Michiko’s Not Buying It

In today’s New York Times, staff reviewer Michiko Kakutani sounds like Virginia Kirkus in high dudgeon (“Unrepentant and Telling of Horrors Untellable”). What’s got her going? The winner of France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, Les Bienveillantes, just published here in English as The Kindly Ones.

Reflecting the kind of internationalism that we saw at the Academy Awards, the book is written in French about a German Nazi officer by American-born Jonathan Littell (he’s the son of acclaimed American spy novelist Robert Littell, who lives in France).

Kakutani has nothing good to say about it,

The novel’s gushing fans…seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, The Kindly Ones … is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies.

The prepub reviewers were split. Kirkus, called it a tour de force that is “very long, but with not a wasted word.” Booklist starred it, but Library Journal said,

…it’s not clear that American readers will want to struggle through almost 1000 pages of unresolved moral conflict about the Holocaust. Because the book has received considerable press, however, most large libraries will want to own a copy.”

Publishers Weekly was even harsher,

Littell’s strung together many tens of thousands of words, but many tens of thousands of words does not necessarily a novel make. As the French say, tant pis.

Most libraries have it on order in fairly high quantities for a literary title; some are showing reserves; the highest at 2 to 1.

The Kindly Ones
Littell, Jonathan
Price: $29.99
Hardcover: 992 pages
Publisher: Harper – (2009-03-01)
ISBN-10: 0061353450
ISBN-13: 9780061353451

One Response to “Michiko’s Not Buying It”

  1. Looking More Kindly on ‘The Kindly Ones’ | EarlyWord: The Publisher | Librarian Connection Says:

    […] over a million copies, and won the two most prestigious French literary awards. but Kakutani isn’t buying it; The novel’s gushing fans…seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, […]