Alan Furst’s Mission to Paris is new in trade paperback this month. Publisher Random House’s blurb:
Late summer, 1938. Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl is on his way to Paris to make a movie. The Nazis know he’s coming—a secret bureau within the Reich has been waging political warfare against France, and for their purposes, Fredric Stahl is a perfect agent of influence. What they don’t know is that Stahl, horrified by the Nazi war on Jews and intellectuals, has become part of an informal spy service run out of the American embassy. Mission to Paris is filled with heart-stopping tension, beautifully drawn scenes of romance, and extraordinarily alive characters: foreign assassins; a glamorous Russian actress-turned-spy; and the women in Stahl’s life. At the center of the novel is the city of Paris—its bistros, hotels grand and anonymous, and the Parisians, living every night as though it were their last. Alan Furst brings to life both a dark time in history and the passion of the human hearts that fought to survive it.
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.
Timothy Snyder’s monumental new history Bloodlands is a staggering work of scholarship. Using primary sources written in at least ten languages, Snyder documents the nightmarish history of that portion of eastern Europe that stretches from Poland north to St. Petersburg and sweeps southwest to the point where Ukraine runs into the Black Sea. In these places, the titular bloodlands, the policies of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin converged to kill approximately 14 million people in less than a quarter of a century. Snyder postulates that the eradication of such large numbers of human beings was possible because National Socialism was the perfect foil to Soviet Communism, and vice versa, and because each system allowed totalitarian one-party states to deflect blame for their respective failings onto the other, or onto large groups of relatively powerless national, ethnic, or religious minorities. Rectifying problems required starving, shooting, gassing, or otherwise disappearing hundreds of thousands of the people who inhabited these regions and who had no intention or ability to subvert whichever ruling regime claimed them as subjects at any particular moment. The particular atrocities committed in these areas were largely overlooked in the West at the close of World War II as these victims and their memories disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.
The book begins not in 1941 when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union but a decade earlier. After Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin found himself at the head of the Soviet Union’s security forces as well its sole ruling party. When he recognized that revolutions were not about to sweep over the rest of capitalist Europe, Stalin prioritized ensuring that the U.S.S.R. remained a strong Communist nation and a beacon of hope to committed Marxists across the world. Despite the Communist ethos that capitalist excess would be negated by exploited industrial workers in urban environments, the Bolshevik Revolution had taken place in one of Europe’s most diverse and rural populations. When Stalin took it upon himself to collectivize Soviet agriculture, disaster struck in the Ukraine and Bloodlands’ long and nuanced chronicle of paranoia and death properly begins.
The famine in the Soviet Union’s most fertile land, the Ukraine, caused at least 3 million people to starve in the early part of the 1930s. After the seed needed to plant next year’s crop was requisitioned for the collective, nothing remained to eat and there was no future to look forward to, either. People died where they fell, women prostituted themselves for bread, parents gave their children away to strangers, and villages ceased to exist. Fires in chimneys marked the presence of cannibals. Snyder writes–
In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before. In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them. They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth.
In order to ensure their own corporeal and political survival, the Soviet leadership responsible for collecting the harvest had to steal whatever they could from the hungry.
And so it continued. Hitler rose to power partially on the basis of his powerful condemnation of the popular German Communist parties, and used the famine in the U.S.S.R. to bolster arguments that doomed the opposition to his left and center. Although Stalin argued that all the excesses of capitalism could be seen in the racist and nationalistic rhetoric spewing from the Nazis, these two nations signed a non-aggression pact and started the war in 1939 when they jointly invaded Poland. The Soviet reign of terror commenced and the secret police killed and deported hundreds of thousands of class enemies and nationalists in Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states. The Germans and the Soviets began to move Poles out of their homes. The Germans designed policies meant to kill educated Poles in order to create a population amenable to slavery. The Soviets killed Polish military officers who were capable of leading uprisings against their new rulers. Both nations instituted their first policies of mass shootings contemporaneously.
When Hitler disregarded the treaty and invaded the Soviet Union (which now included the portions of Poland both nations had agreed to share), already vulnerable populations were decimated. Nazism required that a superior race must take what it needed without regard to rule of law or human empathy. Advancing German forces who came upon obvious signs of recent brutality by the retreating secret police forces of the U.S.S.R. and the Red Army saw “a confirmation of what that had been trained to see: Soviet criminality, supposedly steered by and for the benefit of Jews.” Hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war were condemned to die of starvation and exposure in makeshift camps. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring implemented a Hunger Plan, which, although unsuccessful, aimed to “transform eastern Europe into an exterminatory agrarian colony” by purposefully starving its inhabitants or deporting them to Siberia. The German plan to achieve victory in Leningrad involved cutting off food supplies to the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants and covering all possible escape routes with landmines which would eliminate potential evacuees. Even before the German security forces began purposefully destroying Jewish populations, a culture of cruelty and privation had been foisted upon innocent civilian populations.
The Jewish populations of cities and regions that had housed their families and their cultures for centuries were then systematically and brutally annihilated. Snyder argues that Western minds have processed the Holocaust in a certain manner because in our history, the accounts of the soldiers who liberated camps in conquered lands to the south and west of the Reich predominate. We have been privileged to hear the stories of survivors from the camps at Auschwitz like Primo Levy and Elie Wiesel, but Snyder points out that the labor and death camps at Auschwitz did not come on-line until near the end of the war and most of those sentenced to labor or die there were brought from German holdings in western Europe. Bloodlands is important because it documents that most of the horrors of the Holocaust were committed in the east. 69,750 of Latvia’s 80,000 Jewish citizens were killed by the end of 1941 by bullets. With the help of Lithuanian conscripts and rifles, the Germans killed at least 114,000 of that nation’s 200,000 Jewish citizens. Estonian volunteers for the S.S. killed all 963 Estonian Jews that could be found. Himmler’s security forces were supposed to “pacify” annexed territories. In Kiev, 33,761 human beings were killed in little more than a day by the concerted efforts of S.S. commandos and conscripted local forces as part of a sustained effort to eradicate Ukrainian Jews. Snyder continues–
Having surrendered their valuables and documents, people were forced to strip naked. Then they were driven by threats or by shots fired overhead, in groups of about ten, to the edge of a ravine known as Babi Yar. Many of them were beaten . . . They had to lie down on their stomachs on the corpses already beneath them, and wait for the shots to come from above and behind. Then would come the next group. Jews came and died for thirty-six hours.
The ghettos were in the east as were the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. By invading Poland and the Soviet Union, Hitler conquered the nations with the largest Jewish populations on the planet, and when it became evident that the German army, like Napoleon’s previously, were unable to conquer Moscow and the icy Russian plains, the death camps were opened with the express purpose to kill massive numbers of people in the shortest period of time. Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were well-engineered for their horrible purpose of killing those who remained behind.
Snyder asks the readers to remember that the lives he documents died because of policies that existed in the Soviet Union and Nazi German that promoted and committed deliberate mass murder. The act of recording and remembering must be initiated where evidence is so easy to destroy or manipulate. People complicit in the murder of their neighbors will attempt to mitigate their shame. Even those with no connection to such events would probably rather think of something more pleasant. Where the Nazis razed the Warsaw ghetto and dismantled the death camp at Treblinka in a matter of hours, Stalin purposefully changed the course of the historical discussion in the U.S.S.R. in order to promote nationalism. The suffering of Jews and other innocents was sublimated to the overall suffering of the Soviet (mostly Russian) population.
14 million people. Farmers, prisoners, gypsies, peasants, freedom fighters, and the unlucky. Wives, fathers, and children. Everyone died to placate ideologies that a great number of people of good conscience did not discount at the time. Although the historical record is expanding, it seems inconceivable that our knowledge of such events could ever be perfected. Appreciate your loved ones and relish the warmth in your homes and in your bodies. Essential knowledge for every conscious, conscientious person. Absolutely recommended.
The titular figure in Heinrich Böll’s 1963 novel The Clown is Hans Schnier, a man whose personal and professional life is burning down around him as he howls in (often hilarious) despair. During a performance at a third-rate venue, Hans purposefully injures his knee and retreats to Bonn, where he holes up in his small apartment and makes angry desperate phone calls (and tries not to drink too much brandy) as he reflects on his past.
His common-law wife Marie has returned to the conservative Catholicism she was raised on, and subsequently left Hans; even worse, shes’ taken up with a bourgeois hack named Zupfner. Marie and Hans initially came together as teens, sexing it up in their provincial German town. After scandalizing all the decent ex-Nazis in town, they retreat to the comparatively cosmopolitan city of Bonn and begin a life (in sin) together, traveling from venue to venue and performance to performance as Hans’s career grows.
It becomes clear through the course of The Clown — which is essentially Hans’s long, angry rant against complacent conformity — that Marie is merely an object for Hans, a romantic idealization. He repeatedly tells us that she doesn’t get his art–
I don’t believe there is anyone in the world who understands a clown, even one clown doesn’t understand another, envy and jealousy always enter into it. Marie came close to understanding me, but she never quite understood me. She always felt that as a “creative person” I must be “deeply interested in absorbing as much culture as possible.” She was wrong.
Hans is always the outsider, even to the woman he loves. Still, Marie represents both comfort and some sense of continuity for this traveling artist whose life is basically a series of hotels, train rides, and performances. Without her, Hans is lost, adrift without an anchor, pure vitriol aimed at a society he rebukes at every turn. Consider his parents, for instance, rich Protestants with a penchant for providing patronage to middling writers — Hans’s hate for them is almost metaphorical, a hate that extends to their religion and their complicity in the evils of WWII. While The Clown is a highly personal story, the tale of an artistic soul tortured in the absence of his love, it’s also an indictment of postwar Germany, a milieu all-too ready to whitewash its sins in the easy absolution of cheap religion.
At times the nuances of The Clown’s argument against the conformist postwar German culture were lost on me. Hans’s many references to the particular rhythms and contrasts of Teutonic Protestants and Catholics were beyond my ken. Still, this rarely detracted from my enjoyment or involvement in the novel. Its caustic bite and extreme depression is tempered by ironic humor and expansive knowledge. Here’s an early passage in the book that I think shows off these attributes and obsessions while highlighting a bizarre metaphysical conceit that I don’t know how to properly work into this review–
I felt sick. I forgot to say that not only do I suffer from depression and headaches but a I also have another, almost mystical peculiarity: I can detect smells over the telephone. . . . I had to get up and clean my teeth. Then I gargled with some of the cognac that was left, laboriously removed my makeup, got into bed again, and thought of Marie, of Christians, of Catholics, and contemplated the future. I thought of the gutters I would lie in one day. For a clown approaching fifty there are only two alternatives: gutter or palace. I had no faith in the palace, and before reaching fifty I had somehow to get through another twenty-two years.
So we learn that our hero is only in his late twenties, yet already romanticizes a dramatic life of failure; he sees himself as the failed artist down in the gutter, perhaps dreaming of the stars. And he can smell through the phone!
At its core, The Clown is a searing attack on hypocrisy, one grounded in a sense of time and place. And it’s this grounding that gives the book the weight — the concreteness of truth — to transcend its postwar setting and remain relevant today in a world where language, religion, and custom all provide societies and their institutions a kind of metaphysical escape hatch to avoid squarely assessing the gaps between mantra and action. Hans shows us that it takes a jester to truthfully comment on the absurdity of modernity; it’s the trickster whose pantomimes tap into the most mundane gestures to expose the intricate ways these gestures might disguise ugly, banal, or even evil intentions. Great stuff.