Academic journal article Style

S.S. Officers as Tragic Heroes? Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes and the Narrative Representation of the Shoah

Academic journal article Style

S.S. Officers as Tragic Heroes? Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes and the Narrative Representation of the Shoah

Article excerpt

In 2006, Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes won the two highest French literature awards, the prix Goncourt and the award of the Academie Francaise, and sold more than 700,000 copies within a year. However, the French Littell-mania was as short as it was intense; Les Bienveillantes dominated the public scene for a season, then quickly disappeared from it. (2) As was to be expected, the fictive autobiography of an SS-officer drew much attention in Israel and Germany, but the comments tended to be critical. Journalists accused Littell of voyeurism, some even of revisionism. (3) The reception in North America bore the imprint of Puritanism: first fascinated with the business success, the American press showed itself, once the novel was translated, disgusted by its obscenities. (4) The last decades have not seen many books which made such a splash, provoking both enthusiastic praise in one quarter and utter condemnation by others. In this article, I would like to take a second look at Les Bienveillantes and consider it as an attempt to narrate the Shoah.

The fundamental issues of historical representation, such as its perspectivity, ethical implications, and ultimate failure to map the past fully, are exacerbated in the case of the Shoah. For no other time does the point of view matter more, towards no other dead is felt an equally strong debt, and no other event has proven more elusive. Lyotard compared the difficulty of representing the Shoah to the attempt to measure the force of an earthquake, which has destroyed all measuring instruments. (5) While the "vehicle," a natural disaster, may infer a wrong note for the "tenor," man-made crimes, the simile nicely grasps the aporia, which may be only matched by the need to represent the Shoah somehow.

Many approaches have been suggested. Most prominent, but also much misunderstood, is Adorno's dictum that any art after Auschwitz is barbaric. (6) Less radical, while still close to this position, are voices, which privilege the documentary mode, in particular the testimony of eyewitnesses. (7) On the other hand, J. E. Young has drawn on historical narratology to show that there is no objective memory, but that any account of the past is narratively encoded. (8) Therefore, he argues, literary accounts of the Shoah are legitimate; yet, writers ought to make conscious use of literary devices. While emphasizing that respect for the victims imposes limits on the emplotment of the Shoah, (91) share Young's position. As David Can" has shown, the process of narrativization starts with the experiences themselves. (10) The writer thus only continues or, in the case of fictional narratives, transforms a process linked inherently to experiences.

In this article, l shall argue, against the tide of criticism that Les Bienveillantes offers a particularly interesting and highly reflective case of narrating the Shoah. (11) Littell's novel balances factual information with aesthetic presentation and creates a strong mimetic dimension, while, at the same time, marking its own constructedness. In a first step, I will demonstrate that Max Aue uses the Oresteia to stylize himself as a tragic hero. The presentation of the Shoah as a tragedy has prompted critics to accuse the novel of revisionism. However, such a reading overlooks the fact that the narrator's self-fashioning is implicitly challenged by the narrative (I). Additionally, the use of tragedy, together with other plot-types and metapoetic passages, makes Les Bienveillantes a hyper-coded narrative (II). At the same time, Les Bienveillantes is remarkable for its "experientiality," which ought not to be mistaken for pornography, but fulfils important narrative functions (III). In combining factual evidence with various aesthetic modes of presentation, Littell fully explores narrative's potential to represent the Shoah and its unrepresentability (IV).

I. Max Aue, an Orestes redivivus--the Shoah, a tragedy? …

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