?From the great beyond into the present? ? an interview with Jo Lendle

Hanser publisher Jo Lendle talks about gentle adjustments of languages and marketing strategies.... more more

GoetheInstitute

13/03/2008

Rationalising the irrational

The German translation of Jonathan Littell's corpse-littered SS novel, "Les Bienveillantes," has had the feuilletons tripping over one other to tear it apart. Here are just a few of the charges leveled.

Die Zeit 14.02.2008

"Littell favours, as he informed Pierre Nora, a 'structuralist' or 'functionalist' observation of Nazism, which also abandons the question of individual responsibility as a 'return to standard narration'. The problem of extermination, he says, is best universalised or 'de-judaised'. Herein lies the novel's core paradox," writes literary critic Irish Radisch: "If author and narrator believe that the individual and his inner world is irrelevant to the explanation of the German crime, then a novel which entrusts itself entirely to this personal interior perspective is pointless. His book should contain structural connections, functional processes and document examination, not soul searching. But Littell cannot decide between the two (which is why his novel is so bloated) and he never manages to convincingly combine the two. Shoving the perpetrator into the centre, boosting him intellectually and at the same time showing his innocence in the ancient sense of the world: this is the stuff of legends. This is over-inflating the perpetrator like a kidnap victim with a bad case of Stockholm syndrome. It's verging on heroic saga. But why on earth would we want a Nazi hero now?"

And for social psychologist and memory researcher Harald Welzer: "In the overwhelming tension between the novel's conspicuously absent quality and the hype surrounding it, Littell's "Les Bienveillantes" ("The Kindly Ones") represents a new level in Nazi fascination, it is a heady cocktail of facts, violent pornography and upright, educated citizen in the form of the protagonist Aue. This mixture does nothing but affirm the horror," writes Harald Welzer, "and the only interesting thing about it is that Littell has not delivered a novel in the classic sense, but an unending narrative of things he presumably believes are facts. (...) Nothing in this book provides anything new, either in terms of style or content. His image of the perpetrator preserves the character of abnormality so painstakingly deconstructed by research, and this is why at the end Aue has to bite the Führer's nose. The Holocaust as a panopticum of folly? Debate in this country progressed beyond this point long ago."


Neue Zürcher Zeitung 23.02.2008

"Perpetrator research, as pursued by historians such as Ulrich Herbert and Michael Wildt over the past decade has provided us with a much deeper and nuanced understanding of the executors the Nazi genocide," writes historian Christoph Jahr. "Its just lazy thinking to picture the murderers as failed desperadoes on the margins of society. The four-hundred or so members of the inner circle of the Reich Security Central Office, the terror centre of the Nazi state, were mostly young, educated men with bourgeois backgrounds who combined a radical world view of the world with an eagerness to act. Max Aue, doctor of law, fits this image in many respects, although he has been exaggerated into an ideal. But Littell is way behind in his perpetrator research. His protagonist, a fascinating black demon who converses with friend and foe in Ancient Greek while confidently pacing through the history of western philosophy and is equally at home talking about music and art, has nothing to do with your average mortal. Aue is world away from the 'normal men' who carried out the Holocaust as Christopher Browning described with such precision."


Berliner Zeitung
22.02.2008

"Why has Jonathan Littell's novel 'Les Bienveillantes' provoked so much meaningful murmuring," asks Burkhard Scherer. "Two suspicions spring to mind: Corpse-filled literature tends to provoke a sort of knee-jerk reverence as if criticism would interrupt the peace of the dead; and secondly, there is the aspect of intimidation prose, the sort that is peppered with sensitive particles of learning and woe betide anyone who stumbles past one of them and misses the whole point. I will quote from one of the early-bird reviews from the German-language quality feuilletons: 'After my first reading, I didn't trust myself to say with certainty whether or not everything was connected at a still deeper level. After reading further, this reporter can confidently say, in the words of the poet Robert Gernhardt [sadly non-rhyming in translation -ed] "My God this is rich in associations! I think I'm going to be sick.'"


Frankfurter Rundschau
22.02.2008

Inspired by the criticism (see our feature "Evil Dead") leveled by Georg Klein that the book lacks the 'style of evil', Ina Hartwig compares Littell with the French poetes maudits. "In the writings of de Sade and Bataille murder itself is linked with lust. And lust - this would be one of the criteria for 'the style of evil' – becomes the ruling principle. But even in moments when his drives kick in, Littell's hero Max Aue is still himself. In full control and with a morceau of self irony, he concludes: 'And so I decided, my arse full of sperm, to join the secret police.' Morality is not warped into amorality, but the ruling criminal law is deceived, outwitted."


Der Tagesspiegel 16.02.2008

Gregor Dotzauer emphatically rejects the claim that Jonathan Littell's novel is "singular in its imagining of the madness of National Socialism from the perpetrator perspective." "The lucid sobriety of Primo Levi's Auschwitz reports and essays was an unswerving attempt to do precisely this, and the fact that it failed time after time is the crux of its enduring truth. Levi's rationalising of the irrational differs fundamentally from Littell's. For one thing Littell constantly fences in Aue's boundary-hopping morality with dusty old perversion patterns from the psychoanalytical attic. And for another, he allows his first-person narrator no time to think about all the shooting, hanging and beating that he constantly encounters."


Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 24.02.2008

Writer and cultural scientist Klaus Theweleit devotes an entire page of the FAZ on Sunday to venting his anger at the book's critics. One thing he cannot understand are the accusations that the novel is badly written. "I mean what were people expecting? Something written with Thomas Mannian distance? Literary polish? Precisely that would have been a crime. I expected something dreadful and got something dreadful. It took me 700 pages to realise that this is the only way it can work: with this way of writing, in this pseudo intellectual style which (supposedly) separates Dr. Max Aue from the average SS brute, because – and you only need to hear Himmler's Posener speech from October 1943 to understand: this linguistic conglomeration which Jonathan Littell creates – which does and must pain the reader – hits the nail right on the head."

Get the signandsight newsletter for regular updates on feature articles.
signandsight.com - let's talk european.

 
More articles

No one is indestructible

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TeaserPicA precision engineer of the emotions, Peter Nadas traces the European upheavals of the past century in his colossal and epic novel "Parallel Stories", which was published in English in December. The core and epicentre of the novel is the body, which bears the marks of history and trauma. In his seemingly chaotic intertwining of lives and stories, Nadas penetrates the depths of the human animal with unique insight. A review by Joachim Sartorius
read more

Road tripping across the ideological divide

Wednesday 1 February, 2012

TeaserPicThe USA and the USSR should not simply be thought of as arch enemies of the Cold War. Beyond ideology, the two nations were deeply interested in one another. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov were thrilled by the American Way of Life in 1935/6, John Steinbeck and Robert Capa praised the sheer vitality of the Russian people in 1947. Historian Karl Schlögel reviews a perfect pair of travel journals. Photo by Ilf and Petrov.
read more

Language without a childhood

Monday 23 January 2012

TeaserPicTurkish-born author, actor and director Emine Sevgi Özdamar was recently awarded the Alice Salomon Prize for Poetics. Coming to West Berlin in 1965, Özdamar first learned German at the age of 19. After stage school she went on to become the directorial assistant to Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff at the Volksbühne in East Berlin while still living in West Berlin. Harald Jähner warmly lauds the author's uniquely visual sense of her acquired language and her ability to overcome the seemingly insurmountable dividing line through the city.
read more

Friendship in the time of terror

Monday 9 January 2012

Nadezhda Mandelstam's personal memories of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, her intimate friend, offer a unique and moving testimony to friendship and resistance over decades of persecution. Published only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the text is still unavailable in English but has recently been translated into German. A unique historical document, celebrating an intellectual icon in an age of horror. Portrait of Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.
read more

Just one drop of forgetfulness

Thursday 8 December, 2011

TeaserPicThis year is the 200th anniversary of the death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.
read more

German Book Prize 2011 - the short list

Tuesday 4 October, 2011

TeaserPicEugen Ruge has won the German Book Prize with his novel "In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts" (In times of fading light), an autobiographical story of an East German family. The award is presented to the best German-language novel just before the start of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here we present this year's six shortlisted authors and exclusive English translations of excerpts from their novels.

read more

Torment and blessing

Wednesday 28 September, 2011

Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu escaped into exile in Germany in July this year. His new book about his life in Chongqing prison has just been published in German as "Für Ein Lied und Hundert Lieder". Both book and author have a life-threatening odyssey behind them. I am overjoyed that Liao Yiwu is here with us and not at home in prison. By Herta Müller
read more

In the vortex of congealed time

Monday 12 September, 2011

No other European city suffered more in World War II than Leningrad under siege, when over a million people lost their lives. Russian literature delivers a rich testimony of the events which have been all but forgotten by the West. Only a few works, though, also do the disaster aesthetic justice. By Oleg Yuriev
read more

My unrelenting vice

Tuesday 6 September 2011

In this apology for the vice of reading, Bora Cosic describes the magnificent and fantastic discoveries of one of its practitioners – revealing how texts contain what we bring to them, how we sometimes read without reading and how books are not only found in books but many other places. 
read more

Potential market, no buyers

Monday 4 July, 2011

The most successful Croatian book of 2008 sold exactly 1,904 copies. Not what one could really call a market, although together the successor republics represent a single language community. A look at the situation of publishers and authors in the former Yugoslavia. By Norbert Mappes-Niediek.
read more

Head versus hand

Monday 27 June, 2011

TeaserPicThis year's German International Literature Award goes to "Venushaar", a Russian novel that starts out as a dialogue between an asylum seeker and an immigration officer, and opens into a vast choir of voices. A conversation with its author Mikhail Shishkin, a literary giant in his own country, and his German translator Andreas Tretner. By Ekkehard Knörer. (Image: Mikhail Shishkin © Yvonne Böhler)
read more

Cry for life

Monday 20 May, 2011

Algeria's youth: Frustrated, isolated and in the stranglehold of clandestine political structures. Young Algerians are rebelling against being locked in traditional political and social structures, but have no chance of a national uprising like that in Tunisia, says Algerian author Boualem Sansal. An interview with Reiner Wandler.
read more

Witness to intellectual suicide

Tuesday 3 May, 2011

TeaserPicOn what would have been Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran's 100th birthday, Suhrkamp has published a volume of his essays from the 1930s, "Über Deutschland". Effervescing with enthusiasm for Hitler and fascist ideas, they cast a dark shadow over his later writing. Fritz Raddatz wishes he'd never had to read such abominations and bids a former companion a bitter farewell. Photo: E.M. Cioran © Surhrkamp Verlag
read more

RIP Andre Müller

Wednesday 13 April, 2011

TeaserPicAndre Müller Germany's most insightful and most feared interviewer is dead. Elfriede Jelinek said of him in her obituary: "Andre Müller goes all the way into people and then he makes them into language, and only then do they become themselves." Read his interviews with Ingmar Bergman and Hitler's sculptor Arno Breker in English. Photo courtesy Bibliothek der Provinz
read more

A country on the edge of time

Monday 4 April, 2011

TeaserPicSerbia was the country in focus at this year's Leipzig Book Fair – its extensive literature seems to be bound up in the straitjacket of politics. Serbia is having a hard time with Europe, and Europe is having a hard time with Serbia. Although there are signs of a softening stance, the country is still locked up in the self-imposed nationalist isolation into which it manoeuvred itself as the aggressor in the Yugoslavian war of secession. A visit there inspires mixed feelings. By Jörg Plath
Photo: Sreten Ugricic
read more