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  • The American Reception of Max Aue
  • Richard J. Golsan (bio)
Littell, Jonathan. The Kindly Ones, trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.

In 2006, American-born novelist Jonathan Littell, writing in French, published with Gallimard a 900-page historical novel, Les Bienveillantes, chronicling in graphic and often shocking detail the wartime experiences and sex life of a retired and unrepentant SS officer, the fictional Maximilian Aue. The title, "Les Bienveillantes" is the French term for the Eumenides—thus an allusion to the Oresteia and to questions of judgment and punishment for crimes.

HarperCollins reportedly paid upwards of one million dollars for the American rights, and in March of 2009, The Kindly Ones, translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, appeared in US bookstores. Prior to its release, HarperCollins embarked on a promotion blitz—no surprise given their investment. They hoped to replicate the novel's European track record as a commercial success, if not its record as a succès de scandale. The novel had sold over 700,000 copies in France, and became a best-seller upon publication in Germany in 2008. To date, The Kindly Ones has not achieved best-seller status in the US. As of early May, 2009 copies of the book were already heavily discounted on

If the commercial success of The Kindly Ones in the US does not rival that in Europe, its critical reception here is comparable to that abroad, in that nowhere has the novel left reviewers indifferent. In France, some praised it as a masterpiece on the order of War and Peace and Flaubert's Sentimental Education, while others condemned it as a monstrous hoax and an obscenity. Among the admirers was Le monde's literary critic, the biographer and novelist Pierre Assouline, who lauded the novel and its author in his blog La République des livres. Other admirers included Julia Kristeva and, after an initially negative reaction, Claude Lanzmann. (After his initial critical review of Les Bienveillantes, Lanzmann was apparently "converted" by a private conversation with Littell in the offices of Gallimard).1 Jorge Semprun reputedly figured among the novel's supporters for the 2006 Prix Goncourt, which it garnered, along with the Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française that same year. The novelist Richard Millet, who had read the original manuscript for Gallimard, recommended publication with virtually no revisions.2 In the March /April 2007 issue of Le débat, Millet published a fawning interview with Littell, as did the review's Director, Pierre Nora. Both interviews form part of a special [End Page 174] feature on the novel in Le débat--coverage noteworthy by the absence of any criticism. (The fact that Le débat is the in-house review of Gallimard, and that Les Bienveillantes was a huge commercial success for Gallimard, suggests an understandable bias.)

The novel and its author had their share of French detractors, some of whose criticisms were hardly literary or historical. In a review entitled "Un apocalypse kitsch," published in Commentaire, Jean Clair described the novel as roman étranger whose excesses were more "on an American scale" than they were typical of a "true French novel." Clair went on to condemn "an American, and a very young American" for having dared write "en français un pavé [paving-stone] de 900 pages" (1107). (Littel was in fact 39 in 2006.)

While Clair's anti-American sentiments explain in part his condemnation of novel and novelist, other hostile assessments of Les Bienveillantes and Littell were more comprehensive. In their book Les Complaisantes, a work devoted entirely to the demolition of Littell's novel, the historian Édouard Husson and philosopher Michel Terestchenko blasted the novel on moral, historical, and literary grounds, calling for its censorship, or at least its voluntary boycotting. They also chastised an effete Parisian literary culture for welcoming such trash for its shock value alone.

Finally, some resorted to ad hominem attacks. It was rumored that Littell fils was not even the real author; rather it was Robert Littel, père, the well-known espionage and thriller writer, who had supposedly ghostwritten the novel.

If the French reception of Les Bienveillantes proved both vociferous...