French literati unite to praise American's Holocaust debut

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The Independent Culture

Modern French literature is sometimes accused of being inward-looking and parochial. No longer: the most extravagantly praised novel of the traditional French publishing season this month is a 900-page blockbuster on the Holocaust, which was written in French by an American who lives in Spain.

Les Bienveillantes (The Well-Meaning Ones), by Jonathan Littell, is the first-person story of an SS mass murderer who recalls, without emotion, his activities in Nazi execution squads and death camps. The novel, written in a four-month frenzy after five years of research, has been compared by French critics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Stendhal.

The book,Littell's first novel in any language, is already strongly tipped to win the most coveted French literary prize, the Goncourt, this autumn.

The critic of the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur wrote: "This is not only a big book. It is a great book. In recent, French, literary history, no new author has shown such ambition, such skill in writing, such meticulous attention to historical detail and such a serene mastery of terror".

How does an American come to have such a command of the French language that he can write a 900-page novel in French in four months? And why did he choose to write the book in French? (He is already translating his own work into English.)

Jonathan Littell, 38, who lives in Barcelona with his Belgian wife and two children, is Jewish-American but he was brought up and educated partly in France. His father, Robert Littell, is an espionage writer and former journalist who exiled himself in France in the 1970s.

Littell, who also speaks English, Russian and Serbo-Croat, says that he chose to write in French because it was the language of his literary heroes, Flaubert and Stendhal. French is also the adopted language of the fictional narrator of his novel, Max Aue, an intellectual turned SS officer and mass murderer who has taken refuge in France under a false identity after the war.

Les Bienveillantes gives Aue's reminiscences, and justification, and philosophical observations, on his work with mobile SS death squads in eastern Europe. It also contains scenes in Auschwitz and in Adolf Hitler's bunker.

Littell said that the idea for the book came to him after working with non-governmental organisations in Chechnya and Bosnia. Mass murderers, he says, are almost always silent. He wanted to force one to speak, in the first person.

"That was the only way to understand these people. The question I put to myself before I wrote my novel was, 'what would have become of me if I had been born in Germany in 1913, rather than in America in 1967?' The reply is my novel ... I am very conscious of the fact that we don't always choose our lives."

The book begins with the sentence: "Frères humains, laissez-moi vous raconter comment ça s'est passé ..." (My fellow humans, let me tell you how it happened...")

Because France's literary prizes are judged in the autumn, almost half of all French novels year emerge in early September. There have been few of the traditional literary feuds this year, but unanimous, almost breathless praise for Littell's novel.

Most contemporary French novels are thin volumes of 300 pages or fewer. They are often taken up with the author's childhood, literary struggles or random musings. Les Bienveillantes (Gallimard, €25) stands out for its size and subject matter alone.

Leading French critics are convinced that the book will become an international classic. Samuel Blumenfeld in Le Monde wrote: "One does not want to bury Jonathan Littell in superlatives. [But] like Flaubert he possesses an enormous talent for putting history into a novel form or rather placing a novel in history." Le Figaro Magazine said that the book was a "monument of contemporary literature".