Added On: Saturday, December 15, 2007

2008's Hottest Book?

David A. Andelman, 12.01.06, 12:00 PM ET

Either HarperCollins Publisher Jonathan Burnham succumbed to the superheated atmosphere of the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair or he cagily managed to acquire the first classic of the 21st century.

Some even say he bought the next War and Peace or Madame Bovary. The novel is, without doubt, one of the most bizarre hybrids to ever captivate the publishing world. The author, Jonathan Littell, is American, and his first language is English. He wrote the book in French and sold it to Paris-based publisher Gallimard, which had previously published Marcel Proust and Jean-Paul Sartre. In France, the 903-page book became 2006’s runaway best seller.

Les Bienveillantes (in English, "The Kindly Ones,” an allusion to the Furies of Greek mythology) is the confession of a Gestapo agent’s crimes on the Russian front during World War II. The novel sold 280,000 copies and won the Grand prix du roman de l'Académie française and then the coveted Prix Goncourt (the first ever awarded to an American author).

Before his star turn in France, Littell worked in relative obscurity. His father, Robert Littell, is the author of 16 best-selling suspense novels, but the son, 39, had only one book to his credit--a small cyberpunk novel, Bad Voltage, that was published 17 years ago.

In November, the semireclusive author told Le Monde des Livres in one of his rare interviews, "I never counted on very much. I invested five years of work on this book, at my own expense. I never believed I would recover a sum of money equal to the time I put in on this novel. I thought it might sell between 3,000 and 5,000 copies. Gallimard hoped for a little more, to my great skepticism. Then, everything exploded."

Littell sent the 1,500-page manuscript of Les Bienveillantes to his father’s agent, who decided to accept the difficult book. Sentences run, at times, for 20 lines or more, and paragraphs run for eight, even ten, pages without a break.

"It is a great, epoch-defining literary novel," says Burnham, who has no reluctance hyping a book that is unlikely to be available in English before 2008. "It is an important historical novel, a study of the darkest areas of the human psyche and the darkest part of the 20th century. And a journey into that darkness is important to make."

Burnham’s enthusiasm is risky. Hyping a book that fails to live up to its promise is a surefire path toward failure. Les Bienveillantes showed that it has legs in France. The challenge is to make the leap across the Atlantic.

The first step is a translator. Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, who often translated his own works, Littell is auditioning for help even though he writes in English as fluently as he writes in French. Because Littell emulates heroes like Gustave Flaubert, he’s uneasy about rendering it into English alone.

Another reason Littell might not want to tackle his mammoth tome again is that even he’s at a loss to explain the book’s success. One reason he spoke to Le Monde is "Nazism and the rapport the French retain with this period of history." The second, he said, was that Gallimard, his French publisher, believes there is a huge appetite for "big, well-constructed books." That might translate well in America where David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon have both published well-received novels that are over 1,000 pages.

The key question is whether an American audience today has the same fascination with the Nazi period that France, a nation then occupied by Hitler's armies, still retains. Certainly War and Peace is scarcely a best seller anymore on this side of the ocean. Indeed, Littell himself detests the comparison. "In War and Peace, already there's peace," he observes. "In my novel, there's just war."

Given that HarperCollins spent as much on this novel--a whispered $1 million-- as it did on Anderson Cooper’s memoir (a much surer success), Les Bienveillantes will be enthusiastically promoted in the U.S., and it will likely make quite a splash. Just don’t bother waiting for a film version. "The rights are not for sale," Littell told Le Monde. "I don't think it would be possible to adapt this book for the cinema."


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home