Spoiler alert and content warning: it is, literally, a 1,000 page (well, 975 page, plus a lengthy glossary) novel about the Nazis.
It took me a while to read The Kindly Ones. After reading the first 200 or so pages in a few days, I got a little daunted by the sheer scale of the thing, and escaped into the comforting world of less crushing fiction for a couple of months (Neuromancer by William Gibson, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which I'll be writing about in due course, The Children of Men by P.D. James and Accelerando by Charles Stross, all of which are brilliant and worth your time reading). I dragged myself back to Littell's edifice after finishing Accelerando and picked up where I left off, demolishing it in about a fortnight (I finished it two days before writing this).
Now, I am left with the unenviable, though admittedly self-imposed, task of trying to figure out exactly what to say about the bloody thing. I want to say that a novel that deals with the mentality of genocide and Nazism isn't a pleasant read, but Littell's lucid and deliberate style of writing gave the book a ghostly, harrowing beauty. His descriptions of a Europe ripping itself apart, of the ancient geology of the Caucasus, of the protagonist's, (eventual Obersturmbannfürher) Dr Maximilien Aue, longing not for death but for un-birth, are evocative, delicate, harsh and moving. I understand that it looses something in the translation from the original French, but being embarrassingly mono-linguistic, I'm probably not going to be able to experience it in its original form any time soon. Regardless, what we have here is certainly a masterpiece of modern literature, though it has some inevitable flaws that are hard, though not entirely impossible, to dismiss.
The novel is presented as the memoirs of Maximilien Aue, a doctor of law and an officer in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the 'Security Service,' the wing of the SS tasked with intelligence gathering. He is blisteringly intelligent, cultured, witty, at least bisexual, if not outright homosexual, with a notable exception we will come to later, the speaker of several languages and bearer of a knowledge of classical music and literature that I'd give my front-teeth for. He is also a dedicated National-Socialist. He isn't some street-thug lacking direction, who is impressed with uniforms and discipline, he is an intellectual Nazi, he believes in National-Socialism, he theorises about it, he reflects on its doctrines, on the relationship between races, the nature of racial hierarchy, the need for 'extreme measures' to be taken against malicious elements for the sake of Volk and Reich. He doesn't oversee mass-executions of Jews because he has fallen into Zimbardo's trap of uniforms and role-playing, he does it because he believes it ought to be done. He justifies his actions not be appealing to the hollow excuse of 'following orders,' but because he believes, genuinely believes, that what happened had to happen. He admits that, if possible, he'd rather not have had to arrange and deal with the systematic extermination of entire ethno-cultural groups, but he is doing his duty to the Volk and the Heimat.
One of the most disturbing sequences in the novel is a discussion that lasts pages and pages and pages about the fate of the Bergjuden, the Mountain Jews of the Caucasus, mostly in Azerbaijan and Dagestan. There is disagreement between the Wehrmacht and the SS about how to deal with them, as it is unclear whether or not they are ethnically Jewish, or if they are Caucasians who converted to Judaism but remained ethnically homogeneous with their non-Judaic neighbours. The SS, being more ideologically motivated than the Wehrmacht, are pushing for them to be treated like any other Jewish group, and exterminated. The Wehrmacht are resistant to this, not because of any particular feeling of sympathy towards the Bergjuden, but for simple Realpolitick: deploying against the Bergjuden would cause hostility from the other groups in the region, leading to support for the partisans. The horrible absurdity of this extended sequence is, of course, that these, for the most part, intelligent, rational and cultured individuals are having protracted discussion on the topics of history, linguistics and ethnography for the purpose of deciding whether or not to commit a genocide. The moral enormity of the question is ignored, utterly ignored, and treated with the same attitude that they would deploy when discussing troop movements or supply issues.
You might think that a novel that deals with the Holocaust from the perspective of its perpetrators, not its victims, would stray into either gratuitousness or clumsy edification, but Littell manages to avoid both these things. The first part of the novel deals extensively with the extermination of Jews and other 'undesirables' by the Einsatzgruppen in occupied Eastern Europe and Russia, and he deals with these scenes skilfully. His descriptions are not lurid, they are honest, stark, almost clinical, almost casual. He is not blind to the effect that the extermination had on its perpetrators. The grinding hideousness of carrying out such a task weighs heavily on Aue, even if he does view it as an unpleasant, though necessary, duty. This is not to say that the novel doesn't lapse into gratuitousness in other places...
Aue...is a pervert. There is little getting around that. As a child, he had an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, Una. Una, seemingly, has 'gotten over' it and has dismissed it as childish 'fooling around,' an ultimately innocent exploration of burgeoning sexuality. Maximilien, however, is still deeply sexually entranced by, and at least apparently in love with his sister. There are not exactly frequent, but certainly memorably...detailed descriptions of both memory and fantasy of this relationship which probably weren't always needed. It isn't that I object to it as a sub-plot, Littell is knowingly drawing on classical mythology's obsession with incest, but it didn't always feel necessary to have every single lavish description of illicit sex and inventive onanism that we are treated to. This being said, the whole novel is essentially a confession by Aue of his deeds and thoughts, so it does make sense that he would put a great deal of detail into assessing a relationship he views as the only really meaningful one of his life, but, without giving too much away: Jonathan, we didn't need to know what Max did with the sausage...
And then there's the shit. There is a lot of shit in this novel. Literal shit. Excrement. Scatology seems to be an obsession of Aue's, to such an enormous extent that I suspect that Littell intends Aue to be read as an archetypal 'anal retentive' case, in the Freudian sense. One must wonder how much this adds to the novel, though it does, I admit, grant it a realism one rarely comes across in media dealing with the war: I can't, off the top of my head, think of any war films which mention that the mixture of terror and malnourishment that fighting on the front lines entails leads to chronic diarrhoea (not to say that there aren't any, somewhere). The omnipresence of shit in the novel is truly extraordinary and unpleasant, which I imagine was Littell's point.
A final criticism of this otherwise outstanding novel: the extended coma-fantasy. Following what we learn later was a severe head wound, Aue leads the reader on a merry romp through the territories of Magical Realism, including an encounter with a French dirigible captained by the inexplicable Dr Sardine. The incest, the shit, I can cope with, I can just about justify, but I can think of no reason why this is in the novel at all. It was irritating and distracting and I was very glad when it ended. Maybe I'm missing something, but I suspect I'm not...
Ultimately, though, the novel is extraordinary.
I am not sure if I can justifiably recommend that you, dear reader, invest the time and energy that tackling such a beast of a novel requires (allow me to repeat myself: it is 1,000 pages of the Nazis), but it is certainly a bleak testament to Littell's ability as a writer, and as a historian. Reading this, one learns a lot about how bafflingly badly organised a great deal of the Third Reich was, especially thanks to the glossary at the back. Through the mouthpiece of Aue, we not only learn how Nazi Germany works, but we get a glimpse, more than a glimpse, in fact, of how someone who is clearly anything but stupid can come to believe in National-Socialism. He demonstrates how, if one grants it its initial assumptions (racial hierarchy, Volksgemeinschaft, the Fürherprinzip, the threat of Weltjudentum and other lies), one could come to think of an ideology as factually and morally bankrupt as Nazism as reasonable.
What Littell has done is explore a world-view that is utterly divorced from that of today. He has shown how one can come to believe in such things, and justify such outrages against humanity, and he has done it with a skilled hand, an eye for detail and astonishing ability to weave in moments of extreme beauty. A dark, haunting marvel of letters I won't forget in a hurry.