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From humanitarian to Nazi horror, U.S. author takes France by storm


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American author Jonathan Littell burst onto the French literary scene barely two and a half months ago, having chosen to write his debut novel, a 900-page blockbuster on the Holocaust, in French.

Born in New York to a Jewish family of Polish origin, the 39-year-old grew up in France where he lived until the age of 18, before returning to the United States for his university studies.

He first drafted "Les Bienveillantes", whose title means "The Well-Meaning Ones", over four months while living in Moscow. "It's certainly linked to my literary tradition which is more French than anglo-saxon," he has said of his instinct to write in French.

Describing the English language as "faster, more precise", the bilingual novelist said he kept English for use in his preparatory work such as figuring out the chronology or for organigrammes.

His methodical documentary research for the novel had involved locations in Ukraine and Poland.

"I did organigrammes to understand how it works, to understand the bureaucracy. I love that. I can easily spend two weeks on an organigramme," Littell said.

In fact, he had been mulling the subject for the novel -- a first-person fictional account, without remorse, of the Nazi extermination of the Jews by a former German SS officer -- for 15 years.

And after eight years of humanitarian work for the French charity 'Action Contre La Faim' (Action Against Hunger) in some of the most desperate corners of the world, such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya and Afghanistan, he decided in January 2001 to stop everything and write instead.

His experience in the field only fed into the tale of barbarism and the bureaucracy of horror. "For me, the essential thing is the question of the torturer, of political murder, of state murder," he said.

"What interested me was to understand what led people to become torturers."

"Les Bienveillantes" shot to the top of the French best-seller list in September shortly after its release at the end of August and found wide critical acclaim, much to Littell's own surprise.

"I thought that I would sell 3,000 copies, when they said to me 30,000, I said to them: 'You are mad'," he said. In fact, the novel has now sold more than 200,000 copies, according to his publisher Gallimard.

However, it has also had its detractors.

Franco-German historian Peter Shoettler called it a "strange, monstrous book", explicit to the point of "pornography" on the horrors of the Holocaust, and jolted by anachronisms and a wooden rendition of wartime German culture.

But Littell, a discreet man by nature who has largely shied away from publicity since his book was published, has refused to enter into the public debate on how his novel may be received.

"Once I've finished the book, the line is drawn. It's an object on the table, people can do what they want," he commented.

Littell, the son of US journalist and spy-novelist Robert Littell, first sent his manuscript to his father's literary agent in London, who several months later passed it on to four Parisian publishers.

Three turned it down, but Gallimard was immediately hooked.

As well as turning out to be the novel on everyone's lips for France's busy literary awards season, "Les Bienveillantes" was at the centre of discussions at the Frankfurt book fair last month and rights to the novel have already been sold abroad.

dch/kjm/fb/gh

AFPLifestyle-France-books-prize

AFP 061257 GMT 11 06

COPYRIGHT 2006 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved.

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