Jonathan Littell’s Syrian Notebooks is new in English translation (by Charlotte Mandell) from indie Verso. This one seems like a big departure from The Kindly Ones (which, uh, it should be), which I loved hating that I loved. Verso’s blurb:
A blistering firsthand account of the conflict in Homs by the internationally acclaimed author of The Kindly Ones
“We fight for our religion, for our women, for our land, and lastly to save our skin. As for them, they’re only fighting to save their skin.”
In 2012, Jonathan Littell traveled to the heart of the Syrian uprising, smuggled in by the Free Syrian Army to the historic city of Homs. For three weeks, he watched as neighborhoods were bombed and innocent civilians murdered. His notes on what he saw on the ground speak directly of horrors that continue today in the ongoing civil war.
Amid the chaos, Littell bears witness to the lives and the hopes of freedom fighters, of families caught within the conflict, as well as of the doctors who attempt to save both innocents and combatants who come under fire. As government forces encircle the city, Littell charts the first stirrings of the fundamentalist movement that would soon hijack the revolution.
Littell’s notebooks were originally the raw material for the articles he wrote upon his return for the French daily Le Monde. Published nearly immediately afterward in France, Syrian Notebooks has come to form an incomparable close-up account of a war that still grips the Middle East—a classic of war reportage.
The Fata Morgana Books collects four novellas from Jonathan Littell and is forthcoming from Two Line Press, a new indie specializing in publishing English language translations of some of the world’s best literature. Here is their blurb about The Fata Morgana Books, Littell’s follow up to The Kindly Ones:
Ranging from swimming pools to art galleries, from beds to battlefields, and a few mythical places, these novellas are narrated by hermaphrodites, ghosts, wanderers, and wonders. Littell here once again mixes his love of the grotesque with time-twisting narratives and ethereal protagonists. Like an Italo Calvino or a Clarice Lispector, Littell channels the emotions of loss and desire to illuminate the shadowy depths of solitude, reflection, longing, and lust.
With fleet prose and Proustian self-reflection, these stories range from chaotic airlifts to a series of bullfights under the hot sun, fatal negotiations resolved as mathematical equations, and the nine circles of Hell. Commanding and beguiling, The Fata Morgana Books rings with depth and mystery, always pushing through to explore the in-between spaces: between thoughts, between bodies, between hungers and their satisfactions, between eyes and the things they look at.
I was psyched to get a review copy of The Fata Morgana Books; Littell’s previous novel about an SS officer’s depraved undertakings, The Kindly Ones, stuck with me in a weird, gross, foul way. In my review I suggested that it was “a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon.”
I read the first novella in The Fata Morgana Books, Etudes, which is comprised of four stories that read like an overture for what will come. The first piece, “A Summer Sunday,” sets an unnerving and estranging tone, where pleasure seems to mingle with ennui and dread:
That Sunday, then, after the beer near the cemetery, I accompanied B. to meet our friend A. and we went out to lunch at a beautiful, somewhat isolated restaurant with a terrace only half enclosed, which allowed one to stay out in the open air without breaking police regulations too much. We ate slowly, all afternoon, lamb chops with an onion salad, and drank a bottle of red wine. Afterward, B. and I shared a cigar, too dry but a great pleasure nonetheless. Then we bought some cakes and went over for drinks on my balcony, opposite the cemetery, with the two towers at our feet. It wasn’t till the next day, reading the papers, that we realized just how bad the weekend had been. But the summer had been like that for six weeks already, and it seemed likely it would continue that way.
By “The Wait,” the next chapter of Etudes, we’ve descended into Littell’s abject terrain. More to come in a full review.
We often identify genre simply by its conventions and tropes, and, when October rolls round and we want scary stories, we look for vampires and haunted houses and psycho killers and such. And while there’s plenty of great stuff that adheres to the standard conventions of horror (Lovecraft and Poe come immediately to mind) let’s not overlook novels that offer horror just as keen as any genre exercise. Hence: Seven horror stories masquerading in other genres (and see our first post for more):
Oedipus Rex — Sophocles
Sure, Aristotle tells us that tragedy, by its very nature, must involve pity and terror, two emotions fundamental to horror as well. But the Oedipus story is so fundamental to our culture and its narratives that we easily overlook the plain fact that it is a horror story. Oedipus Rex begins with the attempted infanticide of the hero, including the brutal pinning of his feet, from which his name derives. Spared, Oedipus must endure the horrific uncertainty that he is not his parents’ natural son, a problem compounded when he learns from the Delphic oracle that he is predestined to kill his father and mate with his mother. You know what unfolds: a murder on the high road, a monster with riddles, a curse of famine, a horrible revelation, a suicide, and a bloody blinding.
Julius Caesar — William Shakespeare
History is its own horror show; Julius Caesar might be about the Roman Empire or the price of a republic, but it’s also very much a tale of paranoia, murder, and ghosts. Poor wavering Brutus recapitulates the crime of Oedipus when he stabs father-figure Brutus. The conspirators bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood, hoping to signal rebirth and shared responsibility, but the marking gestures are ultimately ambiguous. Great Caesar’s ghost will return, suicides will abound (Portia swallowing hot coals is particularly gruesome), and war will ravage the Republic.
“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” — Flannery O’Connor
This one may be a bit of a cheat, because I’m sure plenty of folks have the good sense to see “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” as the horror story it is. Still, O’Connor’s short masterpiece too often gets pushed into the “Southern Gothic” or even “Southern Grotesque” mini-genre, one which belies the story’s intense powers of horror. The intensity of “A Good Man” comes largely from its crystalline reality; half a century after its publication, the Misfit still has the power to shock readers (notice too that the Misfit’s first crime was again Oedipal—he was jailed for patricide). Here’s O’Connor on her story:
Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them. The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.
I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader . . .
The Kindly Ones — Jonathan Littell
Keeping our Oedipal theme alive is Littell’s enormous novel The Kindly Ones, a horror story masquerading as a historical epic. The Kindly Ones, taking its name from the Greek tragedy, is about an SS officer who carries out probably every taboo one can think of during WWII, including incest, patricide, fantasies of coprophilia and cannibalism, and child murder. Oh, and mass murder. Lots and lots of mass murder. In my review, I argued that, “This is a novel that might as well take place in the asshole,” and I stick by that.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” — Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wallpaper” has become a central text in feminist criticism for good reason. The story, told in first person POV, is a sad, scary descent into madness. And while it’s easy to point toward postpartum depression as the culprit, the story deserves a much more considered analysis, one which addresses the literal and metaphorical constraints placed upon the female body—a body that literary traditions have often tried to keep lying down (consider Sleeping Beauty, for example).
Steps — Jerzy Kosinski
Steps is an odd duck even for this list, because I’m not even sure if it’s ever been identified within a genre by any large group of readers. From my review:
At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Consider the vignette at the top of the review, which begins with an autophagous octopus and ends with a transvestite. In the world of Steps, these are not wacky or even grotesque details, trotted out for ironic bemusement; no, they’re grim bits of sadness and horror. At the outset of another vignette, a man is pinned down while his girlfriend is gang-raped. In time he begins to resent her, and then to treat her as an object–literally–forcing other objects upon her. The vignette ends at a drunken party with the girlfriend carried away by a half dozen party guests who will likely ravage her. The narrator simply leaves. Another scene illuminates the mind of an architect who designed concentration camps. “Rats have to be removed,” one speaker says to another. “Rats aren’t murdered–we get rid of them; or, to use a better word, they are eliminated; this act of elimination is empty of all meaning. There’s no ritual in it, no symbolism. That’s why in the concentration camps my friend designed, the victim never remained individuals; they became as identical as rats. They existed only to be killed.” In another vignette, a man discovers a woman locked in a metal cage inside a barn. He alerts the authorities, but only after a sinister thought — “It occurred to me that we were alone in the barn and that she was totally defenseless. . . . I thought there was something very tempting in this situation, where one could become completely oneself with another human being.” But the woman in the cage is insane; she can’t acknowledge the absolute identification that the narrator desires. These scenes of violence, control, power, and alienation repeat throughout Steps, all underpinned by the narrator’s extreme wish to connect and communicate with another. Even when he’s asphyxiating butterflies or throwing bottles at an old man, he wishes for some attainment of beauty, some conjunction of human understanding–even if its coded in fear and pain.
“The Shawl” — Cynthia Ozick
Ozick’s short story “The Shawl” is a study in desperation and fear, and while any hack can milk horror from a concentration camp setting and a sick child, Ozick’s psychological study of a mother and her children skewers any hope of a simple sympathetic reading. At its core, “The Shawl” is about the dramatic Darwinism that underpins our fragile bodies, a Darwinism that can, under the right circumstances, remove our humanity. I never want to read “The Shawl” again.
Like many readers of Leo Tolstoy’s final work, Hadji Murad, I read the novella based on Harold Bloom’s praise in his work The Western Canon, where he declares it “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read.” It wasn’t just Bloom’s praise that attracted me to Hadji Murad—I had just finished Jonathan Littell’s bizarre opus The Kindly Ones, which devotes a lengthy section to WWII’s Eastern front in the Caucus mountains; Littell’s chapter traces the fallout after decades of Russian incursions. Hadji Murad takes place in 1851 and 1852 as the Caucasian people resist the encroaching Russian Empire. Littell’s book piqued my curiosity about a part of the world that still seems strange and alien, a genuinely multicultural place that signals the traditional border of East and West.
I’ll also admit that I’ve never really read Tolstoy, and the prospect of beginning with a novella was intriguing.
Hadji Murad tells the story of the real-life Caucasian Avar general Hadji Murad who fought under Imam Shamil, the leader of the Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucuses; Shamil was Russia’s greatest foe. The story begins in media res as Hadji Murad and two of his lieutenants flee from Shamil’s camp. Because of a feud born from familial drama, Shamil decides that Hadji Murad must die. The Imam captures and imprisons the rebel’s family. Hadji Murad begins the process of going over to the Russians; he plans to defect and then head a Russian-backed army to defeat Shamil. This is the basic plot—I will spoil no more.
In his essay “Leo Tolstoy, Two Hussars” (collected in Why Read the Classics?), Italo Calvino suggests—
It is not easy to understand how Tolstoy constructs his narratives. What other fiction writers make explicit – symmetrical patterns, supporting structures, counterbalances, link sequences — all remain hidden in Tolstoy. But hidden does not mean non-existent: the impression Tolstoy conveys of transferring ‘life’ just as it is on to the page (‘life’, that mysterious entity to define which we have to start from the written page) is actually merely the result of his artistry, that is to say an artifice that is more sophisticated and complex than many others.
Although Calvino writes of Two Hussars, his remarks are equally true of Hadji Murad. Tolstoy’s radical realism at times so disorients that it becomes hard to pick up the themes of the novella. Tolstoy, the grand director, shifts the action from his hero Hadji Murad to train his camera on an apparently insignificant character—for example, Butler, a happy-go-lucky Russian soldier with a Romantic outlook and a gambling problem. Then Tolstoy might focus on Prince Vorontsov and his wife Maria, who command at the Russian fortress Vozdvizhenskaya. In a wonderful setpiece, Tolstoy shows us a state dinner bristling with gossip and mannered energy. In another section, Tolstoy lets his camera follow bulky Czar Nicholas I, a vain womanizer who cannot see how disconnected he is from his subjects. The Czar cannot fathom the visceral consequences of his decisions. Yet Tolstoy makes no effort to connect the bloodshed in a massacre of a Chechen village to the Czar’s ambivalence or the richness of the dinner party. These connections are left to the reader.
The novella is almost a puzzle: the chapters are distinct setpieces that the reader must connect in order to see a bigger picture. This analysis should not suggest, however, any murkiness or ambiguity in Tolstoy’s chapters (let alone sentences). Hadji Murad is lucid, clear, and very sober, even when it depicts violence, confusion, and drunkenness. As Calvino points out, Tolstoy’s art replicates the messiness of “real life” in a way that seems mimetically appropriate to “real life’s” complexity, and at the same time to allow the reader to intellectually engage the narrative. Calvino again—
That fullness of life which is so much praised in Tolstoy by experts on the author is in fact — in this tale as much as in the rest of his oeuvre — the acknowledgement of an absence. As in the most abstract of narrators, what counts in Tolstoy is what is not visible, not articulated, what could exist but does not.
Again, Hadji Murad should not be taken for a work of abstraction. It is crushingly literal and historically concrete. What Calvino refers to then is the abstraction of narrative construction, the apparent invisibility of motive and meaning. And this is why wise readers will enjoy Hadji Murad. It’s one of those texts that confronts its readers with a problem to puzzle out. It’s one of those books that one finishes, feels a little stunned—cheated even!—and then wakes up the next morning thinking about, possibly having dreamed about it that night. And what does one do then? Why, pick it up again of course. Highly recommended.
Yesterday, I finished listening to the unabridged audiobook version of Jonathan Littell’s 900+ page novel The Kindly Ones, the plot of which is too long and complex and detailed (and frankly, often boring) to unpack here. To make a very long story short (after which I’ll talk about the book’s scandalous and (deservedly) tawdry reputation), Maximilien Aue is an SS officer of mixed Franco-Germanic parentage, who, amazingly, seems to be present at an unlikely number of key events during WWII. These events include time at the eastern front, orchestrating mass killings in Ukraine and holing up during the battle of Stalingrad, where he gets shot through the head yet miraculously survives. After this, Aue convalesces in Berlin, and later visits his mother and stepfather in Antibes. He soon takes up the project of improving conditions for concentration camp prisoners, visiting camps like Auschwitz, all the while meeting and working with Nazi bigwigs like Albert Speer, Adolf Eichmann, and Heinrich Himmler. After an intense illness (the book is full of illness–more on that in a moment), Aue seeks his twin sister (uh, yeah, more on her shortly) at her husband’s house in Pomerania, where, finding her absent, he indulges in a psychotic wine-fueled masturbation binge (yes, more presently). The end of the novel ups the psycho-ante, detailing the last days of the Third Reich in Berlin, a period Littell depicts as dripping in decadent nastiness. Aue survives via murder murder murder.
This is a very brief outline of a very long book, the kind of book that dares to be important, and Littell surely knows his history. In fact, the book is often incredibly dry, dusty even, constipated by historical facts that Aue and other characters frequently reveal in long, clunky passages of exposition. Indeed, one of the great weaknesses of The Kindly Ones is Littell’s tendency to use his characters as mouthpieces, little pawns who will discourse on politics or linguistics or music or whatever for a few pages. At the same time, it’s clear that Littell wants certain passages to bore the reader. A lengthy episode in the Ukraine concerns the fate of a group of Caucus mountain people of whom the SS wish to determine a “racial origin.” Littell presents the process of deciding whether or not these people should be exterminated or not in excruciatingly bureaucratic (bureaucratically excruciating?) detail. One of the novel’s core points is an observation of the Nazi Reich as a lurching machine, a sick machine whose various limbs were often at bureaucratic war with each other.
If The Kindly Ones is often dry, its wetness is all the more foul. This is a novel that might as well take place in the asshole, or at least the colon. Our hero (?!) Aue spends much of his time describing his alternate diarrhea and vomiting; indeed, emetic purging seems to be his only form of absolution from the constant sin he’s wallowing in. It’s as if the entire Nazi project—its racial purging, its mass murder, its bureaucratic domination, its lies that were obvious to any person with eyes—is a constant stream of shit and vomit that Aue is forced to (yet unable to) process. The Nazis worked to elevate their unnatural sins to a kind of weltanschauung, yet Aue is unable to reconcile this world view with the visceral reality of the organized mass murder he daily helps orchestrate. This hardly absolves him; indeed, Aue seems to engage in every perversion and sin imaginable as a means to release the metaphysical pressure valve that’s pushing down on him all the time.
And this is the core of The Kindly Ones, and certainly why the novel is so infamous. The Nazis were an abject regime, a force that sought to “cleanse” Europe and the world of a perceived filth, and set about doing so in the most paradoxical way imaginable—by engaging in genocide, the worst kind of moral filth. Littell’s novel explores the bureaucratic nature of these abject sins in detail, but Aue is the very (tortured) soul of abjection. He is a paradoxical figure, a “true” SS party member who nevertheless idealizes Greek culture—an ironic twist, given the book’s title, a not-so-subtle nod to Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Quick warning: spoilers ahead—although, given Littell’s potboileresque structure, you’d have to be a blind Oedipus to miss these twists.
Yes, young Max Aue is a thoroughly Greek figure. He’s a homosexual who longs to be a woman so he can feel the “pleasure” that only women can feel, yet he’s obsessively in love with his twin sister, whom he buggered regularly in their pre-teen days (and perhaps a few times afterwards). He fights Nazi bureaucracy to improve the living conditions of doomed concentration camp victims, yet he periodically murders the people around him, for no discernible reason. He delights in his own illnesses, his own filth and shit. He facilitates child murder. He fantasizes about coprophagiac feasts, sticks bottles up his ass while wet-daydreaming about Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, and pays starving boys a few marks for a dirty fuck. And, like Orestes, pursued by the Furies, he kills his mother and step-father. The novel’s greatest concession to Greekness is its reveling in horror, horror, horror.
The Kindly Ones is a bizarre book, one that asks its readers to sympathize with the lowest of low-lifes, and yet somehow nevertheless succeeds, at least in a marginal sense. Littell requires tremendous patience from his readers—and strong stomachs as well, perhaps. In short, I don’t know who The Kindly Ones is for. It’s a bit of a potboiler, yet hardly a genre novel, and certainly not the kind of thing most people would want to read on the beach. I’m not sure if most folks who read historical WWII fiction want theirs served up with so much psycho sickness. To call The Kindly Ones an oddity is an understatement. There are stunning (and I don’t use that word loosely here) passages in the book, moments of overwhelming psychosis, dream sequences that might match the verity of war, including its utter spiritual despair. There’s also a fine tawdriness to The Kindly Ones, an overwhelming sense of the lurid and grotesque, overcompensated, as I mentioned earlier, with the dry crust of historical detail. The result is messy and brutal and uneven, but nonetheless compelling, like a foul, open wound that attracts even as it repels.
I’ve been listening to an audiobook of Jonathan Littell’s strange novel about an SS officer, The Kindly Ones, and this passage made me dig out my paperback copy in order to share the weirdness—
Finally I dozed off and had a strange, striking dream. Now I was a great Squid God, and I was ruling over a beautiful walled city of water and white stone. The center, especially, was all water, and tall buildings rose up all around. My city was peopled with humans who worshipped me. I had delegated part of my power and authority to one of them, my Servant. But one day I decided I wanted all these humans out of my city, at least for a while. The order went out, propagated by my Servant, and immediately droves of humans started fleeing out the gates of the city, to wait in hovels and shantytowns out in the desert beyond the walls. But they didn’t leave fast enough to my liking, and I began to thrash violently, churning back up the water of the center with my tentacles, then coiling them back and bearing down on swarms of terrible humans, lashing out and roaring with my terrible voice: Out! Out! Out!” My Servant ran frantically about, commanded, guided, prompted the sluggish, and in this way the city emptied out. But in the buildings closest to the walls and farthest from the water where I was giving vent to my divine rage, some groups of humans were not heeding my commands. These were foreigners, not really aware of my existence, of my power over this city. They had heard the evacuation orders, but thought them ridiculous and were ignoring them. My Servant had gone to see these groups one after another, to convince them diplomatically to leave: such as this conference of Finnish officers, who protested that they had rented teh hotel and conference room and paid in advance, and wouldn’t leave just like that. With them, my Servant had to lie skillfully, explaining for instance that there was an alert, a grave security problem, and that they had to evacuate for their own safety. I found this deeply humiliating, since the real reason was my Will; they were supposed to leave just because I wanted it, not because they were coaxed. My rage increased. I thrashed about and roared more violently than ever, sending great waves crashing through the city.
I went to my favorite local bookstore this afternoon and for reasons beyond me I was compelled to pick up Jonathan Littell’s divisive 2009 novel The Kindly Ones, a massive tome running to almost 1000 pages in its trade paperback edition. Okay. The reasons I bought it are not completely beyond me: they mostly stem from Paul La Farge’s essay “A Scanner Darkly,” published in the May, 2009 issue of The Believer. Previous Believer feature essays have led to me picking up excellent books by writers I’d never heard of, including 2666 and The Rings of Saturn. Anyway, the book is massive, and I don’t really have time to read it any time soon. There is a hobbit-sized stack of review copies lingering by my nightstand, more arriving all the time, not to mention the books I habitually pick up weekly. Which, more often than not, tend to be pretty big like, uh, The Kindly Ones.
Why is this? Why the attraction to big books? In his essay included at the end of Bolaño’s 2666, Ignacio Echevarría cites a passage from the book where literature professor Amalfitano wonders that:
Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.
The “bookish pharmacist” in question has explained that he favors the preciseness of “Bartleby” over Moby-Dick, the polish of The Metamorphosis over The Trial. Amalfitano, Bolaño’s stand-in, points out that it takes “the great, imperfect, torrential works” to “blaze paths into the unknown.” Put another way, the masters need space; space to overflow, make errors, experiment, joust with other masters, play in and with time. Obviously, the passage (as Echevarría and a million other critics have noted) is a defense for the sprawl of 2666 itself, but I think it speaks to why many readers are drawn to the big books. They can be ragged and overflowing but they also have more room to take the measure of spirit, soul, life. They can evoke this world and others. They can be grand.
Not to say that the smaller books can’t do this in turn. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Sonis masterful in its precision and humor. But Tree of Smokeis the better book. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest trumps everything else the man wrote. White Noise is more manageable than (and perhaps superior to) Underworld, but the bigger book allows Don DeLillothe space he needs to explore so much of American history and American psyche. And these are just contemporary examples. There’s James Joyce and Marcel Proust, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Sterne. Cervantes. Supply your own names.
But I also love novellas and those long short stories of strange size like Joyce’s “The Dead” or, yes, “Bartleby” (sidebar: Really, what is “Bartleby”? A long short story? A short novella? What is it?). There’s something pure and refreshing about them, especially when consumed quickly, especially when consumed between a few of those long books. And a confession: I love it when review copies come in that hover around 200 pages, particularly when the novel is the writer’s first or second. There’s a glut, a horrendous, miserable glut, of first-time novelists who feel they must say everything about everything in 380 or 450 or, God forbid, 500+ pages. It’s really too much. I suppose the rule, if there has to be a rule (there doesn’t) is impossibly simple (and perhaps just impossible): if you’re going to write a really, really big book, make sure it’s addictive, compulsive reading. I’m not sure if The Kindly Ones is great art or a potboiler posing as art, but I am pretty certain that its length alone, for whatever reason, is part of its attraction.