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.
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.