|New York Times - Tuesday November 7, 2006|
|American Writer Is Awarded Goncourt|
By ALAN RIDING
PARIS, Nov. 6
— Jonathan Littell, a New York-born writer whose French-language novel about a
murderous and degenerate SS officer has been the sensation of the French
publishing season, on Monday became the first American to win France’s most
prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
That said, “Les Bienveillantes” is improbable best seller, not only cause it comprises 903 pages of all print, but also because, apart m a long-forgotten science fiction k, “Bad Voltage: A Fantasy in
published in the 1980s, this is Mr. Littell’s first attempt at fiction. Written in the first person, it is the moir of Maximilien Aue, a well cated former SS officer who has aged to escape punishment after war and reinvent himself as a e manufacturer in northern ance. It is not a confession, though, ause Aue sees no reason to apobo e. Rather, it is a matter-of-fact de iption of his decadence — homo ual sadomasochism and incest th his sister — and of his murder s role in the Nazi nightmare. ‘Brother humans, let me tell you things happened,” Aue begins, n adding: “If I have finally de ed to write, it is no doubt to pass lime and also, possibly, to clarify one or two obscure points, perhaps for you and for myself. Moreover, I think it will do me good.”
Born of a German father and a French mother, Aue notes, to explain his fluent French, that he attended secondary school and college in France. “Like most people, I did not ask to become an assassin,” he writes. “If I had had my way, as I said, I would have gone into litera ture.”
The war takes him to Ukraine dur ing the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar; to Stalingrad, where he is
A story of decadence and one man’s role in the Nazi horror.
wounded; and to Auschwitz. Like Forrest Gump, he meets historical figures, in this case infamous Nazis, among them Adolf Eichmann, Albert Speer, Rudolf Hess and, in the book’s final pages, Hitler himself. All in all he personifies Hannah Arendt’s f a mous notion — she applied it to Eich mann — of the “banality of evil.”
Unsurprisingly, “Les Bienveillantes” has been debated here as much for its historical accuracy as for its literary qualities, with Mr. Lanzmann lamenting that Mr. Littell “is fascinated by horror and the decor of death,” and other critics complaining that the novel is weighed down by documentation. But a more typical view, like this one from the weekly Le Point, is that the
book “exploded onto the dreary piain of the literary autumn like a mete or.”
Every year what they call the “literary autumn” — or “Ia rentrée litté raire” — spawns a veritable avalanche of fiction, with no fewer than 475 new French novels and another
207 in translation published this sea son. In the summer French publish ers choose which novels they will promote for various literary awards guaranteed to boost sales.
No less a ritual, though, is a heated debate about the maneuvering by French publishers that precedes these awards. Critics complain that, unlike those who select most Ameri can and British literary prizes, the same jurors for the French prizes sit in judgment for years on end, and that most are themselves writers closely aligned to leading publishers like Gallimard, Grasset and Le Seuil.
This year the credibility of the prizes was freshly battered by the timely publication of two books of journals. Jacques Brenner, a former senior editor at Grasset who died in 2001, described how publishers agreed to support one another’s books on juries. In one entry in 1985, he writes that, to thank Alain Robbe Grillet for helping Bernard-Henri Levy win the Médicis prize the previ ous year, Grasset “will publish a bad erotic novel” by Robbe-Grillet’s wife.
More topically, a diary published last month by Madeleine Chapsal, a longtime juror for the Prix Femina, included a bitter observation that last year’s verdict was determined before the jury even met. This prompted the Femina jury to expel Ms. Chapsal; another juror, Régine Deforges, then resigned in solidarity, Still, this year’s Femina prize awarded to the Canadian-born writei Nancy Huston for her new novel “Lignes de Faille,” or “Fault Lines,’ was considered well deserved. Am with “Les Bienveilantes” winning of 10 votes in the Goncourt jury, no one has suggested that this result was fixed.