Book review: The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, pp.992, published by Chatto & Windus

Of all the millions killed in WWII, the fate of a fictional character has concerned me more than any. Stranger still, I have found myself rooting for a German and a high ranking SS officer at that. The same might be said for you, if you’ve read the Kindly Ones, a book which turns preconceptions about the Second World War on their head.

Max Aue is one of those educated, cultivated Nazis you often hear about. He has a doctorate in law. He loves French classical music and wishes he could play the piano. Towards the jews, he harbours no personal hatred. But all the same, from an ideological perspective, he believes in enslaving them and co-operates in massacres at the front and the institutionalised murder of the camps.

But early on this bloody-handed narrator insists that the men who pull the triggers are no more culpable than, say, men working in gun factories or even the builders of roads. You, dear reader, would have done the same, says he, and this dispassionate, involving epic soon fosters a certain level of collusion with Aue. His guilt soaks into you.

The Obersturmbahnführer’s crimes go back to the nursery and later return to the family home with devastating effects, or so it seems. Only the horror that surrounds this character offers any sort of expiation at all. Where civilisation breaks down almost everyone is as bad, or worse. The book is full of shocking, unfilmable details which cannot but be true.

Despite all this or perhaps because of it, The Kindly Ones is filled with excitement. Aue is a great escapologist, surviving Stalingrad, near capture behind Russian lines and a final apocalypse set in Berlin. There are meetings with Eichmann, Speer, Himmler and even Hitler. His involvement with the 20th century’s greatest conflict is total.

Jonathan Littell has demystified the German regime and taken the romantic sheen off what has been called the last just war. His book left me with great sadness and no little amazement.


Fiona Banner, Harrier and Jaguar, 2010 (Jaguar detail) © Fiona Banner Photo: Tate

Perhaps all art has ever done is provide visual enjoyment, depsite the questionable values inherent in traditional, modern or contemporary subject matter. Fiona Banner’s latest commission at Tate Britain is indeed problematic, but without question it is still enjoyable.

The London-based artist has installed two decommissioned fighter planes in the neoclassical Duveens Gallery. One, upside down, has been stripped of paint and now has a mirror-like finish. The other hangs from its tail fin and has been painted with feathers.

Some will complain you can get a comparable thrill at an air show, which may be true. Does that mean Banner’s work is not art at all, or could it mean that art can be found at air shows, or even at arms fairs, should they stimulate the sight in a pleasurable way?

The artist herself insists these two planes are objects of beauty, but the same could be said for any number of industrial products. But of paramount importance here is the gallery context or the role of the artist. (Banner after all has a track record of looking at fighter jets from an aesthetic point of view, in a way most air show directors probably do not.)

So given the wider picture, art does more than give pleasure. It also offers the chance to reflect upon the experience. That may be the greatest thrill of all.

Fiona Banner, Harrier and Jaguar, is on show in the Duveens Gallery at Tate Britain until 3 January 2011



Remedios Varo, Creation of the Birds (Creacion de las aves) (1957). Oil on masonite. © Remedios Varo, DACS/VEGAP, (ex: Chichester, Norwich) (2010)

It must be tempting for an artist to think the painted, drawn or sculpted subject has a life beyond the canvas, page or block. This was maybe the original impulse of art – with cave paintings as an invocation for the success of the tribal hunt.

Most paintings of beauty could be viewed the same way, as attempts to make desires real. Once we strove to possess mammoths; later we strove to possess landscapes and nudes. The artwork could be a talisman for calling ideal situations into being.

At a stretch this can also explain why artists have painted hell, or suffering, or war. Desire may be the only motive power of the mind, in which case we have more sadistic or masochistic desires than we generally know.

An artist can even yearn for a god. In The Creation of The Birds (1957) Remedios Varo summons one up from her own imagination or perhaps some esoteric text.

This painting is not all that different from a classical sculpture of a god of antiquity or a later western representation of the Christian God, or his son, or any other of the saints, etc.

Varo invokes her goddess through paint. Fine brushstrokes focus the mind. Inventive details (prism, violin string, and paint machine) make the desired being plausible. It is a prayer, or perhaps a spell, or is there any difference in terms of art?

The Creation of the Birds is on display in the show Surreal Friends, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until 12 September.


Take one iPod and Spotify addict, give him the text of a lecture by John Cage, take away his music for a week, and see what happens. It was a recent, quite unscientific experiment and the guinea pig was me.

The first few days were harsh. Putting on the stereo was one of those things that helped get me out of bed in the morning. I resorted to singing in the shower, whistling on the way to the office. Back home at night, the silence stretched out like dead time. Life seemed a blank. TV was no substitute.

By day five I had begun dreaming about music and in my dream I was making preparations to listen to Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys. ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘it will be very nice,’ but my fix of melody never came to pass. I woke up, to more, depressing silence.

That weekend there was a party and I was expecting wine, women and song: in reverse order. But the longed for music was a disappointment. Watching guests dance, I missed the sound of washing machines, traffic or dogs barking. Okay, that may have been the drink thinking.

But the next day I got a bus and sat at the back, over the engine, and for the first time really got into some background noise. Each burst of acceleration seemed like a dense, reverb-filled chord. I think it helped that engine noise is loud, more attuned to my rock sensibilties.

The real acid test was switching on the football last night to watch a World Cup game. It was Spain versus Honduras and the two goals were not bad, but you know what? The much maligned drone of the African vuvuzelas does sound, in fact, fantastic. Then again, so do the Beach Boys.

An exhibition of paintings by John Cage, Every Day is a Good Day, is on show at BALTIC, Gateshead until 5 September 2010.