Historical and Literary Approaches to the "final Solution": Saul Friedlander and Jonathan Littell

This article discusses together two recent prize-winning works of epic proportions that have received much attention: Saul Friedlander's two-volume historical study Nazi Germany and the Jews and Jonathan Littell's novel Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the former of which focuses on victims and the latter on perpetrators of the "Final Solution." I provide a critical analysis of Littell's novel, especially with respect to its seemingly fatalistic mingling of erotic and genocidal motifs and its disavowal or underestimation of the difficulty and necessity of understanding victims of the Nazi genocide. My analysis raises the question of the extent to which the notoriety of the novel may be due to the way it instantiates influential approaches to both literature and the Holocaust in terms of an aesthetic of the sublime, excess, radical ambiguity (resolvable at best into irony and paradox), and fatalistic entry into an incomprehensible "heart of darkness." Crucial here is the notion that an object (paradigmatically, the Holocaust) both demands representation or explanation and ultimately is beyond comprehension, narrative, or even words. I also reevaluate the bases for the justified praise accorded Friedlander's masterwork and question certain claims made on its behalf by commentators, especially with respect to literary and historiographical innovation. In so doing, I explore and defend the role of critical theory in relation to historical narrative.