Tuesday, 30 August 2011

W. E. Johns, Return to Mars (1955)


The second of a series of ten space adventures by the Biggles man. My 50p car-boot-sale copy was dust-wrapper free, but all ten original dust jackets are on display here, and looking lovely. Nor can I do better than quote 'Stella and Rose' by way of giving a flavour of the books themselves:
A collection of 10 books where W.E. Johns tries his hand at Science Fiction novels. The main characters in the books are Group Captain Timothy (nicknamed 'Tiger') Clinton R.A.F. (retired) and his son, Rex Clinton and Professor Lucius Brane. They go off adventuring - initially around our Solar System, but as the books progress they go further and further afield meeting up will all sorts of alien life forms and visiting many planets.
Return to Mars is very Bigglesish, tonally: all foresquare derring do and adventure. The plot is episodic and peripatetic. The Professor has invented an insecticide to rid Mars of its apocalyptic plague of red mosquitoes (in a rather nice touch, it turns out that the 'red' colour of the red planet is down to these beasties; and the red opacities observed by astronomers passing over the face of Mars are not dust storms but swarms of billions of insects). They visit Phobos, land on Mars, meet some dying humanoid Martians, wrestle with the problem (lifted from Wells's Food of the Gods) of some agent that is making insects and plants grow to prodigious size, and eventually win through. The Martians are telepathic. Earth, it transpires, is going to be destroyed 'in ninety days' by a rogue planet called Vontor crashing into it. After some variegated to-and-fro Vontor is blown up by a Martian superweapon, in a rather underwhelming piece of pyrotechnic description: 'what appeared to be a flash of lightning passed ... almost simultaneously a great sheet of white light filled the section of space that held the intruder. Slowly it died, leaving in its centre a ragged cloud from which sprang a thousand sparks' [135]. It's all good clean fun, although in the preface Johns puts in a little Von Danikeny nonsense:
The moons [of Mars] were only discovered in 1877, after the telescope made it possible to see them. Yet the ancients must have known of them, for they gave them their names -- the names they still hold. Phobos (meaning Terror) and Deimos (Rout). Homer and Virgil talk of them as the two horses of Mars, dragging his chariot. Why horses? Did they have tails? Comets have tails. We are forced to the conclusion that Mars was at one time nearer to us than it is today. [14]
I was going to suggest that Johns has got this the wrong way round, the astronomers were quoting the myth rather than the other way around; but the implacable force of his logic is simply irresistible. Horses have tails. Comets have tails. Ergo ...

Anyhow, the best bit of this book are the illustrations. Some of these are just gorgeous [click any of them to embiggen]:

Some have a splendidly hokey-cokey vibe to them:

Here's the exhausted Martian.  Too much popcorn and Mars-juice, I'd say:

Doesn't that second astronaut, visiting the exhausted Martian there, look like a young Gordon Brown though? Anyhow, onwards. Here are some of the wisest words ever placed in a picture caption: 'That's what comes of monkeying with things you don't understand!':

And this one may be my favourite of all:

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Raja Gosnell, The Smurfs (2011)


I took the kids to see this, at their insistence. And I did see it. Unless (I was tired) I fell asleep as soon as I settled into the darkened cinema seat. If so then I had a vivid, rather horrible dream in which Doogie Howser M.D. and that breadstick-skinny, manga-faced lass from Glee are visited in New York by a horde of Na'vi-Liliputians who pass through a portal in order to steal the commercial success of Enchanted. Everybody mugs and overacts, the Smurphs most especially; and the wicked wizard Gargamel, in smurf-pursuit, more than mugs and overacts. He Mmmmugs and hyperacts. For some reason (I don't know why) I had it in my head that Gargamel, perfectly unrecognisable beneath an inch-thick facial prosthetic, was being played by the excellent Tom Hollander. He wasn't. He was played by the equally excellent Hank Azaria. Both men should be ashamed. It looks harsh, I know, tarring Hollander with the brush of a film with which he has nothing whatsoever to do except in my confused head. But that's the way it goes. Smurphy's Law. This movie is so bad it contaminates the careers of actors who have literally no connection with it whatsoever.

Anyway, I came away with a theory. Some of the we-might-as-well-call-it comedy here is of the pratfalling, mistaking-a-portaloo-for-an-alchemical-laboratory, pissing-in-a-wine-cooler sort. But one running gag ... one corpulent 52-year-old man having a heart attack mid-jog gag, at any rate ... is the replacement of random words with neologisms formed by adding prefixes and suffixes to the word 'smurf'. 'Smurftastic!', 'What the Smurf?' and 'Smurfxactly!' and so on. Now, some of these usages clearly stand in for the word 'fuck'. You may have seen the trailer, in which Smurfella, of Smurfette, or Smarymagdelene or whatever the female Smurf is called (voiced by Katie Perry) announces 'you picked the wrong girl to Smurf with': one of those situations where a like-sounding euphemism, such as 'freak' or 'feck', stands-in for the word we all know is actually being invoked. Once I twigged this, I understood. This movie is actually called 'The Fucks'; and all the dialogue has been lifted from Scarface ('Where the Smurf are we?')  I trust there will be a version on the Director's Cut DVD in which every 'smurf' is replaced with the word 'fuck'.  I'd prefer that.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 6 and 7

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.  [960]
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.”

Friday, 26 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 5


Onward.  Kindly Ones fifth section ‘Menuet (en Rondeaux)’ is the longest of all: pp.535-863, and now that I’ve polished it off (or now that I’ve trudged, with increasing sense of weariness, through its snow wastes) only two brief sections stand between me and finishing this big book.  I don’t feel I need to apologise for my exhaustion; Littell’s narrator concedes the point, more than once. 
On April 9 … ah but what’s the point of relating all these details, day by day?  It’s exhausting me, and also it’s boring me, and you too, no doubt.  How many pages have I already stacked up on these uninteresting bureaucratic epidoes?  No, I can’t go on like this anymore.  [778]
But he lies.  He does go on.  And then he goes on some more.
There’s a good deal more of the novel’s studiedly surfacing and over-surfacing of detail, Aue’s day to day routines and experiences, layered as thickly on here as ever.  He becomes closer to Himmler, and becomes almost friends with Eichmann, who’s a major character in this section.  I say major character, although as with most of the players in this text, and I’m sure by careful authorial strategy, I should glue on inverted commas to the small-backed c and the hanging penile r whenever I break that word out.  None of these guys are characters.  All of them are ‘characters’.  That, I suppose, is part of Littell’s larger point.
Aue’s irresistible rise continues: he is promoted and given his own department, to supply Speer with slave labour for war production.  This means butting heads with other departments, who are keen to pursue the Final Solution to its final, uh, dissolution.  So Aue visits Auschwitz, and other camps, attempting to pry out workers for the German war effort.  Mostly he fails.
What else?  He is strangely drawn (strangely for him, I mean) to a kind if rather distant beautiful young German widow, and goes so far as to fantasise about settling down with her, living an ordinary life, having kids and so on.  She—Helene is her name—seems to reciprocate his attraction, and for a while they have what amounts almost to a romantic idyll, though a chaste one, as the RAF’s daytime raids on Berlin start smashing the place up.  Then Aue suffers a prolonged fever, and as she nurses him through it he tells her (hoping to drive her away, or just wound her) all the horrible things the Germans have been getting up to in the East and in the camps.  This has the effect, naturally, of shocking her.  He apologises after he recovers, but it puts a distance between them.
We also learn, in this section, more about Aue’s matricide.  Littell comes at this from two flanks.  On the one hand he introduces two rather clumsily drawn pursuant policemen who are convinced of Aue’s guilt and who refuse to let the case go: Weser and Clemens (‘Laurel and Hardy’, Aue calls them).  They dog Aue.  He uses his influence to have the charges dropped. They carry on hounding him.  The judge dies and the case is reopened, so they come after him again.  With Himmler’s help it’s shelved once more, but still they hound him.  (It’s almost as if they are, like, furies, or something).  On the other Aue discovers some news about what his long-lost father got up to (agitating on behalf of the Right in the 1920s and early 30s) after he abandoned his family.  This affects Aue deeply.  Oddly, he is reticent, in narratorial terms, about his dad’s Christian name.  Here he is in conversation with a Judge called Baumann: 
“Excuse me, but did you father fight with the Freikorps Rossbach, in Courland?  I remember an officer called Aue.” He said the Christian name.  My heart began beating violently.  “That is my father’s name …” [752]
What is his name, though?  Agamemnon, presumably.
This emphasis on the faceless, nameless father (Aue is given a photo of his Dad, but the face is just a blur) speaks, I’m thinking, to a broader attempt by the novel to torpedo too-pat or facilely explanatory models of psychological explanation (the most obvious question the novel sets out to address:  why did these people do these terrible things?).  Neither depth, nor depthlessness, but a partial corrosion of psychological meaning, or orientation, to do with the shaping culure, or family, of volk of a person.  Or something.
The SF angle isn’t neglected either.  As he convalesces from his fever, and because his mind is too shattered to read ‘serious’ books, Aue reads ‘the Martian adventures of E. R. Burroughs’ [822].  When he first encountered these Plup SF-romances as a lad, we’ve already been told, they inspired him to masturbatory excesses.  Now, though, they have a different effect: 
I sent for a typewriter and wrote a brief memo to the Reichsführer, quoting Burroughs as a model for the profound social reforms that the SS should envisage after the war.Thus, to increase the birthrate after the war and force men to marry young, I took as an example the red Martians, who recruited their forced labour not just from criminals and prisoners of war, but also from confirmed bachelors who were too poor to pay the high celibacy tax which all red-Martian governments impose; and I devoted an entire chapter to this celibacy tax that, if it were ever imposed, would put a heavy strain on my own finances.  But I reserved even more radical suggestions for the SS elite, which should follow the example of the green Martians, those three-metre-tall monsters with four arms and fangs: All property among the green Martians is owned in common by the community, except the personal weapons, ornaments … their mating is a matter of community interest solely …
And so on.  We can take this as rather one-tone satire (‘Nazi philosophy was no more than Pulp SF nonsense magnified into world tragedy by being put into practice on such a huge scale…’) or as a sign that Aue has lost his mind (or if that is long gone, then his sense of political self-preservation); or perhaps even as something a little more sincere.  But something’s up, here.  My hunch is that SF is much more important to this whole novel than I previously thought.

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 Sturmbannführer?” 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 grâce,’ 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]

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 3


After Toccata and Allemandes we get Courante, running (ha!) from p.339 to p.427: the Stalingrad chapter.  For most of its length this is pretty impressively done: lots of evocative, vividly horrible details about the winter 1942-3 horrors, the cold, the lice, the danger, mutilation, cannibalism and despair.  Some of this was familiar to me (there’ve been no shortage of books about this siege, after all); some weren’t, though I don’t doubt their historical veracity.  I was struck, for instance, with the ‘Oberstleutnant from the Forty-fourth Division who had demolished an entire isba [wooden hut] where a dozen of his men were sheltering, to heat water for a bath, and then who, after soaking for a long time and shaving himself, had put his uniform back on and shot himself in the mouth’ [386].
The last quarter of this section is dominated by two things: first one lengthy conversation (notionally an interrogation) between Aue and a captured Soviet Commissar called, maybe a little allegorically-clumsily, Pravdin (that is, ‘Truth man’).  I’m getting used, now, to Littell’s habit of simply inserting lectures (often many pages long) into the body of his text; and that’s what we get here.  I suppose I’m about one-quarter against, three-quarters in favour of this strategy.  The one-quarter is reminded—and this, obviously, is not a good thing—of John Galt’s interminable lecture at the end of Atlas Shrugged.  But the three-quarters is compounded partly of (usually) engagement with interesting content, and mostly of admiration for what is evidently a broader aesthetic strategy.  This is the idiom of Science itself; telling you a whole bunch of interesting stuff in a way that not only makes no attempt to pander to readers with short attention spans, but which also deliberately disconnects itself from moral judgment.  Which is to position the novel, I suppose, as the conceptual child of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Englightenment argument: the broader cultural idiom of Enlightenment rationality leads directly to the door of Auschwitz.  Littell elaborates that throughout the book.  In this chapter, for instance, Aue makes friends with a doctor, called Hohenegg, who’s been sent to check out the general health of the Sixth Army. 
”I’ve already conducted about thirty autopsies and the results are irrefutable: more than half present symptoms of acute malnutrition … but the curious thing is that despite the reduction in rations, it’s still much too soon to have so many cases … the metabolism itself is affected by the cold and fatigue and can no longer function properly.”—“And fear” [the interlocutor is Aue]—“Fear too, of course.  We saw it during the Great War: under some particularly intense bombardments, the heart fails; we find young, healthy, well-fed men dead without the slightest wound. But here I’d say rather that it’s an aggravating factor, not a preliminary cause.  Once again, I have to continue my investigations.  It won’t be of much use for the Sixth Army. I’m sure, but I flatter myself that it will serve science, and that’s what helps me get up in the morning.” [382-83]
His research has not immediate practical use, but he pursues it anyway, for the sake of this abstracted ‘science’.  That’s exactly the tone of Aue’s own narrative project: he’s not telling this story for any immediate purpose.  It’s in the service of some chilly, rather pointless abstraction.
The Aue-Pravdin exchange is interesting, although a little sixth-form-debating-society: Pravdin considers National Socialism ‘a heresy of Marxism’ [395], comparing the Soviets to the Jews and the Nazis to the Christians.  Aue, in turn, delivers a long speech about the Soviet system as a political iteration of humiliation (‘but one can humiliate only those who can be humiliated; and in turn, only the humiliated humiliate.  The humiliated of 1917, from Stalin down to the muzhik, have done nothing since then but inflict their fear and their humiliation on others.’ Russia is ‘this country of the humiliated.’ He goes on: 
In Germany, and the capitalist countries, everyone says communism ruined Russia; but I believe it’s the opposite: it’s Russia that ruined communism.  It could have been a fine idea, and who can say what would have happened if the Revolution had taken place in Germany rather than Russia?  If it had been led by self-assured Germans, like your friends Rose Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht? [Pravidin boasted about liaising with these famous German revolutionaries before the war: that’s how his German is good enough to sustain this exchange] [399]
The second thing that dominates the last quarter of this section is very different: an unusually extravagant sort-of dream sequence.  Aue is shot in the head, which in turn mutates his narratives into an elaborate phantasmagoria:  he walks through Stalingrad, and swims for a long time under the ice of the Volga (‘the air lasted in my lungs … I kept swimming, passing sunken bargesful of handsome young men sitting in rows, their weapons still in their hands, little fish threading through their hair agitated by the current’).  Eventually he surfaces and climbs aboard a strange airship piloted by a Nazi scientist called Doktor Sardine, presumably to remind us of the Sardinenpackung in the Ukraine—Herr Doktor is certainly intemperately anti-Semitic, and accuses Aue of being ‘an accomplice of Finkelstein! Of Krasschild! Those envious Yids … Squids! Dwarves! Boot-polishers! Falsifiers of diplomas and of results … [419].  Sardine believes the world to be cone-shaped, and is taking his airship off to explore the flat base, even though ‘beyond the Edge, there is no gravitational field’ [421] (the machine, apparently, will turn into a sort of mechanical spider to cling to the surface).  From the airship Aue sees his sister on the steppes below—we’ve learned, in this section, that he considers an incestuous liaison with his sister when they were kids the expression of the great love of his life.  Escaping the airship he winds up inside a kurgan with some physically dissimular brothers: a potbellied dwarf and a tall thin man.  Aue’s sister is being brought to be married to them.  When Aue objects, the dwarf insists he play nardi.  ‘“If I win, I kill you, if I lose, I kill you.”’ ‘Fine,’ says Aue.  ‘That’s no problem, let’s play.’ [426].  The chapter ends as the sister approaches, parading naked towards the kurgan on foot, Aue fretting about her public nudity.
As with earlier forays into borderline magical-realism (although I suppose this one can be contained by bracketing it under an it’s-all-a-dream rubric), I really wasn’t sure about this last section.  It lacked the discipline, in writerly terms, of the historically anchored stuff.  It plays a little too ponderously with key themes and tropes: underwater monstrosity; Jules Vernean machines; insects; defecation; dwarfs; sites of death.  It’s not that its ineffective; it’s just that it reads a little by-the-numbers.
I suppose giving a chapter set in the seige of Stalingrad the sprinting, onward-moving title ‘Courante’ counts as ironic.  And in that sense this sudden fantastical opening up of vistas, this swimming, running and flying onwards at the end, struck me as a false step; a kind of underselling of the ironic potential.  In other words I’m echoing something Rich said in the comments to 2: ‘As an aesthetic effect, monotony can be very effective.  But for it to work, it has to deliberately refuse to satisfy the reader with some kind of drama, some kind of catharsis.  That’s what the Lovecraftian-dream and magical-realism sequences seem to be, at third hand, to be; signs that the author isn’t really committed.’ That, I think, puts its finger on what is wrong with the conclusion of this section.  [Original plus comments here]

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Jonathan Littell, Kindly Ones (2009), 2


On with Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes.  The first section (‘Toccata’) was only twenty pages; the second (‘Allemandes I and II’) takes us all the way up to page 337.  The ‘I’ part of that title is I take it Aue’s experiences in newly conquered Ukraine, where SS units are going about pacifying the territory and murdering a large number of undesirables: mostly Jews, of course, but also inmates in mental asylums, tubercular kids, partisans and the like.  This is all described in meticulous, repellent detail, and makes for thoroughly distressing reading: a function both of the methodically neutral tone and the horrible details.  Aue himself finds all this murder thoroughly unpleasant, but he doesn’t question (and in fact he repeatedly asserts in conversation) the racist beliefs underpinning the actions.  He perseveres in what he considers an onerous but necessary duty.  Nevertheless, particularly once the mass-murder moves from adults male Jews to all Jews he suffers increasingly from psychosomatic nausea and vomiting and comes close to nervous collapse.
He is sent to the Crimea for rest and recuperation; and this leads us into what I take to the ‘II’ of the title: his reassignment into newly captured Georgia, and further SS work.  Here, in a similar methodical, piling-up-the-details mode, we get extensive sections of (effectively) travelogue, and personal philosophy.  Fewer Jews are killed in this portion of the narrative, although a lengthy chunk of it is given over to a debate between the SS and the Wehrmacht as to whether a population of Jews living in the mountains—known as the Bergjuden—are really Jews or not.  By ‘really’, of course, these Nazis mean ‘racially’.  One of the book’s more attractive characters is introduced: an academic linguist who specialises in the languages of the region, and given a lengthy speech rejecting the whole concept of race as unscientific [300-03] but apart from that it is all ghastly Nazi pseudo-science and an enormous amount of spurious research (experts are flown into the region) to determine whether the Bergjuden are ‘actually’ Jews, or whether they have been assimilated so thoroughly into the region’s racial makeup, their Jewish blood sufficiently diluted, that they are no longer a threat (‘The Bergjuden are of Caucasian, Iranian and Afghan descent and are not Jews, even if they have adopted the Mosaic religion’, 296) .  Practically the SS want to liquidate the Bergjuden (I was going to add: ‘because…’—but really there’s no ‘because’ about it); whereas the Wehrmacht want to keep them alive, to avoid souring the generally pro-German vibe of the region.  After long sections of genuinely upsetting detail about mass murder in the Ukraine, this whole ‘are the Bergjuden really Jews?’ section—it’s pretty much 50 pages long—comes over (deliberately, I suppose) as insanely pettifogging and bureaucratic. 
Meanwhile we discover more about Aue’s past; his homosexuality (or bisexuality, heavily slanted on the homosexual side) and some details about his broken upbringing.  And we get a sense of the prosecution of the war in the East.  At the start of section 2 the Germans are rolling fluidly into Soviet Russia.  Towards the end of the section the winter has kicked in, and things have started to go bad for the Germans: Soviet counterattack locks the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad (‘The decision not to evacuate the Sixth Army was made by the Führer himself ... The surrounded divisions now formed a giant Kessel, a cauldron as they said, cut off from our lines’, 307).  This, we know, is not going to end well.
In the end the Bergjuden are not killed, but Aue—who has made enemies on account of his poorly-concealed homosexuality, and by not prosecuting the SS’s case for the liquidation of the Bergjuden vigorously enough—is sent off by his commanding officer on a plane to Stalingrad.
OK: having finished this section the big question (but, you know, of course) is what to make of the lengthy, detailed descriptions of the murder of many Jews and other people.  This, I’d say, is the riskiest part of the narrative, in broader ethical terms; and Littell’s deliberate flattening, almost droning account is presumably intended to address that danger.  I suppose the whole thing is recounted with a very deliberate meticulousness and thoroughness precisely to mimic the meticulous thoroughness with which the Nazis perpetrated the greatest of their several crimes against humanity.  I can’t really fault the formal fit.  Still.
Some of it comes close to Holocaust-cliché (if it’s not too outrageous linking those two words with a hyphen): the 10-year old Jewish boy who’s a brilliant pianist and is adopted by the squad as a sort of mascot (Aue orders sheet music for him) whose death entails sentimental sorrow on Aue’s part (the sheet music arrives too late, hand-delivered by Eichmann, in what seemed to me another central-casting walk-on part: shiny briefcase, little-glasses, petty-bureaucrat mode).  Meanwhile the book chronicles the SS’s learning curve: get the victims to dig their own trench then shoot them all in the head—but no, that gets the shooters spattered with blood and brains.  So: shoot them in the body—but no, then they don’t necessarily die, and you have to go down into the trench to finish them off.  The trenches fill up to quickly, so you try ‘Sardinenpackung’ (horrible word) the victims into the trench and then shooting them.  But, look, individual shooting is too inefficient.  So you rig up vans as portable gas ovens (adapted Saurer military trucks), but that doesn’t work too well because … and so on.  The emphasis throughout is on the holocaust as a series of practical problems to be overcome, rather than as an ethical or even ideological intervention, and the length and specificity is unavoidably deadening.  This doesn’t stop the descriptions, particularly the telling details, being genuinely upsetting.  But I took Littell’s aesthetic innovation to be not only the flatness of his affective tone, but more significantly the length of it all.  Rich, in a comment to the previous post, raises the valid objection to a book like this:  ‘the rehearsal of banalities about the banality of evil.’ But—to distance myself from what I said a moment ago about holocaust-cliché—I don’t think Littell does expatiate upon the banality of evil.  Rather the impression of this section of his novel is on the monotony of evil.
A friend and colleague of mine (who has already read the novel) is an expert on the Holocaust (he is the author of this book) and from him I learn that a lot of Littell’s material here is recycled, sometimes minimally adapted, from the extensive literature on the topic; and much of this section does read as a slightly ostentatious display of detailed research.  But the thing that surprised me is how compelling a read it is, maugre all that.
Two more things:  one is that (my ears pricked up sharper than other peoples’ would, I daresay) I noticed allusions to SF.  Himmler addresses the SS with visions of the future: each soldier will ‘manage a great rich property’ on captured Russian and Ukrainian land: ‘the labour in the fields would be provided by Slav helots, and the Germans would limit themselves to administering … all these cities would be linked to the Reich by a network of highways and double-decker express trains … [the whole of the Crimea] would become a vacation and leisure territory, directly connected to Germany, via Brest-Litovsk, by an express.’ Aue notes: ‘to me the vision outlined evoked the fantastic utopias of a Jules Verne or an Edgar Rice Burroughs’ [133].  And later on, Aue has a feverish dream in which he is a Lovecraftian squid-monster (‘I was a great Squid God, and I was ruling over a beautiful walled city of water and white stone … I began to thrash violently, churning up the water of the centre with my tentacles’ 151).  I’m curious whether Littell does anything more with this Nazism-as-SF trope in the rest of the book.
I could add, I’m not convinced by the dream sequences, generally speaking.
The other thing is a strange interlude in which an elderly though very hale Georgian Jew (and by elderly I mean, somewhere between 120 and 140 years of age) comes specifically to Aue, telling him that he has seen where he (the Jew) is to be buried, and Aue must take him there.  This fellow, borm without a philtrum, claims to have had commerce with angels and to be able to see the future.  He leads Aue and his orderly high into the mountains, persuades the two Germans to dig a grave, and then stands there whilst Aue shoots him.  I wasn’t at all sure about this: the magical-realist aspect of it threw me, and it sorted ill (I felt) with the tone of the rest.  Maybe I’m missing something. [Original plus comments here]

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]