As I mentioned in Old Media Monday, Michiko Kakutani got in the first word on Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones, the French phenomenon written by an American and now translated into English and due out on March 3. It was a nasty one: "The novel's gushing fans ... seem to have mistaken perversity for
daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian
cleverness." But this week, in The Daily Beast, cosmopolitan editor and author Michael Korda (he read the book in the original French) strikes back with a gusher of a review, comparing Littell, in his ambition and his success in writing the Great European Novel, to Melville and Dostoyevsky:
kind of taste at all, you won't be able to put it down for a moment"”lay
in snacks and drinks!"”you will be upset, disturbed, revolted, and
deeply challenged. Dr. Max Aue is weirdly, distressingly, horribly
fascinating, he takes us in excruciating detail to Auschwitz, to the
killing grounds of East Europe, to Stalingrad under siege, to Hitler's
bunker, to every strange, distorted, Breughelesque, grotesque and
terrifying level of the Third Reich, without ever, for one moment,
giving us a chance to feel superior to these people.
It's not a direct riposte to Kakutani (although the headline makes it one), but that "if you have any taste at all" line strikes pretty close to the heart.
As I also mentioned on Monday, I'm about 150 pages (out of almost 1000) into The Kindly Ones. I have to put it aside for a while for other reading (whatever that says about my kind of taste), but I'm going to get back to it, because so far I'm a lot closer to Korda's side of this than Kakutani's. The events described are horribly grim, but told with a riveting restraint. Perhaps Dr. Aue goes off the rails later on--and the novel with him--but so far I'm buying it. Not that I'm the final word on the subject, but I'll let you know what I think when I read further.
Meanwhile, speaking of Kakutani's pre-publication pans and of The Daily Beast, they are also featuring this week four letters from Norman Mailer's voluminous and pugnacious archives, the last of which a complaint from 2003 to New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger about their lead reviewer's penchant for savaging books ahead of publication date:
perhaps the least awful), but three of those five could make the claim
that the ugliest review all received came from Kakutani. What
underlined the procedure and could give it a willful subtext was that
four of those five reviews came out a week to two weeks ahead of
publication. Michiko was first with the worst. One of the basic tricks
in book criticism is to get out early if you really detest a book.
Still, four out of five! Kakutani was abusing her privilege.