Monday, 22 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 1

I’ve decided just to blog my own reading progress without expecting anything by way of group discussion.  This is partly just to motivate me to get through the book’s 984 large close-printed pages (it’s 1403 pages in the original French, I see)—and I’ll note at the start: I find Littell’s, or his publisher’s, decision to print all the book’s dialogue in solid unparagraphed chunks plain annoying.  But it’s also because I usually respond critically (if I’m not being pompous here) to a book afterI have finished reading, and after I’ve tried to digest the whole thing.  I’m mildly curious to see how well my on-the-go reactions stand up after I’ve finished the whole thing.
The book is in seven parts, each with a musical title (‘Toccata’, ‘Allemandes I and II’, ‘Courante’, ‘Sarabande’, ‘Menuet (en Rondeaux)’, ‘Air’ and ‘Gigue’).  I’ll post, then, seven posts, upon completing each section.
So, the beginning.  This Toccata presumably touches on the themes of the whole in brief (21 pages in the UK edition).  Our man, Max Aue, having passed himself off as a Frenchman to avoid prosecution for his actions in the SS during the war, is now running running a Lace Factory in France.  He is married, and has a family, but you wouldn’t describe him as happy.  He is, he says, setting down his life story, not in the spirit of self-exculpation but simply ‘to set the record straight.’ His tone is cool and dispassionate, only occasionally lyrical, for he considers himself not-quite human.  Sometimes, he says, he might have ‘a human thought. But this is a rare thing’: 
Yet if you put your work, your ordinary activities, your everyday agitation, on hold, and devote yourself solely to thinking, things go very differently.  Soon things start rising up, in heavy, dark waves.  At night, your dreams fall apart, unfurl and proliferate, and when you wake they leave a fine bitter film at the back of your mind, which takes a long time to dissolve.  Don’t misunderstand me: I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt.  These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that.  Even a man who had never gone to war, who has never had to kill, will experience what I’m talking about.  All the meanness, the cowardice, the lies, the pettiness that afflict everyone will come back to haunt him.  No wonder men have invented work,; alcohol, meaningless chatter.  No wonder television sell so well.  [7-8]
I’m wary of the implicit claim in those last few sentences towards a kind of universality of ethical focus—and, from what I’ve read the prodigious and detailed specificity of the book as a whole also works against a more general applicability.  But I’ll confess I’m quite struck by that middle bit there, and take it as a kind of keynote to which the narrative will return: ‘I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt.  These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far from complex than that.’ The passive voice of ‘these too exist, no doubt’ is nicely done.
A couple of other notes.  One is the title: ‘Les Bienveillantes’ are, indeed, the Eumenides of Greek Mythology; although ‘kindly ones’ lacks the veilleurs (the watchers, the good-surveillers) implicit in the original.  I have no idea if that is going to prove significant, though I’ve a hunch that Aue is more watcher than actor.  Which is to say, maybe the French title is a tad less ironic than the English.
Secondly, I was struck by the opening sentence: 
‘Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.’
(The next sentence is: ‘I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know’).  My first thought (it’s a pedantic little crotchet of mine) is that the translator actually meant to write: ‘O my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.’ But I’ll let that go. My second thought was: this is a deliberate echo of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, whose famously amoral, violent and affectively flattened narrator is fond of the vocative (‘Let me tell you, O my brothers…’).  I wonder: should I be reading this whole novel as a kind of elaborate gloss upon, and real-life repositioning of, Burgess’s novel?
I like the notion.  But checking the original French (extensive chunks of the book are available online here) I don’t find that vocative O in the passage:
Frères humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ça s’est passé. On n’est pas votre frère, rétorquerez-vous, et on ne veut pas le savoir. Et c’est bien vrai qu’il s’agit d’une sombre histoire, mais édifiante aussi, un véritable conte moral, je vous l’assure. Ça risque d’être un peu long, après tout il s’est passé beaucoup de choses, mais si ça se trouve vous n’êtes pas trop pressés, avec un peu de chance vous avez le temps. Et puis ça vous concerne: vous verrez bien que ça vous concerne. Ne pensez pas que je cherche à vous convaincre de quoi que ce soit ; après tout, vos opinions vous regardent. Si je me suis résolu à écrire, après toutes ces années, c’est pour mettre les choses au point pour moi-même, pas pour vous.
So maybe I’m overreading. [Original plus comments here]


Liviu said...

Actually I have the original French edition from Gallimard and it stands at 894 pages and appendices, but indeed it is very tightly presented without breaks; took me several days to read in 2006 when it was published and so far I have not found a more powerful book written this century.

I read it once more in French and maybe 3 times in English since and while it has its messiness, its warts and all I still stand by the statement above

Mike Taylor said...

"Secondly, I was struck by the opening sentence.

That wasn't what struck you first?

Adam Roberts said...

Liviu: I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you: it's an extraordinary book, and has stayed very forcefully since I read it first. Actually I've promised someone to write an academic paper of it, so shortly I'll be giving it a re-read. Not sure I've the stomach to read the entirety in French, mind you.

Mike: zerothly ...