- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006


American writer Jonathan Littell accomplished the near-unthinkable yesterday by snaring the revered Goncourt Prize, France’s most prestigious literary award, with his 900-page World War II novel narrated by a Nazi SS officer — and written in French.

“Les Bienveillantes,” or “The Kindly Ones,” has garnered wide attention in France — for both its grim subject matter and the nationality of its author.

Mr. Littell was not in Paris when the Prix Goncourt was announced. He was in Barcelona, where he lives with his two children and their Belgian mother, according to his publisher, Gallimard.

Antoine Gallimard, Mr. Littell’s editor, said the author was “very happy” about the prize but preferred to remain out of the limelight.

The 103-year-old Prix Goncourt guarantees literary acclaim and high sales for the winning author. Past recipients include Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras.

The Goncourt jury members, following a long-held tradition, announced the winner after voting in a restaurant near Paris’ Opera Garnier. Mr. Littell got seven out of 10 votes, winning, unusually, in the first round, said Goncourt administrator Marie Dabadie.

The lengthy novel, which weighs about 2.2 pounds in paperback, is a first-person account of the Nazis’ murderous campaign in Eastern Europe as told by former SS officer Maximilien Aue.

Aue, who managed to slip back into civilian life after the war, tells of his role in the Nazi butchery from the comfort of his bourgeois home in suburban France. His unapologetic narrative is filled with gruesome, blood-soaked accounts of the mass executions of Jews and Gypsies that he helped supervise and vivid depictions of life on the front.

Mr. Littell, who was born in New York but later lived in France, has said he chose to write the book in French as a tribute to two of his favorite authors, Stendhal and Gustave Flaubert.

The book’s English translation is to be published in the United States in 2008 by HarperCollins, which won the rights to the book in an extensive bidding war.

” ‘The Kindly Ones’ is a brilliant and terrifying novel that delves into the darkest chapters of 20th-century history and into the darkest realm of the human psyche,” HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said last month, when the American edition was announced. “There’s nothing like it, and I believe that it will be acclaimed in the U.S. [as it has been in France] as a true masterpiece of our age.”

In France, the book has topped best-seller lists for weeks, selling 250,000 copies since its release in late August, and its 15th edition will have an additional run of 150,000, Gallimard said. “The Kindly Ones” also has attracted nearly unanimous praise from France’s notoriously difficult critics, and it won the Academie Francaise’s top honor last month.

Mr. Littell was born in 1967 into a literary family. His father, Robert Littell, is known for such spy novels as “Legends” and “An Agent in Place.” At age 20, Jonathan Littell published his first book, an unsuccessful science-fiction novel called “Bad Voltage.” It was written in English.

After graduating from Yale University, Mr. Littell worked for a French humanitarian aid organization in Bosnia, Chechnya and Congo. The horrors he witnessed in those war-ravaged lands partly inspired “Les Bienveillantes,” Mr. Littell has said.

He spent years researching the novel, which is rich in historical detail. Mr. Littell told the current issue of Paris Match magazine that he read more than 200 books on World War II — and when he was finished, he wrote the 912-page tome in just four months.

“It just came out,” the magazine quoted him as saying.

Getting the massive manuscript published was another story, according to Paris Match. Several French publishing houses turned down the book — with one suggesting it uncomfortably causes readers to identify with Aue — before the prestigious Gallimard imprint picked it up.

France’s second-highest literary prize also was awarded yesterday. The Prix Renaudot went to Alain Mabanckou for “Memoires de porc-epic,” or “Memories of a Porcupine.”

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