American Writer’s Nazi Epic Enchants France

Signandsight features an English translation of a piece in a German newspaper about Jonathan Littell, a 38-year-old American writer whose 900-page novel "The Well-Meaning Ones", written in French, is reputed to be a favorite for the Prix Goncourt. According to this piece in the Independent,

Les Bienveillantes (The Well-Meaning Ones)…is the first-person story of an SS mass murderer who recalls, without emotion, his activities in Nazi execution squads and death camps. The novel, written in a four-month frenzy after five years of research, has been compared by French critics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Stendhal.

Littell himself has an intercontinental past; he "lives in Barcelona with his Belgian wife and two children" and "is Jewish-American but he was brought up and educated partly in France. His father, Robert Littell, is an espionage writer and former journalist who exiled himself in France in the 1970s." According to this article in 20Minutes (F), Littell worked through most of the 1990s for humanitarian organizations in war zones such as Bosnia and Chechnya.

He applied twice for French citizenship, because his American passport limited his effectiveness as a relief worker, his citizenship rendered things — to quote the article directly: "’touchy’ (délicat)." He was turned down for French citizenship because he had not spent sufficient time in France. He says he sketched the outline of the novel in English because he could do so more "rapidly and precisely," but wrote the novel in French, because his own literary tradition is "more French than Anglo-Saxon."

Here, the complete review, a literary blog, handicaps the fast-approaching French literary prize season. Littell’s novel currently tops the French best-seller list and is a contender for the Prix Goncourt. (If you’d like to bet on who will win the Nobel Prize in literature, you can do so here). His response to the French prize season: "That just brings stress. What I ask is simply that people leave me alone."

P.S. The writer for The Independent couldn’t resist a dig at contempoary French novels: "Most contemporary French novels are thin volumes of 300 pages or fewer. They are often taken up with the author’s childhood, literary struggles or random musings."

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