Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Kindly Ones: brilliant trash?

A literary storm is raging in the papers and the blogosphere - and on March 3, you'll be able to join the fray.

At the heart of the dust-up is Jonathan Littell's epic Holocaust novel, The Kindly Ones, winner (in 2006) of France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. Littell, son of spy novelist Robert, is the first American to win the award.

The controversy centers on the merits of the novel, which is narrated by an unrepentant SS officer and is full of violence and, according to some, excessively gruesome imagery. On one side are critics like the New York Times' always-divisive Michiko Kakutani, who dismiss the novel as "willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent" and considers the high praise heaped upon it by the French as proof of the "occasional perversity of French taste".

On the other, equally strong praise from no less a personage than Michael Korda, who provocatively claims that if "you want to read about Hell, here it is. If you don’t have the strength to read it, tough shit."

And, somewhere in the middle, there's the typically masterful critique at the Complete Review, which concedes to the novel's power and scope, but laments its lack of insight.

In a few days, we'll be able to do what books like this demand: decide for ourselves. Is The Kindly Ones is a modern War & Peace? Or is it an overhyped monster signalling the end of publishing?

I can't wait to find out.


The New York Times ran an article on March 4 fleshing out HarperCollins' gamble in publishing the book.

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