Academic journal article French Forum

History, Excess and Testimony in Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes

Academic journal article French Forum

History, Excess and Testimony in Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes

Article excerpt

"Freres humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ca s'est passe. 'On n'est pas votre frere, retorquerez-vous, et on ne veut pas le savoir.'''(2) Thus begin the memoirs of Maximilian Aue, an ex-SS officer, intellectual, and doctor of political law, recounting, in 1970s France, his experience of the Second World War. "Il s'est passe beaucoup de choses," he continues, "et puis ca vous concerne: vous verrez bien que ca vous concerne" (II).

Aue's fictive memoirs were written by Jonathan Littell, a young Jewish-American author writing in French. The publication and reception of his provocative novel, Les Bienveillantes, was one of the most significant literary events in France in recent years. A huge, unexpected success, the book sold close to a million copies and won two of France's most prestigious literary prizes, Le Prix Goncourt and Le Prix de l''Academie Francaise, while arousing a debate within the French literary scene. Its length and density have not deterred potential readers. In actual fact, the content proved to be even more controversial, describing as it does World War II and the Holocaust from the first-person point of view of an SS officer. At times utterly repulsive in its representation of violence and sexuality--even unbearable at certain points--the novel plunges the reader into the heart of darkness. On other occasions, it burdens us with minutiae of historical details, dates, facts, and descriptions of the administrative structure of various departments within the SS, all of which lull us into boredom, which is eventually snapped by another confrontation with horror.

Aue holds several positions during the war and visits various places. He participates with the Einsatzkommando in the mass executions of Jews in the Ukraine, and later in the Caucasus. He is sent to Stalingrad, where he barely survives. Later, in Berlin, he takes part in the bureaucratic administration of the war and the concentration camps. Aue spares nothing, providing every possible description of the atrocities in graphic, visceral detail, often fusing sexual elements with death. To provide just one illustration, in the opening passage of the novel, he declares that if he were to commit suicide,

  [il] placerai[t] une grenade tout contre mon coeur et partirai[t]
  dans un vif eclat de joie. Une petite grenade ronde ... Et puis le
  bonheur enfin ..., et les murs de [s] on bureau decores de lambeaux.
  Aux femmes de menage de nettoyer, elles sont payees pour ca, tant pis
  pour elles. (II)

Undeniably, Aue exemplifies here his kind, sympathetic nature, and this, before the account of the war even begins.

To what genre should we ascribe Littell's book? While in itself the question is not necessarily important, I believe that approaching this book via the question of genre might prove fruitful and help to expose something of its essence. Obviously, one genre that comes to mind is the historical novel. Yet, Les Bienveillantes cannot be precisely described as such. What I wish to focus on here are two other literary genres with which Littell's book converses. The first is testimonial (bearing-witness) literature, or literature dealing with trauma. The second is what is normally termed literature of transgression, or what I would call the literature of excess, including works by authors such as Sade, Lautreamont, Bataille and Genet.

It is with regard to each of these two genres that Les Bienveillantes, in fact, constitutes a new twist, an inversion, and a contribution to the history of ideas. Yes, Aue tells the story of the Holocaust, the paradigmatic locus of testimonial literature. Yes, he is at the ravines and in the camps, in the midst of the massacres. And yes, he is here to report. Yet in this case, he is an SS officer rather than a Jewish survivor or other victim. And this, of course, makes all the difference.

Whereas the protagonist's implicit response to survivor narratives is obvious, less obvious is the author's subversion of the literature of excess genre. …

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