Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reading Notes: The Kindly Ones (1-4)

Reading Notes: The Kindly Ones (1)
Progress slow on The Kindly Ones. Haven't had enough reading time. Read for about 3 hours last night. The scene with the ancient Jewish scholar lifted the narrative to a new level for me. That almost mythical and nakedly fictive element transformed the astonishing abundance of seeming historical detail that surrounds it--in that long period between actions--from what some reviewers have read as the realia of a genre historical novel--to different plane. A touch of genius not to be missed: the world, the fictive Weltanshauung is not that of the self-absorbed bureaucratic narrator but the uncanny reality he's unable to account for even as he recognizes it at a distance... in snatches of Bach, the beauty of the natural world, his view of the Caucasus from the chosen burial site of the Ancient One, and no less, and far more ominous--in the senseless slaughter of which is in no way the mere 'observer' he describes to others... what a marvelous play on vision in that scene, Aue entranced by the scene of the distant mountains--now, for the reader, thanks to those long discursive lectures on linguistics and history fading into legend from Vos, haunted by the shadows of countless waves of occupiers and settlers... again, blending into a mythical past, while the Ancient Jew sees everything Aue is blind to. From these 50-100 pages alone I'd would question Daniel Green's reservations on Littell's use of the Orestes cycle (in his wonderful review HERE (see also Daniel Mendelshon's excellent REVIEW in the NYRB)
Seems to me this is a useful guide to how this book should be read. I was made to think of Arjuna in the Bagavadgita here, Krishna's reconciling Arjuna to the horrors of war. I've begun to think that those reviewers who were appalled at what they took as an overly sympathetic view of the Nazi atrocities were right in their being dead wrong--or wrong in their being right. The field of action viewed through the peephole of Aue's consciousness is governed by a far more capacious consciousness... if one can even call it 'consciousness.' The Erinyes come to be called (with no little irony, the Eumenides, the Kindly Ones, only through the intervention of Apollo as he defends Orestes for the murder of Clytomnestra... "Kindly" because some restoration of civil order (however unstable... as Aeschylus' audience must have keenly felt), over the eruption of ancient blood feud notions of 'justice.' The 'blessing' of the Bhagavadgita is, indeed, a terrible one. It does not save Arjuna or humankind from the horrors of war--rather, it lifts Arjuna into a vision beyond the human, a blessed indifference. Is this where Aue is heading, and where the arch narrator is taking the reader? To a god's eye view beyond all questions of agency and judgment? As Ghandi understood the Gita, this 'beyondness' does not relieve the visionary from responsibility, no more than Buddah's enlightenment relieved him from service and compassion. Aue is no latent buddisatva, but the terrifying vision being laid out in Littell's novel--a vision of the worst of human atrocities as though from a vantage so removed from questions of judgment and agency-- is akin to the paradoxical blessing of the Gita, and the nature of the peace restored by Apollo at the end of the Oresteian cycle. The Kindly Ones does not offer religious consolation; that is not in the power of novelist or artist to give; instead we must content ourselves with an aesthetic vision... and now and then, we are given one that still shimmers with a remnant of the old power of the gods we had thought to have left behind.

verbivore said... I'm really interested in this book, but I haven't had the guts to read it. I'm curious about it, as a writer, and wary of it as a reader. If I can reconcile those two feelings, I'll get a copy and dig in. Your thoughts here are useful, I'm assuming there is alot going on in terms of intertextuality...
February 11, 2010 8:42 AM Steven Augustine said... That scene (including the detail of the philtrum-less lip) is, indeed, a mystico-literary wonder, Comrade Jacob
February 12, 2010 3:45 AM

Reading Notes: The Kindly Ones: (2)
I wanted to raise one question to the comment I left above on Dan Green's Review (those comments quoted below, with some additions). I'm only a little more than half through, so can't say more yet, but the character of Thomas deserves attention. He plays a role at times as something close to a doppelgänger, an enabling shadow figure who again and again rescues Aue, while chiding him for his nativity--as someone who, for all his considerable powers of observation and intelligence, is not entirely of this world. When Aue arrives in Stalingrad, Thomas reminds him that he has warned him before to be careful about his relations--his homosexual encounters--though Aue has not reported that he's confessed to Thomas on these matters. Thomas seems, not only to have an uncanny ability to show up at critical moments, but seems to know more about Aue than can be readily accounted for in their reported conversations. I'm not sure how to read the hallucination of Thomas' death: was Aue hallucinating Thomas' mortal injury--or is Thomas himself the hallucination? What happened to the scarf Aue gave Thomas to bind his wound? Then there is the speech Aue attends where he sees Hitler in a tallit with tiffilin and even the fringes of a tallit katan, this after a fantasised memory when, as a youth, her first saw Hitler, and imagines (had he lived) his father beside him--or even in place of Hitler himself. The vision is repeated when watches the speech in a theater and wonders if a "third eye" has open since his wound. Again, I have the impression of Aue's POV as through a pin point aperture casting an image in a camera obscura (an image Littell used much earlier in the novel), while behind or over him, a dimly perceived parallel world that seems to be guiding his fate. Again, we are not reading anything close to 'realist historical fiction' with this novel. More like a monstrous fable--the darkest of tales from the brothers Grimm, one that is not a representation of historical reality, but an endlessly suggestive fictive parallel.

I think one could make a case for the arch-narrator putting Aue through his paces being just that: a seceond-level narrative consciousness, a fictive consciousness, without having to leap out of the novel and see in this the naked voice of the author. The Oresteian mythical overlay is the vehicle for that consciousness, one that Aue himself evokes. Maybe consciousness is the wrong word... as from Aue, it looms more as an Uberweltenschauung vitiating his political beliefs, while at the same time, depriving him of the possibility of imagining anything else, confirming his fatalism and leaving him unable to respond, time after time, with anything but anger and aesthetic disgust to what he clearly recognizes as injustice.

Dan, in the reviews you've read, has anyone commented on his injury? The oddity of his post-war life as an industrial lace maker( and married!) fits this pattern well: that this whole narrative is being told by someone with severe brain damage surely deserves some attention! The character Aue is remembering before he was shot seems rather less robotic in his reactions to the horrors around him... and he takes considerable pains to avoid taking direct action whenever he has a choice--reported without the least hint of self-justification, but I don't see importance of the injury in Aue using it to explain his later actions, which smacks of self-justification that he otherwise avoids--so much as profoundly influencing the whole narrative. Because it's all presented as recollection, this injury is present from the beginning.

Reading Notes: The Kindly Ones (3)

This will be short. I see the advantage of making these notes while one is still reading. No matter how wildly off the mark, ignorance of what is to come will provide sufficient cover for one's embarrassment. Enter Blanchot. This is the third time I've been tempted to stop, go back, and start reading from the beginning. This happened last while reading Proust ... and The Man Without Qualities.
That visit with Una bodes no good for where Max is heading...

Frances Madeson said...

Oh brother, good luck! If Daniel Green answers you, the next magnum of Shiraz is on me! Anyway, I adore you for giving him the monstrous opportunity to publicly ignore you on your own blog. I believe it's a true deprivation for him not to engage with you in just these kinds of discussions, which would be so fascinating and fulfilling for him. I imagine he holds similar conversations in his head even as he keeps upping the ante of his Satyagraha. With all my heart I believe in him, in his prevailing, and the momentary respite from questioning that will bring.
February 13, 2010 10:07 AM
Jacob Russell said...
This post has been removed by the author.
February 13, 2010 11:01 AM

Jacob Russell said...
Not sure how a question becomes a contest where one does or does not prevail. That part of the post quoted from a comment I left to Green's review on the Reading Experience.
February 13, 2010 11:02 AM
Frances Madeson said...

Don't be coy, Jacob. He's unbaitable. I've wagered a big bottle of wine on just that. One that I'd happily lose.
February 13, 2010 11:38 AM
Jacob Russell said...

I don't understand why you think I'm "baiting" him. I'm not being coy at all... just asking a straightforward question. I immediately thought of Phineas Gage when Aue was shot--not the meager substantiated information, but the swirl of alternate lives that have been attributed to him.

Or do you mean my thoughts about the Orestes substrata? Associations mid-read, not an argument with Daniel or anyone else. Talking to myself out loud. Stuff to keep in mind as I progress. I see the prospect of a different take on this but I'd hardly be advancing these ideas as arguments for debate when I've got another 400 pages before me!

So far, the most disturbing scenes have been the conversations about ideology--especially his Paris reunion and discussion with the circle of French intellectuals... where the ideas are themselves, violence, the womb of violence... profoundly disturbing in a way I wasn't prepared for... caught me off guard, entered my dreams. The stuff you hear now coming from the idiot right was already frightening enough--layered by those conversations about National Socialism they have my hair standing on end. I fear for the future my sons are likely to see.
February 13, 2010 12:05 PM
Jacob Russell said...

Black Lawrence Press was not interested in publishing.. running out of places to send it.
February 13, 2010 12:08 PM
Frances Madeson said...

Ask away, darling. I hope you get an exceptional answer. FYI on violence, I saw this about dogs and bunnies and thought of you.

“An old keeper told me that the guys who rent out the rabbit shooting for dog trials soak potatoes in diesel and throw them down the holes a few days before they’re going to work the ground, the smell is meant to drive the rabbits out and they get more flushes for the dogs. I don’t think this method would make them bolt straight away though? :hmm:Princes Haiku said...

Thank you for posting the Youtube link to your poetry reading, Jacob. It's just wonderful; the sensibility of your poem and your beautiful reading voice. I know how the poem, "lost" feels and it moved me to tears.
February 23, 2010 11:41 PM
Jacob Russell said...

Thank you.. I love what you do on your blog. It's always good to hear kind words from you.
February 24, 2010 1:10 AM
Princess Haiku said...

Frances Madesonsaid...
What phrase are you thinking you coined? I didn't catch it. And that's not like me.
February 25, 2010 1:41 PM
Jacob Russell said...

Google "fog of history" & comes up with 988,000 hits.
February 25, 2010 1:48 PM said...

What phrase are you thinking you coined? I didn't catch it. And that's not like me.
February 25, 2010 1:41 PM
Google "fog of history" comes up with 988,000 hits.
February 25, 2010 1:48 PM

The Kindly Ones: (4) Weltanshauung of Kitsch: Ersatz of the Imagination, the Ontology of Evil 
More and more I sense that I'm reading two books woven into one. Littell invests the historical personalities with all the conventionally approved operations: believable dialog and motives, individuates them, makes them conventionally "well rounded," and yet, compared to the fictive characters, they come across as less and less 'real.' This is most pronounced in the conversations with Aue, an effect that Littell must have been aware of. The research has been so meticulous, so in-your-face--historical details piling up like well sorted mounds of confiscated clothing of the dead--that it all but labels in bold face the fact that what they say to the imaginary characters is something else, different in kind--which has the uncanny effect of giving the fictional characters the impression of being more powerfully real, and the more strange and improbable they are (Clemons and Wesser, Mandelbrod), the more they overshadow the Himmlers and Eichmans et al--creating an aesthetic tension I find hypnotic. Littell has pitted the powers of imagination against the worst nightmares of history and let them fight it out--a conflict that can have no victors: no matter how powerful the aesthetic transformation, history does not vanish, but remains to haunt us with a reality that cannot be assimilated, that defies sublimation into art, nor can all the horror and banality of history succeed in erasing the visionary capacity to see beyond what 'is.'

What remains most disturbing is the cross contamination--the Weltanshauung of the National Socialists is no less an aesthetic vision--as has often been pointed out, an aesthetics of evil, kitsch: Ersatz, I think, would be a better term--more than the false play of appearance, but a lie against Being, the ontology of evil.
Question of Thomas ?

What is your take on Thomas. I don't recall anyone spending much time on this character. He remains an enigma to me, but one that tugs at my sleeve... something that begs to be acknowledged. Aue and Thomas are opposites of the sort that suggest identity--the more so, given the Jungian slant of TKL's psycho-mythology.  I smell a tripartite identity here--two of them in open conflict within Aue himself--the erotic and the rational, made grotesque by lack of mediating ego--all libido and intellect, while Thomas is the dissociated third: an empty cypher--sex without attachment, self-serving without conscience or any motive beyond self-preservation--an emptiness that corresponds to Aue's, only Aue... until he murders Thomas, at least in recollection, contrary to his frequent denials, displays both remorse and guilt, but is incapable of integrating those feelings with his distorted ideas, his "world-view," or even acknowledging the contradictions. That he is aware of this, at least subconsciously, we see in the conversations with Vos. 

Aue doesn't murder Thomas, he murders himself and become the puppet of Thomas' ghost.


  1. Thank you for posting the Youtube link to your poetry reading, Jac. It's just wonderful; the sensibility of your poem and your beautiful reading voice. I know how the poem, "lost" feels and it moved me to tears.

  2. Thank you.. I love what you do on your blog. It's always good to hear kind words from you.

  3. Jacob,
    What phrase are you thinking you coined? I didn't catch it. And that's not like me.

  4. Google "fog of history" & comes up with 988,000 hits.

  5. You got a poem for your snowbound readers today, Mr. Russell?

  6. How about Emily ? A woman in the bar actually said to me the other day--why don't you write nice simple poems everyone can understand, like Emily Dickenson.

    I almost sprayed a mouthfull of wine right in her face!

    We play at Paste --
    Till qualified, for Pearl --
    Then, drop the Paste --
    And deem ourself a fool --

    The Shapes -- though -- were similar --
    And our new Hands
    Learned Gem-Tactics --
    Practicing Sands --

    (Gem, and Sands are in italics, which I can't do in comments)
    ... ha! So much for 'easy' poets!

    I've been reading 30-40 Dickenson poems in the morning to start the day. Slowly, looking up words. Taking notes. This was one smart, tough 'pussy-of-steel" broad!