So is it a great novel, then? It's been compared to War and Peace, but no, I don't think it is great, not in its execution. In this English translation, the language is not particularly memorable. There is little humour, though much wit. At times, it's as if Littell were trying to shoehorn absolutely everyone of significance in: Himmler, Eichmann, Speer etc. Also, unlike War and Peace, The Kindly Ones is not, in its characterizations, morally complex: We know, and the narrator knows, that the Nazis are on the wrong side of history, that they can only be defended by the narrator, their behaviour justified, if possible. So, the characters can't be said to waver morally. The kindly ones (or the furies, the Greek goddesses who embodied the anger of the dead and who punished those who committed unforgivable sins) are after almost everyone, here.
All of that said, The Kindly Ones is a work of art in its conception, admirable in what it sets out to do and in how much it accomplishes. Jonathan Littell has said that he wished to write a work that asked fundamental questions in compelling ways. In this, he has succeeded completely. As I mentioned, I think the debate around this novel is crucial, the kind of debate we need to have once a generation, if not more often. Not just "what is it to be a victim?" and "what is it to suffer?" but also "what is it to inflict suffering?" "what is it to transgress?" In that it encourages real (and sometimes deeply unpleasant) thought, The Kindly Ones is an important work. In that it keeps it eye on the wavering idea of what it is to be human, it's masterful.
André Alexis's most recent novel is Asylum. It has just been translated into French as L'exil.
As it happens, I had been given Les Bienveillantes for Christmas and had read much of it (a third) by the time I was asked to review its English translation. As might be expected, it's a different novel in French: colder, more precise, coming from another time and place.
French critics have sometimes accused the novel of taking the language a step back in time. True. Les Bienveillantes is like a novel written in the early 20th century, almost old-fashioned in its language. But this is a significant dimension to a novel that deals with European culture. In English, The Kindly Ones is a little more slack, slightly more modern and accessible, but, to me, less effective for that.
A quick illustration. In French, the novel's final sentence is: "Les Bienveillantes avaient retrouvé ma trace." ("The Kindly Ones had again found my tracks.") In English the sentence runs: "The Kindly Ones were onto me." The translation is fine, as far as it goes, but it carries a different weight or accent, so to speak.