There are a lot of shocking things about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a novel about the destruction of the European Jews that is narrated by a matricidal SS officer named Max Aue, whose greatest joy is having anal sex with his twin sister; but the one that shocks deepest, and longest, is how easily the novel draws you in. I read the book in French (Littell was born in America in 1967, but grew up in France; he wrote The Kindly Ones in French) a couple of years ago and again this winter in Charlotte Mandell’s adroit English translation. Both times, I found myself looking forward to the moment when I was done with other business and could get back to reading about Max Aue and his grisly travels. I am not the only one: the book has sold well over a million copies in Europe, and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize. As I write this essay, it’s too soon to say if The Kindly Ones will be a big seller in the United States, but some omens are good. When the English translation was published in March of this year, Michael Korda wrote in the Daily Beast, “I guarantee you, if you read this book to the end, and if you have any kind of taste at all, you won’t be able to put it down for a moment—lay in snacks and drinks!” Yes, by all means, if you can keep them down. Reading The Kindly Ones isn’t a comfortable experience, or an ennobling one, but it’s certainly compelling, at least for some readers. The question I want to ask is, why?
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