French History: Les Bienveillantes

Tobias Grey discusses the impact of a controversial historical novel that has become a literary sensation in France, and asks some French-based commentators and historians for their reactions.

'Imposteur …’ ‘genie …’ ‘farceur …’ Jonathan Littell attracts French epithets the way other writers do free lunches. Six months ago nobody in France had heard of this thirty-nine-year-old American-born novelist whose only previous literary output was a little read sci-fi novel written when he was twenty-two. Now his name and that of his novel Les Bien­veillantes (The Kindly Ones) – a Dante-esque plunge into the daily toil of an ideologically confused SS officer – is on everyone’s lips.

Over 900 pages long and full of unsettling descriptions of the Holo­caust, Les Bien­veillantes (the title of which refers to the Erinyes of Greek myth), has become an unlikely best­seller. It has already shifted well over 400,000 copies in France alone. An English trans­lation is planned for spring 2008.

Littell’s tale is told through the eyes of a cul­tured, homosexual senior SS officer, Maximilian Aue, part of an Einsatzgruppen serving on the Russian front, during the years 1941-44. Aue is eventually tasked with step­ping up the German war effort through increased Jewish labour, an under­taking which is doomed to failure. Along the way he runs into, and up against, Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess and, in the final pages, Hitler.

Littell takes his cue from Hannah Arendt by stressing the banality in his protag­onist’s make-up. ‘I am a man like anyone else,’ says Aue. ‘I am a man like you ...’ Later Aue remarks: ‘Like most people I did not ask to become an assassin. If I had had my way ... I would have gone into literature.’

‘I was thinking Les Bien­veillantes would sell between 3,000 and 5,000 copies,’ Littell told Le Monde in one of his rare interviews. ‘Gallimard [Littell’s French publisher] hoped for a bit more. I was very sceptical. Things turned out quite differently, it was totally unexpected.’

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