Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones sold a million copies in Europe, said Sara Nelson in The Wall Street Journal, and its publication in English has spurred an attention-grabbing battle of reviews. But could a button-pushing, 1,000-page French tome about the Holocaust be a hit here? I doubt it. Littell’s “pretensions to art” are unconvincing, and his narrator, a remorseless SS officer looking back on the Nazi atrocities, mostly seems intent on rubbing readers’ faces in them.
The Kindly Ones is literarily unsophisticated and often “pointlessly” depraved, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. It turns out that the protagonist has sodomized his twin sister, and himself, and also may have murdered his mother and stepfather. He indifferently records “an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed, or stuffed in ovens,” even as the narration crosscuts frequently to “an equally endless succession of scenes” chronicling his “incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.” The narrator repeatedly tells us he’s just like you or me, said David Gates, also in the Times. But he’s “simply too much of a freak” to take seriously. Though Littell’s book often seems “willfully weird,” the effect is so erratic that you can’t ever be sure he “knows what he’s doing.”
The French weren’t nuts to award Littell their nation’s top literary prize, said James Lasdun in the London Guardian. The abiding sense he creates that there was “something pornographic about the whole enterprise” of Nazi Europe is “calculated—cleverly, horribly”—to generate disgust. And much can be lost in the translation, said Jason Burke in the London Observer. In the original French, the novel is far more “precise, ironic,” and “intellectually playful.” Even if the translator’s to blame, there’s something deeply wrong with this book, said Jeffrey Burke in Bloomberg.com. When the narrator, at one point, reminded me that I had the power of “closing the book and throwing it in the trash,” I struggled to not follow through on the hint.