France Honors American Novelist with Book Awards

Two of France's most prestigious book awards have gone to American Jonathan Littell for his first serious novel. Written in French, Les Bienveillantes or The Kindly Ones, is in the form of a memoir by a former SS officer who leads a hidden life in a French town. The novel is a huge hit in France.

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Here's the story. A former German SS officer sits down at his desk in a small French town to write an explanation of he's lived for the last 50 years with a false identity. Nearly a thousand pages later, he finishes his confessions. They reveal his descent from an intellectual dedicated to art, literature, and ideas to a butcher devoid of all human sympathy.

Grim as it may sound, the novel is the hottest volume to hit French bookstores in years. It was written in French by an American, Jonathan Little, and it's already been sold in more than a dozen languages.

Frank Browning prepared this report. And be warned, it contains some disturbing imagery.

FRANK BROWNING: It's called "Les Bienvaillantes," or roughly, "The Kindly," or "Benevolent Ones." It sold, in less than four months, more than 600,000 copies. Here's how it opens.

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Brother humans, let me tell you how it all came to pass. I'm not your brother, you retort, and nobody wants to know. True enough. It's a dark story but also enlightening, a veritable mortal tale, I assure you. It risks being a bit long; after all, a lot happens. But if you find you're not in too much of a hurry, with a little luck you'll take the time. And anyway, it's about you.

BROWNING: From there, the narrator, Max, gives a cold, calm account of his life inside Germany, supervising the extermination of Jews and gypsies and Bolsheviks and homosexuals.

Tana Rassant(ph) bought the book right after it appeared and read all 903-pages in 13 nights.

Ms. TANA RASSANT: It's very hard. You have to have a stomach well in place. You have times where...

(Soundbite of gasping)

Ms. RASSANT: ...I had to stop.

BROWNING: Rassant, whose Jewish family survived the war by escaping to New York, said she would have stopped reading.

Ms. RASSANT: If it wasn't great writing, fabulous writing, fabulous style in the book. I think it's one of the greatest books I've ever read in my life.

BROWNING: Which for many is all the more surprising, because the writer, Jonathan Little, is a 39-year-old American whose first language is English, even though he was raised in France. Little is also the first American ever to win France's highest literary award, he Prix Goncourt, an honor he shares with André Malraux, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and Marcel Proust.

Jonathan Little is himself a bit of a mystery. He gave very few interviews, then cut off all media contact and retreated to Barcelona. And that in itself added to the mystique, says editor and bookstore owner Francis Jeffar(ph).

Mr. FRANCIS JEFFAR (Editor and Bookstore Owner): You know, comes a moment when a book is not seen only as a book, but as a wide array of things around it. So when you go to dinners, or when you go to parties, people are going to talk about this. So it almost became a social phenomenon.

BROWNING: And more, it touched a nerve that still runs raw through French life.

Mr. JEFFAR: I believe, you know, it was such a success because it was really focusing on something still at the core of French society, you know. This is part of our history and it is a very troubled period of our history.

BROWNING: Until the last decade, no French president had ever apologized or acknowledged the depth of French collaboration with the Nazi SS. Indeed, France's last president, Francois Mitterrand, had as a young man collaborated with the German-controlled Vichy regime that helped send more than 75,000 to the gas chambers.

Writer Jonathan Little spent some five years immersing himself in the documents and dairies of the Nazi era. Despite all that has been written, his book has revealed much that readers never knew. Tana Rassant, for example, had not understood that the gas chambers were created because of fear that young German soldiers might revolt over being ordered to shoot children and slash open the bellies of pregnant women.

Ms. RASSANT: The basic soldier, you know, foot soldier, started being disgusted because they saw their wives and their children in front of them. And they invented trucks where they packed people and gassed them in trucks, so the cadavers where one on top of the other one, all mixed up. So they decided that it was going to be cleaner if they had gas chambers.

BROWNING: More upsetting still for many readers is that Max, while describing horrible acts, seems to be an altogether normal fellow, a man of ideas who loves art. Early on, he says...

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) Like most people, I never asked to be an assassin. If I could have, as I've already said, I would have given myself to literature, to write, if I'd had the talent. If not, maybe teaching, living serenely among the best and the most beautiful things of human will. Who willingly, aside from a fool, would choose murder?

BROWNING: It is the nuanced juxtaposition of murder and sophisticated intellectual in the same character that has turned readers passionate about the novel, says Jonathan Burnham, head of Harper Collins, who paid more than $1.1 million to publish the novel in America.

Mr. JONATHAN BURNHAM (Harper Collins): The problem of imaginative sympathy, from the point of view of the reader, is made very acute because one's natural inclination is to side with the narrator, with the subject, but in this case, he is a truly repulsive, repellent individual. So it's a particular kind of challenge for the reader, and I think a completely new way of re-entering the horror of the Holocaust.

BROWNING: Jonathan Littel, though an American, will not translate his novel into English, but he will have a hand in approving the final text, and it won't always be easy. Even the title is hard to render in English. Technically, "Les Bienveillantes" means the kindly ones, but its reference is also to classical Greece, where mortals offered supplication to the Furies not to be plagued by the sword of torture and chaos that stretches from the German gas chambers to the killing fields of Rwanda.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.

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