Friday, March 06, 2009

Jonathan Littell

Creating Controversy or Discussion

Jonathan Littell's novel The Kindly Ones has been published in North America, translated from the French, and has been quick to create controversy. Or maybe "controversy" isn't the right word. It's created "discussion"? Sure, that works.

The first review I read of Littell's novel, which is the fictional diary of a former SS officer, was the Times's Michiko Kakutani, who was disgusted by the 1,000-pager. She put down the novel in 964 words.

Another New York publication, the Review of Books, published its own review of the novel. The reviewer, Daniel Mendelsohn, spent just more than 5,400 words offering an even-handed review. He concluded:
Still, however badly it may stumble, The Kindly Ones brings to mind Maurice Blanchot's judgment—one which Maximilien Aue enthusiastically and, you can't help feeling, rather tellingly approves—of another enormous, hybrid novel, Moby-Dick : "This impossible book...[the] written equivalent of the universe...presents the ironic quality of an enigma and reveals itself only by the questions it raises." As another Kindly Ones—that of Aeschylus—continues to remind us, there exist strange fictional creatures, improbable hybrids whose two sides seem to have little to do with each other, that, however unlikely we are to find them in nature, can give us nightmares that will haunt us long after the show is over.
Sort of: Littell's was an important failure.

Kakutani may offer a simple "This is awful" assessment, but Mendelsohn has thought this novel through and said "Not so simple." That's nice. I'm not sure if either one - Kakutani's negative review (doesn't that mean this is a good book?) or Mendelsohn's comtemplative one - will make me read The Kindly Ones. I did like the latter's review though.


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