Tuesday, March 10, 2009

One man's perversity...

Sometimes writing a blog feels a little like undressing in front of a one-way window. You don't know who's watching, so you have to pretend you're alone, otherwise you become all embarrassed.

That's why it's always great when readers react. Thanks to everyone who has been sending comments, suggesting must-read authors or books, or providing links to other sites. Sometimes friends or acquaintances prefer to send emails to my personal address, often in Afrikaans or French, rather than 'public statements' to this site. Fine with me, as long as we can keep talking, in whatever language, about books and bookish things.

Earlier this week, for instance, Karin from Stellenbosch sent a link to a New York Times piece about Jonathan Littell's novel, The Kindly Ones, finally on sale in English. Some of you might remember that in November last year I wrote about Littell and other authors who achieve literary glory in a second or even third language (Choosing the other tongue), and concluded that I'd rather wait for the English translation of Les Bienveillantes. Well, I still haven't read the translation (it has nearly a thousand pages, have mercy), but I did read what the New York Times had to say about the book:


Since the link is available for only a few days, I'll sum it up for you. The narrator of this 'divisive French novel' (according to the caption) is 'a remorseless former Nazi SS officer, who in addition to taking part in the mass extermination of the Jews, commits incest with his sister, sodomizes himself with a sausage and most likely kills his mother and stepfather.' While some American and British critics are hailing the book as a masterpiece and its author as a genius, others are calling it perverse, pretensious, odious, disgusting and vile.

What fascinates me, is that I can't recall any French reviews - or any of my French friends who read the novel - going on about incest or sodomy-by-sausage or any other juicy bits of perversity. Surely there must have been differences of opinion over here too, but the mainstream reviews that I read were mostly ravingly positive. The book was also awarded France's most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, and as far as I know the jury of this prize is regarded as rather conservative.

Or is this just conservative by French standards?

I do remember my friend Pierre-Luc saying that it was hard to read the details of some of the atrocities commited by the SS, and that the narrator was not exactly a charming character, but I thought that was the whole point of the book. The former SS officer is, after all, unrepentant. Just a few nights ago I happened to watch a television documentary about the horrendous massacre of most of the inhabitants of an Italian village during the Second World War - and all the Nazi officers and soldiers involved, except one, refused to admit any guilt or remorse. They had simply been doing their duty, according to them. Just like Littell's fictional officer, I suppose.

Besides, many literary masterpieces have been called vile, disgusting, perverse and worse when they were first published. I don't yet know if I would find The Kindly Ones a masterpiece, but I do know that I am more curious than ever to read it. Meanwhile I'm wondering if French readers and reviewers are simply less easily shocked than those in England or the United States. Or perhaps one has become so used to 'perversity' in French literature that one doesn't notice it any more? Or perhaps the French concept of 'perversity' differs quite dramatically from the Anglo-Saxon one?

Or maybe this has nothing to do with nationalities. It might be just another example in a long list of books that have proven that one man's perversity is almost always another man's pleasure. So please let me know if you've read it - in whatever language - and whether you found it delightful, disturbing or disgusting.