Les Bienveillantes as Necessary
Les Bienveillantes, published in France in 2006, is the first novel of Jonathan Littell, an American-born, French-educated son of a writer and grandson of Jews from Russia. The 900+-page novel has been translated into several languages and garnered many adherents and adversaries. Along with colleagues such as Julia Kristeva and Daniel Mendelsohn, Susan Suleiman appeared in a number of public forums and published several articles on the novel in both popular and academic venues, expressing qualified admiration and subjecting it to the most penetrating lines of inquiry. As summarized by Suleiman, the novel is groundbreaking in
giv[ing] us a comprehensive and historically accurate account of the Nazi genocide of the Jews, starting in June 1941 on the Eastern front and ending with the January 1945 death marches from Auschwitz … [It] is narrated exclusively from the point of view, and in the voice, of a former SS officer who witnessed it all [and actively participated in many of the crimes]. Critics have pointed out that this ubiquity makes the narrator a kind of Zelig or Forrest Gump, implausible by realist criteria. The important question … is not that of verisimilitude but rather: What kind of point of view and what kind of voice does Littell's narrator Maximilien Aue represent, and how are we to respond to him as readers?
My initial reaction to this question is that, as a reader, I remain in a kind of limbo, not quite able to make up my mind whether, to quote Suleiman again, I ‘love or hate’ the book—or, in Kristeva's language, whether as a ‘naïve’ reader I am ‘convinced or disgusted’ (‘le lecteur naïf, le frère du narrateur Aue, en sort-il convaincu ou écoeuré’)—though I tend to throw in my hat with the latter. But as Suleiman demonstrates in more than one essay, and as Kristeva argues, the real work of the novel lies beyond the text itself, in the discussions and debates it generates. Kristeva likens its effect to that of a ‘colossal virus’ that contaminates the reader, bit by bit.