Thursday, 25 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 4

Kindly Ones part 4 ‘Sarabande’ (pages 431-534) has the feel of marking time; a pause in the narration during which, at least until the end, little happens.  Our man’s skull was wholly bisected by a Russian bullet, a wound which, perhaps surprisingly, failed to kill him.  Evacuated from Stalingrad, he wakes in a German hospital and pieces his consciousness together.  Himmler visits to award him the Iron Cross.  He moves, when he’s well enough, to a hotel in Berlin to convalesce.  There’s a lot of wandering around the city.  Otherwise, Littell uses this section to elaborate upon his Ulysses-style mythical underpinning: in this case an Orestes schema, as the Aeschylean title tells us, complete with sister-incest and matricide.
A number of things struck me, and a couple of those struck me as good.  One is Aue’s reaction to a party at 2am: ‘Even in my hotel, first class though it was, quiet eluded me: the floor beneath mine was having a noisy party, and the music, shouts, and laughter rose up through the floorboards and seized me by the throat’ [446].  He feels a murderous rage at being disturbed, but instead rings his friend Thomas (‘I explained my homicidal urges to him’) who advises he go downstairs and talk to them. 
I easily found the right door and knocked.  A tall, beautiful woman in somewhat casual evening dress opened the door, her eyes shining.  “Yes?” Behind her the music roared, I could hear glasses clinking, mad laughter.  “Is this your room?” I asked, my heart beating.  “No.  Wait.” She turned around: “Dicky! Dicky! An officer is asking for you.” A man in a vest, slightly drunk, came to the door; the woman watched us without hiding her curiosity .  “Yes, Herr Sturmbannf├╝hrer?” he asked.  “What can I do for you?” His affected, cordial, almost slurred voice conveyed an aristocrat of old stock.  I bowed slightly and said in the most neutral tone possible: “I live in the room over yours.  I’ve just come back from Stalingrad, where I was seriously wounded and where almost all my comrades died.  Your festivities are disturbing me.  I wanted to come down and kill you, but I called a friend, who advised me to come and talk with you first.  So I’ve come to talk with you.  It would be better for us all if I don’t have to come down again.” The man had turned pale: “No, no …” He turned around: “Gofi! Stop the music!  Stop!…” As I was climbing back up, vaguely satisfied, I heard him shout: “Every one out!  It’s over.  Out!” I had touched a nerve, and it wasn’t a question of fear: he too, suddenly, had understood, and he was ashamed. [447]
I liked this, I think because—and it’s a vanishingly rare thing in this book—it’s quite funny.  Who hasn’t wanted to break up a noisy part with ‘I wanted to come down and kill you’?
Otherwise Aue mooches about for a bit, and then meets up with his sister.  This leads to detailed reminiscences of their childhood incest together, which she (she is now married to a crippled, famous musician) has grown beyond, although he hasn’t.  She asks him whether he killed civilians in Russia.  ‘Once I had to give the coup de gr├óce,’ he replies.  ‘Most of the time I gathered information, wrote reports.’ This isn’t true, or at least isn’t quite consistent with his earlier narration (to be fair, Littell puts in several unreliable narrator markers—or more precisely ‘memory’s-a-tricksy-thing’ markers), but never mind that.  I’m more interested in how this sister-brother exchange goes on: 
“And when you shot at people, what did you feel?” I answered without hesitating: “The same thing as when I watched other people shoot.  As long as it has to be done, it doesn’t matter who does it.  And also, I consider that watching involves my responsibility as much as doing.” [482]
This goes back to something I wondered about in my first post:  the (sur)veillant aspect of Les Bienveillantes.  This is a book about being a spectator to horrors—one that makes us into spectators of horrors—that is nevertheless based upon the position that performing evil and watching others perform evil is ethically equivalent.  I’m really not sure about that.
Once he’s recovered from his wound Aue wants a posting in France, and gets his friend Thomas to help him out, but a senior Nazi called Dr Mandlebrot has already earmarked Aue to help with the ‘final solution’ so this comes to nothing.  After initial resistance Aue agrees.  Before he does, though, we get to one of the book’s ‘look how oo-shocking-oo I can be!’ moments.  After not having seen them for many years, Aue travels to Italy to visit his mother and stepfather.  The vitriol of his hatred for them both, his mother especially, is laid on pretty thick.  Both are killed: the mother Althusserianly strangled (Littell’s Aue makes no reference to Althusser, of course), the stepfather chopped up with an axe.  Although Aue has no memory of this murder the inference is pretty unavoidable that he committed the crime.  He leaves the murder scene, returns to Germany and joins Himmler’s personal staff.
So, yes, shock tactics.  To continue the tradition of quoting Proleptic ‘And I Haven’t Even Read The Book!’ Rich’s comments, on this occasion quoting this very good New York Review of Books review by Daniel Mendlesohn: ‘Mendelsohn traces the vaguely pornographic part of the book to a “literature of transgression” that vaguely runs from de Sade through Bataille, Sartre, Blanchot.  And, to expand on my previous comments, that line has required, in the 20th century, a good dose of othering, hasn’t it?’ Yes, the othering is, I guess, inevitably tied to the whole theme of a book about and embodying Nazism.  But I’m just as interested in the dilution of shock implicit in that ‘literature of transgression’ canon.  Shock is a relative, not absolute, quantity; and it is more susceptible to diminishing returns than other aesthetic effects.  De Sade is more shocking than Bataille; Bataille is more shocking thatSaw IV.  And so on.
As a consequence, Littell’s account of incest and matricide here is really not all that shocking really.  So, for instance, on p.491 Aue remembers visiting ‘a kind of Torture Museum’ in Nuremberg with his sister and bribing the museum guard to leave them alone in the guillotine room.  He puts his sister into the device, ties her hands (‘she was panting’), and has anal sex with her, threatening the while to release the mechanism and decapitate them both.  ‘I came suddenly,’ he notes, adding one of the worst orgasm-similes I have ever read: ‘a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.’ But in this (and in a couple of similar things in this section) Littell is simply trying too hard to be outrageous.  I mean: taking your own sister up the Gary whilst her head’s stuck through the business end of a working guillotine?  I ask you.  (Littell adds a moment of backpedalling, where Aue immediately doubts this memory: ‘but this memory is dubious, after our childhood we had seen each other only once, that time in Zurich, and in Zurich there was no guillotine, I don’t know, it was probably a dream’).
Maybe it’s a function of reading this large novel relatively quickly, but I’m starting to feel tired of it.  I can believe this is a deliberate consequence of the thing’s designedly monotony-of-evil focus; its studied excessiveness—excessive detail, excessive length, exceeding conventional fictive morality—but it’s hard to take comfort from that as I trudge into the lengthy fifth portion.
One more thing: I’m not ‘getting’ Thomas at all.  He seems to exist not as a character in his own right, but as a narrative get-out-of-jail-free card: his influence puts Aue in all the dramatically interesting postings, saves him when he need saving, moves the plot on when it needs moving.  [Original plus comments here]


Ben Aaronovitch said...

Actor v Witness as moral equivalents.

Person A watches Person B shoot Person C in cold blood.

If Person A does nothing whether or not Person C dies remains entirely in the hands of Person B.

If Person B does nothing then the murder doesn't take place.

Therefore the responsibility lies primarily with B the person who chooses to act in an immoral fashion.

How culpable A is depends on how realistic it would be for them to intervene in the shooting,

Person A only becomes more culpable then Person B if they are forcing (or tricking) Person B into the murder against their will.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Ben: I suppose it might be possible to construst scenarios where Person A were wholly innocent: but I'm not sure I'd agree with the tacit sense of
the example you sketch out here -- that watching is wholly passive and innocent. I'd tend to agree, I suppose, that the person who pulls the trigger is liable to be more guilty than the person who stands by and watches. But I think Littel's point is that the shooting of Jews took place in a culture that knew it was going on, and did not object, and that this audience therefore share in the guilt. In fact, he goes further: he argues that watching is an active mode of engagement.

Your example is a little thin on detail. What about the case in the Jodie Foster movie, The Accused, the upshot of which -- exhaustively debated throughout -- is that the people in the bar who only watched the rape are also guilty? Have you read Ben Elton's novel Popcorn? In that rather unlikely but ethically interesting scenario, a psychopath holding hostages is being filmed on live TV, and has access to a measurement of ongoing viewer ratings. He says he'll free the prisoners is the ratings go down, and people stop watching; but he'll kill them if people continue watching their TVs. People keep watching.

Another, slightly different situation: after the Hillsborough tragedy, a legal precedent was set in British Law: that fans traumatised by the experience whilst in the stadium were entitled to compensation, but so were fans who had only watched it on the TV. It was hotly contested; but it suggests that 'doing' and 'watching' are not quite as crisply differentiated.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Just a note to say that I fully intend to answer you cogent points - with the care that they deserve - only I've been told to finish my novel before getting distracted.