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French Book Prize

DW staff / AFP (rar)November 7, 2006

American Jonathan Littell, won France's top literary prize, the Goncourt, for his French novel "Les Bienveillantes" about a fictional German SS officer's memoirs.

American novelist Jonathan Littell in is seen in Paris
Littell's book written from the perspective of a Nazi SS officer, has created a stirImage: AP

Littell first drafted "Les Bienveillantes", whose title means "The Well-Meaning Ones" or "The Kindly Ones", over four months while living in Moscow. The book is a first-person fictional account, without remorse, of the Nazi extermination of the Jews by a former German SS officer.

The prize jury said Littell's debut novel easily triumphed over a field of three other works from French authors with a 7-3 vote.

The book is already a sensation in France, where it sits atop the best-seller list with more than 250,000 copies sold.

Littell, the 39-year-old son of US journalist and spy novel writer Robert Littell, was not present to receive the honor.

His French editor said he remained at his home in Barcelona, Spain, and transmitted a message saying "he prefers to stay out of the limelight."

Littell "is very happy and he accepts this prize with pleasure," added Antoine Gallimard, of the Gallimard publishing house, stressing that no form of disrespect was intended by his absence.

"He has no time for publicity, partly out of shyness, but also
because he believes literature is not an entertainment industry.
What is important is the book itself," Gallimard said, adding that
another 150,000 copies would now be printed.

Littell's life and work

Born in New York in 1967 to a Jewish family of Polish origin, Littell grew up in France where he lived until the age of 18, before returning to the United States for his university studies.After graduating, he spent 15 years traveling around the world, much of it working for humanitarian organizations.

He spent eight years working 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 and 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.

SS troops march for Hitler on his 50th Birthday
The story is a first hand account of the experiences of a German SS soldierImage: dpa

Fully bilingual, he wrote his 900-page book in French, though admitted that he wrote up much of his methodical research figuring out the chronology or for organigrammes in English, which he describes as "faster, more precise."

"Les Bienveillantes" has already won a prestigious Academie Francaise prize given to first-time authors writing in French.

"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.

It is soon to be translated and published in Britain, the United States and other countries after auctions believed to have netted Littell more than a million dollars.

The story

The novel tells the story of an unrepentant Nazi SS officer who recounts his extermination of Jews in World War II.

"What interested me was to understand what led people to become torturers," Littell has said in one of his rare interviews.

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.

The head of the Goncourt jury, Edmonde Charles-Roux, brushed those views aside, enthusiastically endorsing Littell's book after Monday's vote.

"You can't dismiss such a monument," he said.

A jury member, Jorge Semprun, said he was "stunned by this amazing book -- it's the literary event of this half-century."