So The Kindly Ones concludes with two brief sections: ‘Air’ (867-913) and ‘Gigue’ (917-75). In the former, Aue takes advantage of some convalescent leave to go to the country estate of his sister and brother-in-law (he the elderly crippled composer) in the eastern bit of Germany. Sister and brother-in-law are not there, sensibly enough, what with the Russians being close and coming closer every day, but Aue settles in: drinks the wine in the cellar, wipes his arse on the curtains, wanks in, er, every room in the house and generally indulges himself in a variety of peculiar, or revolting, or baffling ways. Some of this time he engages in conversation, or physical intimacy, with phantoms (eidolons, figments of his imagination) shaped like his sister, his brother-in-law and others. On one occasion, as I had been warned, he goes outside and has passive gay sex with a tree. It’s not made clear in the narrative whether the tree itself is gay, or not.
His friend, deus-ex-machina-man Thomas comes to get him before the Russians overrun the place. Which brings us to ‘Gigue’, which is first of all a fairly exciting (after all the tiresome sensual excesses of ‘Air’) dash through Germany, avoiding Soviet tanks and gangs of feral children, back to Berlin; and then a more obvious pastiche of Hirschbiegel’s ’04 flickDownfall: life in the increasingly smashed-up city and the bitter, bitter end of the Reich. We’re even given a going-down (an untergang) into Hitler’s bunker itself. Aue is one of a dozen officers to be awarded the German Cross in Gold by the Führer in person. This is what happens next:
Then the door opened and the Führer appeared … he came forward with a hesitant, jerky, unstable step. Bormann, buttoned up tight in his brown uniform, emerged from the room behind him. I had never seen the Führer so close up. He wore a simple grey uniform and cap; his face looked yellow, haggard, puffy, his eyes remained fixed on one spot, inert, then began blinking violently; a drop of spittle stood out at the corner of his mouth. [858-60]
So far, so clichéd. I assume Littell is content to give us this central casting Hitler (his trembling arm, his ‘hairy paw’, his bad breath) because he knows he has something out of the ordinary coming up:
As the Führer approached me—I was almost at the end of the line—my attention was caught by his nose. I had never before noticed how broad and ill-proportioned this nose was … it was clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic. I don’t know why this detail fascinated me, but I found it almost scandalous. The Führer approached me and I kept observing him. Then he was in front of me. I saw with surprise that his cap scarcely reached my eyes; and yet I am not tall. He muttered his compliment and groped for the medal. His foul, fetid breath overwhelmed me: it was too much to take. So I leaned forward and bit into his bulbous nose, drawing blood. Even today I would be unable to tell you why I did this: I just couldn’t restrain myself. The Führer let out a shrill cry and leapt back into Bormann’s arms. There was an instant when no one moved. Then several men lay into me. I was stuck and thrown to the ground. 
Aue is hauled away, naturally enough, to be interrogated and shot. Then the narrator puts in some stuff about the historical veracity of this (‘Trevor-Roper. I know, never breathed a word about this episode, nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.’). Aue escapes his death in much the same manner that Harrison Ford escaped imprisonment in The Fugitive; but he only staggers as far as the policemen Weser and Clemens—who have come to punish him for his matricide. Weser is killed by the Russians. Aue flees into Berlin zoo, where Clemens catches him, but as he is about to summarily shoot him deus-ex-machina-Thomas guns him down. As this latter is going through the dead man’s pockets (‘… waving a thick wad of reichmarks: “Look at that,” he said, laughing. “A gold mine, your cop.”’, 974-5) Aue thwacks him with an iron bar, breaking his neck. He steals Thomas’s false papers, which enable him to impersonate a French worker, and that’s where the book ends.
One brief note, before I go away to digest this book and consider whether it’s any good or not. Andrew Seal’s blog-post on the novel has this interesting link to two letters Littell wrote to his translators, from which I discover that in the original French Aue does not bite, but rather pinches Hitler’s nose. Littell says he always wanted the nose bitten, but that his French publisher thought it too outlandish and substituted a pinch instead. I’m with the French publisher on this one. This penultimate oddness hits the wrong note; not for the first time in this book Littell hasn’t got the mix right between bald factual flattened-affect stuff and weird, bizarro-world surreality. In the comments to the last post (and here, before I end, is my obligatory Rich Puchalsky quotation) Rich wondered if the book isn’t ‘a partial repeat of Michael Moorcock’s Pyat books’. I said I thought not really; since those Pyat books I’ve read are tonally quite different to Littell’s text. But biting Hitler’s nose is exactly the sort of wacky thing Max Pyatnitski would get up to. More, it might itself be a deliberate allusion to the scene in The Vengeance of Rome when Colonal Pyat, compelled for complicated reasons to pretend to be Hitler’s favourite prostitute, walks over the Führer in stilettos and shits on his face. [Original plus comments here]
Postscript: a conversation with Andrew Seal.
Andrew: I’m trying to come up with some questions and ideas for our dialogue; one element I was having a lot of trouble with (and ended up leaving completely alone in my post) was the “pineal eye"/gunshot wound and its significance. Did you have any strong feelings about that?
Adam: I agree with you that the head wound ‘third-eye’ thing is problematic. On a practical level, clearly, Littell needs somehow to get his narrator out of Stalingrad alive; and only a serious wound is going to work as far as that is concerned. But the difficulty with the head wound is that it leaves open the possibility that it is this brain damage that is responsible for Aue’s later excesses—that before the wound he is a diligent, dutiful murderer with nothing more eccentric about him (in that context) than a bit of brother-sister rumpy-pumpy in his past; where after the wound and because of the wound he’s the unhinged individual who does all the things in ‘Air’ and ‘Gigue’. This would be a problem, I suppose, because it would compromise the representative capacity of Aue as a character. It would be unusually obtuse to write a novel implying that Germany perpetrated the holocaust because it had, in some sense, been brain damaged. I don’t mean to be stolidly literal in this: Kindly Ones isn’t an allegory, and Aue isn’t presented as a ‘representative German’ except insofar as he is, you know, hard working and focussed on the specificity of the work he is given. Nonetheless something like this has informed the dispraise of a number of reviewers, who argued that the novel would work better if the narrator had been more like Eichmann, and less like the insane brother from Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn. I’m not sure about this—except where the headwound is concerned. What I mean is that being gay, or having had incestuous feelings to one’s sister, don’t speak to motivation, to the reasons a person chooses to do bad things, in the way that suffering severe brain damage does.
For me the extended phantasmagoria immediately after the head-wound is more interesting. It struck me particularly, I think, because I’m such a big fan of SF, so much so that there’s a danger I’ll see it where it may not be. I did see it in Kindly Ones, though (and not just because Littell’s first published book was a SF novel that he’s now disowned). I’m curious what you made of all the science fictiony, Vernean-Burroughsian material in the novel.
Andrew: I have to confess, I don’t know very much about (and haven’t read very much) science fiction. I agree with you that perhaps the brain damage opens up some possibilities for reading the rest of the novel that simply don’t contribute to anything--not to our understanding of Aue as a character, not to our understanding of the job he’s performing, and most of all not to the reverie passages. I tried not to read with the possibility of brain damage in mind, and I do think that there are a few points in the novel which stand out as disavowals of reading the wound as an authorial cop-out. The primary one being, I think, the confirmation of what certainly seems like a hallucinatory passage, where Thomas gets hit with shrapnel--later we find out that it did happen, since he bears a scar and acknowledges the episode. Although that technically happens before the head wound, I felt this was a sort of sign from Littell that the reader shouldn’t be overly enthusiastic in attributing unreliability to the narrator whenever/wherever possible.
A quick google leads me to Georges Bataille, and taking a look at the relevant section in Visions of Excess, this seems very much like something Littell was drawing from.
I guess I generally take a very skeptical view of the sort of esotericist criticism that insists these kind of references within the text are coded such that only a diligent or vastly literate reader will gather the full meaning of the book, or of the idea that only by reconstructing the author’s trail of reading can we understand a book. And this is certainly an issue for reading Kindly Ones, I think; it’s very tempting to say something like, “If you haven’t read Blanchot, you can’t understand The Kindly Ones.” I’m not an author, though--do you feel like you want the readers of your books to be trying to track your references in this way? Do you leave “easter eggs” for them?
Adam: Putting in gags or in-jokes is one thing; burying something crucial to the understanding of your text looks more like cheating. On the other hand, Littell talks about Blanchot a fair bit in interviews and so on; and has published at least one essay on him (a commentary on B.’s ‘On Reading’ piece: here ((translated here) so it’s not exactly buried away. The specifics of that passage you pick out from Visions of Excess are certainly interesting; and you’re right, that section reads almost too directly as a gloss upon what Kindly Ones does.
His ‘On Reading’ piece is interesting too, I think, for different reasons … it addresses the situation of ‘the author’; and the author (‘Jonathan Littell’) keeps intruding into discussions of this particular novel: he’s a good man, a bad man; he has the right to write these things, he doesn’t have that right; he’s laughing all the way to the bank, he’s a serious and ethical person who worked for an NGO on hunger … and so on. This is what he himself says, quoting Blanchot:
D’où la vanité de demander à l’écrivain ce qu’il avait «voulu dire», comme si l’écriture procédait de son vouloir, de sa libre et souveraine volonté. Il faudrait la mettre en rapport, plutôt, avec l’angoisse, Blanchot, on l’a vu, le souligne (invoquant l’exemple de Kafka). Déjà, en 1935, dans Le dernier mot, un de ses tout premiers récits, il écrivait : «La peur est votre seul maître. Si vous croyez ne plus rien craindre, inutile de lire. Mais c’est la gorge serrée par la peur que vous apprendrez à parler …
‘Anguish’ and ‘fear’ rather than ‘will’ or ‘desire’ at the heart of the writing process … that’s interesting. Strange—or, probably not if I come to think of it—how bleached of fear Aue is in most of this book; how little anguish he registers.
But since you ask about my own writing practice, and since we’re talking about Littell’s likely influences (and talking about SF) let me say something that did occur to me as I was reading. Littell has written a novel about genocide (called The Kindly Ones) narrated by a flawed and in many ways amoral narrator called Aue, who travels about his world, has various encounters, some strange sex, murders a few people, although really the most significant thing about him is that he is (partly) responsible for mass murder on a vast, numbing scale. A few years ago I wrote a science fiction novel about genocide (called Stone) narrated by a flawed and in many ways amoral narrator called Ae, who travels about his cosmos, has various encounters, some strange sex and murders a few people, although really the most significant thing about him is that he is (partly) responsible for murdering the entire population of a planet.
Now I’ve no reason to believe (and, actually, several reasons to disbelieve) that Littel has so much as heard of my SF novel. Quite apart from anything else, the differences between the two books (over and above the difference of genre) are even more pronounced than the similarities—I won’t list all the differences here, or it would swiftly become very tedious. But other than the most obvious (that my book is far-futuristic and interplanetary and Littell’s book historical and European) there’s the point that my novel mocks the nature of SF specificity—lots of invented terminology, appendices maps and so on—where Littell presents actual specificity with a completely straight face. But the real reason I mention this is because it foregrounds for me exactly this question of addressing these issues historically as opposed to fantastically—SF is full of genocide, and often in nakedly celebratory terms. Read E E Doc Smith, or actually any one of a number of Pulp and Golden Age SF writers, for examples of that.
If Littell’s point is that one aspect of the tragedy of Nazism was that a fundamentally adolescent, science-fictional Weltanschauung got itself projected upon the actual world—then as Rich Puchalsky noted in the comments to the earlier posts, that’s already been done (Spinrad’s Iron Dream is only one of several interesting books that explore this: Burdekin’sSwastika Night is another) and Kindly Ones starts to look belated and kind of superfluous. Actually I think Littell is doing a lot more than that; although I suspect that is part of what he’s doing.
But there’s another angle. The standard (if you like) SF take on Nazism is alternate history … there’s a whole subgenre called ‘Hitler Wins’, of which Dick’s Man in the High Castle is perhaps both best-known and best, in which history is replayed via German victory, and the book explores the dystopian possibilities of what such a postwar world would look like. Holding the subject matter at one remove like this at least partially inoculates the books against the sort of hostility Littell’s book has provoked; because on some very obvious level such books don’t make implicit truth claims the way Kindly Ones does (just look at the historical verisimilitude). This seems to me very wrong-headed. Books aren’t life. In fact, one of the ways I’m toying with reading this book is precisely as, inter alia, an intervention into the now bulging mini-genre of Hitler Wins books: not a world in which Hitler wins the war, but a textual universe in which Hitler saturates; a world in which Hitler has won the narrator’s consciousness, as it were.
My novel, Stone, isn’t a Hitler Wins alternate-history: it’s set in some far future of interstellar travel. But it does have quite a lot to do with quantum physics, and the idea that observation affects reality. And this in turn made me wonder about what in my series of ongoing reading posts I kept coming back to as the ‘veillant’ aspect of the novel: Les Bienveillants as surveillance (I mean: spectator, observer, watcher; although I note that ‘surveillant’, in French, actually means ‘prison warder or guard’ and also ‘supervisor, overseer’), the extent to which the novel is based on the belief that observing something is not a neutral, scientific or distancing matter; that observing something affects it and you—that watching the murder of Jews makes you as complicit as pulling the trigger. What did you think about that? Or am I putting too much emphasis on the watching aspect? My Ae discovers that the universe he lives in literalises this, via a strong reading of the Copenhagen quantum hypothesis. But Littel’s Aue seems to be an exemplification of the very basic but very important point: it all depends upon how you see the world.
Andrew: The presence of SF and the possibility that it is, as you say, about “a fundamentally adolescent, science-fictional Weltanschauung got itself projected upon the actual world,” is I think matched by a running commentary on romanticized 19th C. novels of war or heroism: War and Peace is unmissable, though not directly referenced, but Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Stendhal, and of course Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale are both cited repeatedly. If Littell is indicting SF or trying to tie it to Nazism, he is certainly doing so to this genre as well. I’m not sure either is a major concern for him, but I think these two need to be paired together.
I really like your idea about treating the novel as an intervention into the Hitler Wins genre: I think especially recently (even more so since 1985, when DeLillo’s White Noise mocked Hitler Studies) there is an attempt to understand Hitler as a sort of primal scene for the whole Nazi psyche, capable of unlocking the complexes and cathexes of the German soul if only we could understand him. There was the movie Max, for instance, which starred John Cusack as a Jewish art dealer who tries to help the young Hitler achieve his dreams of artistic success; the German film Der Untergang (Downfall) raised some eyebrows with a, if not sympathetic, at least fully humanized Hitler as seen through the eyes of one of his secretaries. Then there was Norman Mailer’s Castle in the Forest—which fixates on Hitler’s childhood.
One of the most interesting things, for me, about The Kindly Ones was how inaccessible—both on a psychological level and on a narrative or plot level—Hitler is to Aue and, even more, to the reader. The whole biting scene, I think, just made that inaccessibility absurd, but it didn’t contradict it. It’s a totally ridiculous parallel, but when Hitler hobbles into that scene to pin medals on Aue and the others, I thought of the scene at the end of Philip Pullman’s Amber Spyglass, where Lyra and Will get to the Ancient of Days just as he’s expiring of tremendous old age. Aue’s ludicrous action deprives the reader of any meaningful confrontation with Hitler, and thus any meaningful confrontation with Nazism as it could be contained in one man. We are given a chance for a half-page or so to read Littell’s descriptions of Hitler as an embodiment of Nazism, then the biting occurs and we’re too thrown to keep that embodiment idea in our heads.
The ‘veillant’ aspect of the book is certainly one I picked up on as well, though I had some trouble fitting it into my focus on work. But I think this is because I was thinking of “looking” or even “watching” as passive actions; when you point to the ‘prison warder or guard’ or ‘overseer’ this makes a great deal more sense to me. The Oresteia opens with a night watchman, for one thing, if we want to keep reading for allusions, but more important to me is Littell’s insistence throughout the book on the completely aleatory distribution of actions within an army: the watchers at an execution are no less culpable than the shooters because it is only the arbitrary orders of other men that have put the guns in the others’ hands.
Also, I think the notion of watching as no less participatory than acting has obvious (and well-remarked upon) effects on the position of the reader. I do think the discourse of witnessing is crucial to the novel, although I think that the force of it is less about trying to make the reader be a witness than it is about the efforts we make to change the act of witnessing to something less active. This is why of all the criticisms of the novel the comparisons of Aue to Zelig, as the uber-improbable figure who pops up everywhere, irritate me the most, especially since these references (I’m thinking mainly of Samuel Moyn’s review from The Nation) don’t talk about Zelig’s chameleon-like nature, just about the fact that he’s humorously ubiquitous. Zelig is, one could say, an anti-witness, and I find him distinctly unuseful as a comparison to Aue.
Insisting on the activeness of the witness is also a way of talking about the conversion of the Furies into the Eumenides, this revision of the role of the witness from a persecuting (or prosecuting) force to a docilely observant one. And I think we see that Littell directly implicates the reader in this conversion: the only use of the term is on the last page, in the last line, when the only witnesses to Aue’s actions that remain are his readers. “The Kindly Ones were on to me.” Are we, though?
Adam: What do you make of Thomas? Might we want to take him, as Rich P. suggests, as a kind of author stand-in?
Andrew: I thought your description of Thomas as a deus ex machina or as a get-out-of-jams-free card was much better; of course the frequency with which Aue runs into any of the friends he makes--Hohenegg, Osnabrugge--is uncanny. Again, though, I think the Zelig comparisons miss the mark; constantly new characters just seems like a really poor alternative to developing a few characters more while sacrificing a small amount of probability. I guess different readers have different valuations of fictional probability, however.
Thomas in many ways actually seemed much more believable and “real” to me than Aue; Thomas Hauser’s character type seemed more universal to me, as if I could meet him today: that same assured sense of knowing where the crucial connections are to be found, whose stock is on the rise, whose is stagnant or falling, and the constant focus on incremental advancement, an ally won here, a patron there. I won’t say I’ve met people like that because it would be a little rude, but I found Thomas to be sort of familiar.
Thomas’s inexplicable patronage of Aue led me to wonder on more occasions than the last page, what relationship does he have to the Kindly Ones, watching over Aue? His nick-of-time rescues of Aue certainly seem angelic, but why would Littell give Aue a guardian angel? The snappy answer is laziness or lack of skill; I don’t buy this because I found a lot of the writing to be both diligent and skillful, and I dislike presuming authorial misconduct where it’s usually me not working hard enough to figure out some narrative riddle. But I don’t really have an answer for Thomas; I guess I just accepted his presence and his role while reading the book, and didn’t really try to fit him in later.
Adam: Surely not laziness, no. But I can certainly see the argument that, broadly speaking, Nazi Germany was not punished for its crimes; a few token representatives were hanged at Nuremberg, rather more escaped (many with the active connivance of various Western powers) or were recruited into the cause of antiCommunism, and in a decade and a half Western Germany was one of the great powers of the world again. I’m not suggesting Germany didn’t learn important and (of course) very hard lessons; but this isn’t the trajectory a Götterdämmerung is supposed to follow. So, yes, I guess it’s non-negotiable, for this fictional project, that Aue escapes; and not just so that he’s in a position to write his memoirs. The innocent suffer, the guilty go unpunished (save, perhaps, the odd nip on the schnozz); this, I guess, is the world Littell is painting.
I think what I’m trying to get at is the way Littell negotiates the borderline in The Kindly Ones between pseudo-documentary verisimilitude and phantasmagoria. Often the line is drawn clearly: Aue is dreaming, say; he’s just been shot in the skull; or he is suffering from a head-spinning fever. But then there’s all the goings-on in Air—did he actually kill somebody in that section, do you think (a peasant woman, perhaps, who wandered into his path), or only imagine doing so? What’s going on with all the imaginary people there?
And then there’s a particular sort or class of character in the novel. What do we make of the obese Bond Villain Mandelbrod, with his trio of identikit pneumatic blonde assistants? What I mean is: in a book that accumulates so much specific realistic detail, with respect to characters as well as actions, isn’t Mandelbrod too obviously a grotesque, a caricature? Like somebody who has wandered in from another novel. The two detectives, Weser and Clemens, seemed to me similar, if not so extreme, cases.
I can’t shake the sense that Littell is trying something really quite ambitious in mixing an emulsion of Realism and the hallucinatory like this. I guess, if he has done it successfully (really not sure if he has) then each should act as a gloss upon the other. I’ll also stoop to autobiography for a mo: I’m not Jewish but my wife is, which means our kids are. Last Saturday but one we all went off to synagogue (I don’t usually go) for a blessing ceremony for the kids, which involved standing on the bimah with Rachel and our two kids reading stuff out to the congregation, and having the Rabbi say some stuff. It was all very nice, actually, and everyone there was perfectly welcoming. Now it so happened that I was, at that point, just finishing off the last section of Littell’s novel (I don’t mean I was reading it in the synagogue .... actually you know what? I don’t think I’d feel very comfortable even carrying a copy into the synagogue. But I’d been reading it the night before, and finished it that afternoon). Now whilst my attention was mostly on the service, at one point it wandered sufficiently for me to have this vertiginous sense of the fundamental oddity of the Holocaust—surrounded as I was by a group of thoroughly nice people having spent the previous week putting my head imaginatively into the mental space of an ideology that wanted all of them dead. I don’t mean to be facile here; and most of the time it’s easy enough to hold in one’s head (indeed, hard enough to avoid thinking about) the lengthy and murderous history of European anti-Semitism. But at the same time it’s a phantasmagoric, peculiar and surreal business. That, I take it, is one of the effects Littell is going for by mixing in so much that we might call SF, or Pulp, or Noir-crime, or whatever.
Andrew: Part of the disjunction or simple queerness of the novel (in the non-gender/sexuality sense of the word, though that would be interesting to add to this discussion) is that the particular brand of realist/fantasy emulsion that Littell employs is not really similar to the other “brands” of fiction dealing with fundamental horrors through surreal or fantasy elements: a creature like Mandelbrod would not really fit either in a magical realist novel or in a novel we’d call “Kafkaesque” (I’m not trying to say that Kafka himself maintains this particular emulsion, but that the books which are called Kafkaesque generally do, and generally do in similar ways).
Nor are these elements fully like any avant-garde writing I know; I suppose a reading of Bataille (again) could recuperate a lot of the dream sequences and maybe a lot of “Air,” but I don’t really see affinities or even attempted affinities between the class of characters you mention and someone like Bataille, or really even someone like (W.S.) Burroughs, though I can’t say that for sure because I haven’t read very much of him. But generally, while a character like Mandelbrod seems like a clump of narrative excess, it’s a very different kind of excess from the intentional excesses of avant-garde art. And if we can talk about the non-realist elements of magical realism or Kafkaesque novels as being excesses (which I think is a very reactionary way of thinking about them), then it seems to me that Littell’s varieties of excess are further away still.
The necessity of specifying which Burroughs I was referencing, though, does lead right back into SF, I think--would it be flip to call Littell’s work “hard history,” sort of like “hard SF” in that the author is imposing constraints on his creativity which are given by currently existing structures, but which do not completely exclude pockets of the stuff that makes it sciencefiction? I’m not sure how much interpretive work this term, “hard history,” actually does, but it certainly seems to me that reading Littell’s book as part of one of the other (non-SF) genres which narrate mass death or mass misery doesn’t really do that work either.
Adam: I’ve enjoyed this exchange very much, and it has helped me get, I think, a better sense of the book. So for instance it has brought into focus for me a sense I had ofevasiveness in the text itself (which may in turn explain why the book has so markedly polarised opinions); not evasiveness in a straightforward, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truthway (self-delusion, or -exculpation), but something more deeply bedded in Littel’s project. I like ‘Hard History’, actually, on the model of ‘Hard SF’, in part because the claims of Hard SF to ‘objective truth’ are just as illusive as the idea that Kindly Ones accesses some sort of objectivity about the holocaust ... of course Littell isn’t trying to do that. I don’t mean ‘evasiveness’, then, in terms of a simple truth-function. I mean it, I think, in some relationship to your more general angle re: work and death ... work and sex as well. The designedly workmanlike descriptions not only of dying, but of all Aue’s sexual kinks and excesses, the way ‘Air’, say, is such a slog to get through: it’s as if the point is to lay bare the fundamentally boring nature of pornography. It’s possible to consume pornography without clocking just how repetitive and dull it is because arousal distracts the consumer; by stripping away the possibility of arousal (I find it hard to imagine many readers getting aroused by Aue’s shenanigans) Littell lays bare the substratum of tedium. Something similar is going on with the larger focus of the book: refusing to present, or re-present, ‘the glamour of evil’, refusing to take the Holocaust as an Adornoesque ultimate that baffles all signification, refusing even to gesture towards Death as a profound transcendence ... actually ‘evasion’ isn’t really the right word for this.
I’m curious, though, that you think reading Kafka’s novels in terms of ‘excesses’ is ‘a very reactionary way of thinking about them.’ Why reactionary, exactly? (Do you mean, regarding their excesses from a sort of antibody perspective, as problems to be isolated and ‘solved’?)
Andrew: I guess what I meant by saying that reading Kafkaesque non-realist elements as “excesses” was a reactionary attitude was that assuming that these elements are flourishes or more generally anything added to a basic realist plot (and therefore extractable, less necessary) is a way of treating reality as something inexcessive, as something which generally seeks or maintains an equilibrium. I think that is very reactionary, and very inaccurate.
I actually really wanted to talk more about sex in the post I wrote about work and death: I particularly wanted to try to gloss what was for me one of the most interesting passages of the book, but I ended up leaving it out because it just wasn’t fitting very well. The passage was:
“For man has taken the coarse, limited facts given to every sexed creature and has built from them a limitless fantasy, murky and profound, an eroticism that, more than anything, distinguishes him from the animals, and he has done the same thing with the idea of death, but this imagination, curiously, has no name (you could call it thanatism, perhaps): and it is these imaginations, these forever rehearsed obsessions, and not the thing itself, that are frantic driving forces behind our thirst for life, for knowledge, for the agonizing struggle of self. I was still holding L’Education sentimentale, set down on my lap almost touching my sex, forgotten, I let these idiot’s thoughts dig into my head, my ears full of the anguished beating of my heart.” (883-4)
The Freudian eros/thanatos dialectic is strangely under-determined (I think) for a book that deals with sex and death so much; except in this section, the two drives seem almost decoupled, which I read as being the result of an extreme division between work and the private life, or between one’s professional activities and one’s interior thoughts. Even in this section, Littell seems to be suggesting that the death drive is capable of overwhelming the sex drive ("my sex, forgotten") simply because it is not as regulated by the work of constructing fantasies and naming them, taxonomizing them. Because there is not really an orderly pornography of death in the same way that there can be said to be an orderly pornography of sex, because there is no thanatism as there is eroticism, the death drive is ultimately the stronger and the more uncontrollable.
The implications for the book as a whole seem to be rather obvious, so I won’t elaborate on them, but this is (equally obviously) a really icky line of thought. I don’t think that the book is meant to fulfill this work of constructing a “thanatism,” although in a way, this has been how Littell’s critics have been reading it. I guess I just don’t see the same kind of commitment to the depiction and imagination of death in the novel as we find in, say, Ballard or the section of Bolaño’s 2666 that deals with the femicidio of Santa Teresa/Ciudad Juárez to make me believe that Littell really intended to create a “thanatism.”