Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, February 4, 2013

Jonathan Littell, _Les Bienveillantes_, interim notes

IT MAY BE years before I finish this--I am 230 pages in, with 1,150 to go--so I may as well record a few notes now.

Daniel Mendelson's review in NYRB persuaded me to take this one up--he called the novel "a serious one, deserving of serious treatment," and even compared it to Moby-Dick, suggesting that it is one of those "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." 

Having trusted Mendelson that far, I wish I had also heeded his observation that "Littell’s style is unremarkable, even pedestrian—his translator, Charlotte Mandell, has produced an admirably fluid English version that is more pleasing to read than the French." No, I had to go and do the conscientious thing and find a French copy, and I can confirm that the style is less than lively. Sometimes it seems like an over-literal translation from American English. We have the familiar expression that something of other is "stuck in my head," but I don't think any French native speaker would say something is "collée dans la tête." Similarly, we speak and write of people "sweeping away objections," but would a French speaker say a character "balaya ces réserves"? 

But it certainly makes sense, for reasons of verisimilitude, that Littell's narrator and main character, Maximilien Aue, would write his memoirs in French. He's a former S.S. officer, now in hiding, who was present at the beginnings of the Holocaust in the Ukraine, including participation in the mass killings of Babi Yar--which is roughly the point in his narrative I have reached. Over the course of the book, according to the reviews I have read, he shows up in other sites associated with the Holocaust, ending up in the bunker with Hitler. The reviews noted that Littell's descriptions of the killing are intensely and graphically rendered.  I can confirm that.

What really intrigued me, though, is Mendelson's account of how Littell structured the narrative around the Orestes myth.  The title is the French translation of "Eumenides," the "kindly ones" as the traditional English translation has it--that is, the Furies, the supernatural beings that pursue Orestes after he has avenged his father by murdering his mother. Thus far in the novel, the connection between Aue and Orestes is not too emphatic--his father disappeared mysteriously during his childhood, he's a bit tight-lipped on the subject of his mother, there are queasy intimations about his sister, but so far, nothing overt.

I'm looking forward to the unveiling of this element, though.  There is something quintessentially modern about Orestes: inheritor of a titanically fucked-up situation created by the preceding generation, desperately attached to his peers, mentally imbalanced, self-destructive streak, damned if he does, damned if he doesn't.  It does not seem accidental that the Orestes myth got picked up by such quintessentially 20th century writers as Eliot, in his most convincing play, and Sartre. There is a lot of Orestes in Hamlet, so by natural descent there is a lot of Orestes in Stephen Dedalus, who has to do battle with his mother's ghost in the Circe episode, and in Hal Incandenza in his agon with Avril. 

At the end of the first chapter, "Toccata" (all the chapters are titled after sections of a Bach instrumental suite), Aue tells us, "je suis un homme comme vous," "I am a man like you." Orestes in the SS as everyman? I'm thinking, well, could work.

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