


Sorry if I'm over-responding, but it occurred to me it's legitimate to ask what I would consider a novel, insightful treatment of the Holocaust that is not just a robotic repetion of the cliches of the genre.

I think a good example of such a book would be Tournier's Le Roi des Aulnes (The Ogre). Just to offer a point of reference.


No over-responding at all, Niall - appreciate the thoughtful clarification. I think your points here are well taken, though I have some (minor) cavils, probably because my novel is (tangently) Holocaust themed. But it also seems inherently risky to me to parse motive, which we can't really know. It's possible Littell took up the Holocaust for the reasons you suggest, but it's equally possible that the subject consumed him, and since we can't really be certain, it seems risky to judge him on that basis. Also I don't think any subject should be solely the province of those who were there - think how much imaginative literature would be lost in that transaction. That said, I do agree with what I take to be your primary point - that it is, finally, risky to undertake something where ample tradition already exists. But writing is all about taking risks and, by that measure, who would write about love any more?


My point about Littell is not entirely exhausted as a guess about his motivation. Even if we take that off the table (which we certainly can), there yet remains the issue of whether at 22 year old can say something meaningful and unique about the Holocaust, without resorting to cliche, kitsch and graphomania? My answer is: No.

Another novel which I think shows how the Holocaust can be addressed, if not directly (because it doesn't), but indirectly, and to chilling effect (no pun intended) is Sorokin's "Ice". Have you read it?



Have not, but am aware of it and would very much like to.

I also think it's fair to have doubts about a 22-year-old. In the end, though, the book speaks for itself, and your response to it seems consistent with my of its critics.

In the end, I'm especially drawn to books that divide people (unanimity is so boring) that I'm all the more curious to have a look now.


Even if we take that off the table (which we certainly can), there yet remains the issue of whether at 22 year old can say something meaningful and unique about the Holocaust, without resorting to cliche, kitsch and graphomania?

Fair enough, but I am quite sure Littell is in his forties, or very close to it.


I believe Niall was using "22" to signify generic young first novelists not Littell specifically. But I leave him to clarify.


No, I was just wrong about his age. He was born in 1967. I made that assumption because his novel read very much like a young man's novel, written by someone with more ideas than experience.


Fair play to you for "reconsidering your opinion" in light of an insightful reviewer.

hal lewis

I noticed that the German edition was 400 pages. Either it was edited really edited or it is printed in very fine type.

The French and US edition are more than 900 pages.

Maybe in years to come someone will write a book about how the Bush crowd committed their crimes. Then we can correct the current president and the Beltway crowd who wants us to forget and just go forward.
Maybe by that time they will be selling lace.

j. ryder

The dialogue between the bolshevik Russian and the nazi German has the greatness (even if it's a somewhat artificial set piece) of the fight between Setembrini and Forget-His-Name-No-Time-To-Google in Mann's "The Magic Mountain". I lived in Russia for a while (and that JL lived in the Caucasus, including Chechenya, it brilliantly shows) and I can only say that his insight on Russia-ness makes TKO way more than "just" another go at addressing the Holocaust ...

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