What We Talk About When We Say The Fata Morgana Books Are Not “The Kindly Ones Part II”

I’d like to pick up here on some of the comments CJ Evans made about The Fata Morgana Books, especially in regards to the elephant in the room, aka Littell’s previous novel, the gargantuan (984 pages!) The Kindly Ones.

To Take a step back, The Kindly Ones made quite a splash when it hit the United States in 2008 (even if it didn’t sell anywhere near the half-a-million copies it originally sold in France). A number of critics gave it huge praise (including, perhaps most famously, Daniel Mendelsohn in The New York Review of Books), the kind of praise that you rarely see for any work of literature, and especially not for thousand-page books narrated by a freakish Nazi. A bunch of other critics really, really hated and book, and I mean really.

So this was very interesting to me. Clearly there was something going on, and I could even understand it to an extent, as I have mixed feelings about Littell (more on that below). So I thought it would be an interesting thing to play up in the marketing of The Fata Morgana Books—accordingly, I made this postcard, which was sent to critics, editors, and booksellers:

Eventually the postcard was picked up by The Washington Post, where I was interviewed and made the following point:

Littell has developed a reputation for being controversial, and I think that’s in no small part because he is willing to do things in his fiction — and do them very well — that very few other authors can or will. Keying in on the immense polarization that his first book caused seemed like a great way to remind people of this, as well as to let everyone know that this isn’t “The Kindly Ones” Part II but in fact a very different book: It’s short, it uses language in very different ways, it’s a lot more playful, it asks very different questions about what art is and what it should do, about love and sex and desire, and the narrative voices are completely different.

Now I think this is a big part of why The Kindly Ones really wasn’t my thing, whereas I have very positive feelings about The Fata Morgana Books. It’s extremely obvious that Littell is puzzling over many of the same things in both books (i.e. sexuality, desire, the nature of evil), but I find the representation of these questions far, far more interesting in Fata Morgana than Kindly Ones.

One thing at play here is that Fata Morgana is so relentlessly ahistorical. Setting The Kindly Ones during World War II may have been a necessary thing for various reasons, but it put the questions Littell wanted to look at into a very constraining framework, which, I think, is why many of the critics found it reprehensible. The nature of bisexual desire, for instance, can be an incredibly interesting thing to explore in a work of fiction, but inscribing that exploration into the first-person narrative of a feverishly anti-Semitic Nazi is risky and counterproductive in a lot of ways. I like the fact that Fata Morgana often feels like it could be occurring anywhere—it lets these questions breathe and gives them a Lispector-like whimsicality that I think opens them up.

This extra space really behooves Littell as an author. One of the four novellas in The Fata Morgana Books takes place in hell, although it’s a depiction of hell unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Now, he might have chosen to tell the very same story on a World War II battlefield (a hellish place, to be sure), but it would have lost a lot of the flexibility that Littell gains by placing his story in a purely imaginary location. I’m talking not only narrative flexibility, but also moral—it’s just not the same reading about rape in an imaginary version of hell and reading about rape on a WWII battlefield.

There’s also the matter of length. Many critics berated Littell for his excesses in The Kindly Ones, a rather easy case to make with a thousand-page book. Fata Morgana has many of its own characteristically “Littell-ian” excesses, but I’d argue that they are excessive in a good sort of way: they connote a pleasing sense of excess, but without droning on for pages and pages and pages . . . as I put it to one person the other day, for all the sex in Fata Morgana, it’s amazing that it never feels purely gratuitous. And I think this is a key thing for a lot of readers. It can be titillating and transgressive and just plain fun to read a book that wants to serious implicate questions like this, but it’s very easy to go too far in this direction. As such, I appreciate that these books are novellas. The constrained environment (in terms of length) is one that, in my opinion, suits Littell very well.

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