One evening in Berlin last month, a few hundred people gathered in the courtyard of the Zeughaus, the oldest building on Unter den Linden, the city's splendid boulevard. Over the past 400 years, the building has been an artillery arsenal for the Prussian army, a parade ground for Nazi propaganda, a commemorative site for Marxist-Leninist ideology and, now, a museum of German history. The baroque sculptures of dying figures that looked down from the top floor onto the white-tiled courtyard provided a suitable backdrop for the event, which was organized by the publisher of the German edition of "Les Bienveillantes" ("The Kindly Ones"). One of the most controversial books published in Europe in recent years, the novel describes the Nazis' murderous rampage in World War II from the point of view of an SS officer, in his voice. In a harrowing monologue of more than 900 pages, the officer Max Aue entwines the extermination of the Jews with incest, Fascism and homosexuality, and offers an imagined appalling glimpse into the entrails of the Third Reich. The audience at the museum had come to hear the man behind Aue, author Jonathan Littell.
Littell, 41, strode onto the low stage wearing the pale suit that has become a sort of trademark of his public appearances. The last time the American-European author was in Berlin, some three months ago, when the German edition was published, he wore a similar suit and a light scarf around his neck; he held a glass of whiskey and smoked a Dutch cigarillo. The German press called him a "dandy." This time, in a non-smoking space, Littell - who had arrived that afternoon from Barcelona, where he lives with his wife and two children - looked more like a serious young historian than an enigmatic writer. In his introduction, the museum's director noted that Hitler himself had stood on a similar platform to review military parades.
Littell smiled. The discussion that ensued, in which Littell spoke in French - he does not speak German - was held with a panel of two historians and a researcher of anti-Semitism. Littell rejected comparisons with Dostoevsky or Joyce. He shrugged his shoulders at questions about why his book concentrates so heavily on sex and homosexual fantasies, choosing to speak instead about historical theories and the work of Holocaust scholars. Clearly, Littell does not like to have interpretations foisted on his book or to talk about the personal motives that led him to write it over the course of a Moscow winter, by hand, in a single draft.
"Les Bienveillantes," Littell's first serious book (in 1989 he published what he calls an "amateurish" science fiction novel), sparked an immediate furor. Published in France in the summer of 2006, it became nothing short of a social phenomenon. Some critics hailed it as the "first masterpiece of the 21st century," others decried it as "the great hoax of the 21st century." Cultural supplements and magazines questioned whether it was an immature work, laden with cliches about homosexual Nazis, or a stupendous feat of the imagination that shows how easily an idealist can become a murderer in a society that forsakes its moral values. The novel was awarded France's most prestigious literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the French Academy's Grand Prix du Roman. The translation rights were sold in many countries. The Hebrew version was just released. (The English-language version is scheduled for publication in 2009).
Most of the German critics panned it. The French press did not hesitate to speculate that Littell was not the real author and that the narrator-protagonist was a real person. Littell was compared with Proust, Stendhal and Flaubert, and also with the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet - writers drawn to the portrayal of evil. The fact that the book was on the shortlist for the six most important literary prizes in France and became only the second book to win the Prix Goncourt and the French Academy prize simultaneously only intensified the hoopla.
Goncourt jury member Jorge Semprun, a Spanish writer who went into exile in France after the rise of the Franco regime, fought in the Resistance and was captured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, called "Les Bienveillantes" "the most important book" of the last half-century. In the next 20 years, he added, "every book about the Holocaust will be measured against Littell's work."
The publicity propelled sales to an astronomical 800,000 copies to date in France. (At one point the publisher, Gallimard, stopped printing the latest "Harry Potter" installment in order to meet the tremendous demand for Littell's novel.) Littell, who breached French tradition by hiring a literary agent to get him optimal terms, grew rich.
Critics were sharply divided from the outset, professing either unbridled admiration or outright abhorrence. "Never in the recent history of French literature has a novice author demonstrated such impressive ambitions and an ability to capture the details of history and to transmit the horror in tranquility," the critic of the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur wrote. Others extolled Littell's ability "to transform the normality of a totalitarian regime into a literary theme." At least four books have already been published in France about "Les Bienveillantes," and the debate over its quality and its significance continues there unabated.
The book's detractors can be divided into two principal groups. The first was critical of the historical research and the melding of fiction and reality on such a sensitive subject as the behavior and actions of the Nazis. The second questioned the legitimacy of attempting to enter the mind of the Nazi murderers and thus, unavoidably, to understand them, as well as the portrayal of the Holocaust as one instance, neither unique nor special, of a historical sequence of genocides. "Whenever Littell tries to go deeper than merely citing Nazi ranks and ideological concepts he loses all credibility," one German critic wrote. Moreover, this critic maintained, the descriptions of everyday life in Nazi Germany bear little resemblance to reality. A French critic reflected a widespread opinion when he concluded that the novel's protagonist is a "totally untenable" fusion of SS officer, homosexual, brother who desires his sister and son who fantasizes about his mother's murder.
The director Claude Lanzmann, whose nine-hour documentary "Shoah" Littell has cited as one of the catalysts for his writing of the book, was initially a fierce critic but his opposition softened after he met with Littell. In an interview published in Germany, Lanzmann managed to pay Littell a compliment (which was actually mostly self-complimentary): "Littell is very talented," he wrote. "I am familiar with his subject, and above all I was astounded by the absolute accuracy of the novel. Everything is correct. The names of the people and the names of the places. I told myself that the only two people capable of understanding the book from beginning to end are Raul Hilberg [the late American historian who wrote the magisterial "The Destruction of the European Jews"] and me." The book was published in Germany in February, amid a public relations frenzy that matched the one that had gripped France. The first 100 pages were published in installments in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (the German translation runs to 1,400 pages) and created a dedicated Web site on which experts responded to questions the book raises. Every day for two weeks running reviews by historians, Holocaust scholars and literary critics were published, most of them very negative. "Why should we read a book written by an educated idiot who writes badly, is haunted by sexual perversities and abandoned himself to racist ideology and an archaic belief in fate? I am afraid that I have yet to find the answer," Iris Radisch wrote in one of the most blistering reviews, in Die Zeit. This generally devastating reception may be why sales of the book in Germany were somewhat below expectations, though in recent weeks it reached number six on Der Spiegel's bestseller list.
The fact that Littell gave few interviews in the past year, and almost completely ignored "hostile" questions that asked him to explain the book, only fed the public debate.
"This is a pain in the ass for me more than anything," Littell said the day after the museum event, when we met in his hotel in the center of Berlin. "It's just weird. With all honesty, I can't understand how it became such a huge phenomenon, and actually it's stopping me from moving on with my life, from doing new things." After giving a few interviews to French and Spanish newspapers, Littell has now almost stopped talking to the press. "I did the best possible and I have no way of judging it myself," he says. "Now every kind of judgment is possible and there is no way of knowing. In 50 years, if they're still reading it, then I'll know it is a decent book."
The book begins: "My human brothers, let me tell you how it happened." Littell then proceeds to do just that, chronicling the imagined war exploits of SS Obersturmbannfuehrer (Lieutenant Colonel) Maximillian Aue, complete with graphic descriptions of the liquidation of the Jews in Polish and Ukrainian villages; the massacre at Babi Yar; the Russian front and the Battle of Stalingrad; occupied France and bombed-out Berlin. It is all evoked in vivid detail by Aue, who has survived the war and is writing in southern France.
In contrast, Aue's private life, in which he is passionately in love with his twin sister and has a complex relationship with his mother and with his SS colleagues, is marked by constant forgetting. During the war Aue meets historic figures such as Adolf Eichmann, with whom he conducts a discussion about Kant's categorical imperative; and even Hitler himself, whom he bites on the nose, hard enough to draw blood. But there are also imaginary characters. The characters and events merge into an historical representation of the Nazi regime, German culture and war-torn Europe.
Littell arrives for a meeting in the cafe outside his hotel in a light suit, beneath which is a black T-shirt with the words, in English, "I would prefer not to" emblazoned on it in white letters. This is only his third visit to Berlin, he relates, even though the city is the novel's central setting. The first time was for research. Now he sits facing the Gendarmenmarkt square and attempts to order a cortado, espresso with a little milk, drunk in Spanish-speaking countries. Two minutes later he is served a huge mug of hot milk with a little coffee. "Joder" ["Fuck," in Spanish], he says, "I cannot get that here." Perhaps not surprisingly, Littell sounds much coarser in English than in French.
He explains how he got the idea for the book: "I remember being fascinated with the Russian front when I was young, and then things came together with other experiences in my life. The original idea was to write about a German soldier in the fighting between Nazi Germany and Russia. It wasn't even about the Holocaust in the beginning. I knew it would be in the first person. When I started digging into it I was focused on the SS and on showing their side of things. The SS was of course engaged mainly in the extermination of Jews, so the book naturally went in that direction."
Yes, but this is one of the key questions. Why did you choose an SS officer as your protagonist? Why did you give "a voice to the perpetrators," as Lanzmann put it?
"In general I am much less interested in victims than I am in perpetrators. That's because they are the ones who are doing something and changing the reality. It's very easy to understand the victim: Something terrible happens to him and he reacts accordingly. But in terms of trying to understand something, there is nothing to examine. The perpetrator is more complicated to understand, along with the apparatus that activates him. By means of the attempt to give a voice to the perpetrator, lessons can be learned that will affect the way we look at the world today."
There have been other cases of genocide - why did you choose to deal with the Holocaust?
"The question I'm interested in is the question of state violence, mass societal violence, as opposed to individual criminal violence. The German case is the most extreme case of societal violence, so this is the most interesting. The focus is on the destruction of Jews because that is what they did."
In a way, Littell says, the starting point for the book was his asking himself how he would have behaved as a Nazi if he had been born in 1913. "So, in a way, Aue is a Nazi in the same way I would have been a Nazi - very honest, very sincere, dedicated and interested in examining the question of morality."
So the character is somehow based on you?
"Yes, okay. Fair enough."
Can you say 'Aue c'est moi'?
"You don't have to exaggerate. No, that would be reductive. Of course, in a way, I used elements of myself for the character."
One objection to the book is that it is filled with graphic descriptions of atrocities and is grossly obsessed, sometimes to the point of becoming pornographic, with sex, including incest.
"I have no clear explanation for that," Littell says, repeating his standard reply to this question.
Littell was born in 1967 in New York to a Jewish family. His father is Robert Littell, a well-known author of espionage thrillers focusing on the Soviet Union. (In 1998 he published a book-length question-and-answer session with Shimon Peres.) Littell says that his father talked about the Holocaust, "but not in an exceptional way." Most of his family on both sides immigrated to the United States from Russia in the late 19th century - the original family name was Lidsky - "so that I was not exposed to direct accounts."
When he was still an infant the family moved to France for an extended period. After obtaining his high-school matriculation in France, Littell returned to the U.S. to pursue his studies at Yale. In 1992, he relates, he decided to go to Bosnia because he was curious to see the war there first-hand and because he wanted to aid the victims. In Bosnia he began working for a French aid agency and spent the next ten years on emergency humanitarian missions across the globe. "I had great satisfaction from the work, because we engaged in immediate aid. One day you arrive in a village in Africa where 20 children had died of hunger, and within a week the number of deaths is down to four," he recalls. He visited villages in the Congo, Sierra Leone, Chechnya and throughout the Caucasus where starvation was rampant.
Did anything you saw and experienced in those places go into the book?
"In that period I did not deliberately collect and document material for a future novel," he says. "If anything from then went into the book, it is only memories." In 2001 he quit his regular job and began to do research, which would take a few years, for the book. In this period he also worked as a consultant to humanitarian organizations.
One major contemporary event that did leave a deep imprint was the Vietnam War.
"I am from a generation that was very marked by Vietnam. I was a very small boy but it was in the living room every goddamned day - much more than the Holocaust and Israel or anything else. We saw it on TV every day for my entire childhood. My childhood terror was that I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam and made to kill women and children who hadn't done anything to me. As a child there was always the possibility of being a potential perpetrator.
"Whereas my dad spent World War II trying to find something to eat in Brooklyn and thinking, 'if I was in Europe now, the Nazis would kill me.' So he looks at things from the point of view of the victim. It's a generational thing."
Would you define yourself as a Jew?
"Not at all."
Does your father define himself as a Jew?
"More than I do. I never went to synagogue regularly. In fact, I think I have been in more churches than synagogues. For me, Judaism is more a historical background. My father says you are a Jew because the people who want to murder you define you as such. Well, if someone wants to slit my throat because I am a Jew he is a raving idiot - that will not turn me into a Jew."
In the period your book covers, that approach definitely turned many people into Jews. How does that affect your views?
"My reading of what you call 'Holocaust' is also less Jewish and Judeo-centric than that of my father. I think that what happened was far broader than a narrow issue of 'Germans killing Jews.' The English word 'holocaust' is certainly the wrong term to describe what happened. It is a religious term, rife with non-historical meaning. I don't think the word 'shoah' is any better. It's a controversy among historians. Raul Hilberg described it as 'the destruction of European Jewry,' but he encountered criticism because that was also the Nazi terminology.
Ulrich Herbert calls it the 'National-Socialist extermination policy,' and I find that a far more accurate description because it also includes the extermination of the homosexuals, the Gypsies, the disabled and other minorities."
Indeed, according to Littell, the "National-Socialist extermination policy" was "only one of the several big genocides that have happened in human history."
But doesn't the unprovoked nature of the destruction of the Jews, the underlying ideology, the apparatus that was created to implement it, its scale, make it exceptional in human history?
"I personally understand the arguments for the exceptionality of the Holocaust, but I don't agree with them. The basic argument is that the Nazis wanted to kill all the Jews, but I don't see the difference between that and an extermination policy that was aimed - and implemented on a large scale - at groups such as the peasants in the Soviet Union or in Cambodia. Every genocide is exceptional."
Littell says that one of his aims is to show "how it happened." But he also wants to show that it is not just a problem between Germans and Jews. "If you reduce it to that, then everyone else can say, why should we care about it? That's what I find dangerous in the whole Jewish centeredness of the commemoration. It leaves many other victims outside the equation."
But the Nazi ideology was aimed explicitly at the Jews as a race.
"I think the extermination of the Jews is a universal problem, I think it concerns everyone. Beyond that, I think that today the issue is being used for political purposes in Israel." There was one event that "shocked me horribly," he relates. "I went to Birkenau and spent a couple of days there for the research. One day I was up in the tower over the entrance. Just then a few buses of Israeli kids - around 16, I think, schoolkids - arrived. I watched the whole thing and it was amazing. First they entered under the arch at the camp entrance. Then they unfold these huge Israeli flags. They march down to the end, where the gas chambers were, and stay there for three minutes - the teacher probably explained something about the place. Then they march back, waving their flags, and fold them again under the arch. The boys start smoking cigarettes and slapping the girls' asses, and then they leave. That ceremony has nothing to do with what actually happened in Auschwitz. It is more like, you know, 'Listen up, young future Israeli soldiers, this is why you are going to fight.' It is political, a mechanism. It has no connection to what actually happened. The Holocaust, I think, is being exploited politically, in a way that the Nazi extermination policy against other groups - Russians, homosexuals, Gypsies - is not."
Asked whether he thinks the Holocaust shapes Israeli actions today, he replies: "On the one hand, Israel is a country that underwent a serious trauma, and the Holocaust made it dramatically paranoid. But then there is also greed and land-grabbing and all that shit. That's just inexcusable. I'm sorry, but this cannot be excused by traumas that occurred 60 years ago."
He acknowledges that "there is clearly a raw nerve of fear," but adds immediately, "which I don't have. I don't feel fear. Bizarrely, Israel, which was created to be a safe haven for Jews, has become the most dangerous place in the world for the Jews. And has made it more dangerous to be a Jew in other countries, too."
Littell says Israel uses the Holocaust to justify "inexcusable" acts, by which he means the situation in the territories, and he likens the actions of the Israel Defense Forces to the behavior of the Nazis in the period before they came to power.
Would you really compare the two?
"No, we cannot compare: There is nothing like genocide in the territories, but they are doing absolutely atrocious things. If the government would let the soldiers do worse things, they would. Everyone says, 'Look how the Germans dealt with the Jews even before the Holocaust: cutting the beards, humiliating them in public, forcing them to clean the street.' That kind of stuff happens in the territories every day. Every goddamn day. And now they have this whole generation of mad Russians who don't care about anything and are very right-wing."
Most of what Littell knows about ongoing events in Israel comes mainly from "Red Cross worker types" with whom he is in contact. He last visited Israel, he says when asked, when he was eleven.
Does the fact that the book has now been published in a Hebrew translation in Israel hold any special meaning for you?
"I think the Israelis should take a better look at themselves. When they read a book like my book they shouldn't just look at the Jewish side of things. More pragmatically, what's important is to reach a certain level of understanding and apply it to what is happening now and maybe use that to correct things. Sitting around talking with historians about what happened 60 years ago is not very interesting if you don't apply it to what's happening today."
"Like how what the Americans are doing in Iraq is unacceptable. I'm not talking about the war but about torture and things like Abu Ghraib. Understanding the Germans of 60 years ago may make you feel that you're not that far from it, as Americans or as Israelis. So maybe it will be possible to enforce our social mechanisms to prevent our societies, at least, from going completely off the wall."
What should your Israeli readers do?
"I think the Israelis, instead of beating their breast, should take a long, hard look at what they are doing now. I am not saying that present-day Israeli society is comparable to Nazi society in World War II, but it is definitely one of the most crazed Western societies."
Are you proud of the book?
"That is a meaningless question."
Why? People feel pride.
"I don't know, at this point it's impossible to answer."
Is there a passage that you particularly like?
"I like the whole first part. The first paragraph is the same as I wrote it, except for the 'human brothers,' which originally was 'friends.' But that didn't work so well."
Now that you are famous are there any writers you would like to meet?
"No, most writers are totally uninteresting."
What about readers who would want to meet you or get to know about you?
Littell points to his T-shirt: "I would prefer not to."
"Look," Littell sums up, in a delayed response to the question of his motivation and perhaps that of his protagonist as well, "Life is a question of a search for meaning - what's it all about? Are we here to have fun? Make money? Have sex? No, clearly not. Then you have this whole religion thing. A lot of people find meaning in that - I don't. I adhere to a point of view that says our existence is completely meaningless and completely absurd, and all the horrible things we do to each other are completely unjustified. And anyway, we are going to die. So the question is how you get through life if you accept this approach as the fundamental parameter. Personally, I sometimes find it pretty amusing, but most times it's just grim. And I focus on the grim, because it's there." W