21 November 08 | Chad W. Post

Back a couple years ago, Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes was all the rage. The son of Robert Littell, Jonathan has dual-citizenship here and in France, and, in an unusual move, wrote this 900-page novel of a former Nazi officer in French.

In this article by John Litchfield, Littell explains his decision:

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.

Anyway, the book won the Prix Goncourt and was universally (or almost) loved by French critics. Unknown and a bit of a recluse, Littell went from obscurity to stardom so fast that rumors floated that either his editor at Gallimard, or his father, actually wrote the book. It was a huge Frankfurt book, went to auction, was sold for a lot of money (six, seven figures?) to HarperCollins, and is finally coming out in English in March. Translated by the extremely talented Charlotte Mandell (see Proust’s The Lemoine Affair, Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, etc. We’re actually going to run an interview with Charlotte sometime in the next week or so.)

Yesterday, we received our galley, which is very impressive and well-made:

I’m particularly excited about the “Reader’s Introduction to The Kindly Ones.” This booklet (which is almost 100 pages long) is made up of a couple of interviews with Littell (more on that in a minute), a review from Le Monde, excerpts of other French reviews, a letter from Littell to his translators, and an excerpt from the book. This is the sort of “extra material” I wish all publishers (Open Letter included) sent along with their galleys. It’s so useful in introducing readers/reviewers to the book (this would have an even bigger impact if it was for a more obscure author) and can also be quite entertaining in its own right. Like the Littell interviews:

_Have you recognized yourself in the various portraits that have appeared in the press?

Not at all! Some of them were complete nonsense. I have been stunned by French journalists’ ability to make things up. I have discovered lots of things about myself. Apparently, I survived a massacre in Chechnya. Astounding. They must have just typed my name into Google and read the New York Times articles which mention an incident—in no way a massacre—that I experienced in Chechnya. In the French version, it sounded as if I had had to crawl out of a ditch from beneath a heap of bloody corpses! Fact checking doesn’t seem particularly popular in France. And I’m talking about simple facts: Apparently I have worked in China, am married, live in Belgium, speak German, and have a French mother. None of which is the case.

_As soon as it came out, Les Bienveillantes was praised to the skies; the loftiest comparisons were drawn. Were you flattered or freaked out?

Neither. Let’s take the comparison between my book and War and Peace. The people who make it haven’t read my book properly, or Tolstoy either, for that matter. They are different kinds of literature. Firstly, in War and Peace there is peace, whereas in my novel there is only war. And then there’s a whole other level of complexity in Tolstoy’s novel, an infinitely superior toing and froing between war and ordinary life.

In case you’re interested, the HarperCollins jacket copy references the fact that critics compared The Kindly Ones to War and Peace . . .

I have no idea how good this book is (the Germans didn’t seem to much care for it, but well, there might be extra-literary reasons), but regardless, Littell’s interviews and author appearances should be a lot of fun . . .


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