Beth Hightower Humanities and Social Science
Pour les morts: Tedium, Identity, and the Ethics of Representation in Les Bienveillantes
The story of genocide has largely been taken up by its victims: their testimony takes on a reparative significance, counteracting their previous erasure. Jonathan Littells 2006 novel Les Bienveillantes, however, depicts World War II through the eyes of a Nazi official, who speaks to the reader as both an intellectual and historical actor. The narrators intellectualism authenticates him, makes him relatable, places him in a French literary tradition, and facilitates his crimes.
This intellectual bent allows the narrator to take an administrative position within the regime, granting him access to the bureaucratic information that he then narrates in a tedious deluge of dull facts. The boredom this role implies and inflicts suggests that evil is not only banal, but is in fact an ordeal of drudgery, underlining the deeper horror of a continued choice to be complicit. This project will explore what this depiction of evil means in the context of French literature, and in particular, for French identity, given both Littells self-conscious positioning of Les Bienveillantes within the French literary context as an American author and its outstanding sales and critical acclaim in France versus its less enthusiastic international reception.