- Reading Nazi Memory in Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes
What is the cultural significance of Jonathan Littell's monumental Les Bienveillantes (2006) within the "era of the witness"?1 While not unprecedented, this fictional testimony of a perpetrator strikes several blows to established taboos on Holocaust representation. The first-person account of an SS officer's itinerary through the rise and fall of the Third Reich, Les Bienveillantes compels its readers to enter into the psyche of a Nazi perpetrator and to witness the war, occupation, and genocide in both their visceral horror and bureaucratic abstraction. This coerced complicity with the perpetrator's gaze is a transgression of long-standing limits on the representation of the Holocaust and the commemoration of its traumatic legacy. From Primo Levi's cautionary words in The Drowned and the Saved against the universalization of the concentrationary 'gray zone' to Claude Lanzmann's concern that Littell's fictional account of a perpetrator's unreliable memory will displace the authority of historical representation, many have expressed concern that an overemphasis on complicity as a vector of memorial transmission will derealize, dehistoricize, and banalize the Nazi genocide.2 The polemic unleashed by the novel has also been shaped by its hypernaturalist depictions of mass murder, leading to charges of pornography, kitsch, and sensationalism. Given the dominance of discourses on the Holocaust as inaugurating a radical "crisis of representation," what is at stake in Littell's portrayal of atrocity and extermination, and how do these position his readers? For readers who inhabit a global postmemorial culture saturated with the Holocaust's iconography of suffering, what are the aims and effects of portraying Maximilian Aue as a "hero of our times"?3 Given the sheer length and complexity of the novel, this essay does not seek to offer an interpretation of the work as a whole, nor will it assess the integration of the Oresteia myth within the novel's broader picture of Nazism or consider the tensions between Aue's alleged ordinariness and his extraordinary characterization as an incestuous matricide. Instead, I will focus on ironic complicity as a mode of narration, the strategies of reading that this mode requires, and the approach to history that it opens up. More specifically, I will take up the novel's dialogue with an earlier French literature of complicity, its meditations on the consumption of history as spectacle, and its investigation of overlapping memories of genocide. [End Page 47]
Memory's manufacture: the 'complicity effect' of a perpetrator's testimony
Je suis une véritable usine à souvenirs. J'aurais passé ma vie à me manufacturer des souvenirs…"4
"Frères humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ça c'est passé" (11). The novel's first line ushers us into a familiar textual regime of complicity. Like the exquisite lace produced in Maximilian Aue's postwar factory, the opening allusions to Villon, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Céline, and Camus weave us into a web of recognizable literary resonances. It is perhaps no accident that the inaugural section of this narrative suite is titled Toccata, an improvisational musical piece whose Italian etymology toccare (to touch) evokes the novel's unwelcome impetus to make intimate contact with its 'kindred reader '. The captatio benevolentiae harbours a coercive force that is obvious from the initial Baudelairean interpellation of a hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable mon frère to the chapter's close, "Allons, puisque je vous dis que je suis comme vous!" (30).
What sort of reading contract is proffered in this introduction? The saturation of literary allusions establishes Aue's erudition and situates this cultural literacy within a French terrain. Yet these gestures of coercive kinship also expose the governing strategy of the narrative deluge that will follow, that of ironic complicity. By ironic complicity, I mean a mode of narration that coerces the reader into complicitous identification with the narrator, and that simultaneously sabotages this identification through irony. While a comparison to Albert Camus's sparse allegory La Chute may startle given the sheer volume and documentary specificity of Les Bienveillantes, Aue's alleged conte moral functions much like Jean-Baptiste Clamence's wily and despotic monologue. Both protagonists are abject figures who claim to...