Littell spent 5 years actively researching and writing the book, but 20 years thinking about the subject after seeing a photograph of Russian partisan Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya while still at Yale. Even Shoah director Claude Lanzmann acknowledges his mastery of the historical detail (though Lanzmann despised the book). Littell worked for NGOs for almost a decade, and reportedly dealt with real killers in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya. He also understands the connection with America's experience in Vietnam. If nothing else he is a serious thinker.
From an interview / profile in Haaretz (read the comments as well!):
"Les Bienveillantes," Littell's first serious book (in 1989 he published what he calls an "amateurish" science fiction novel), sparked an immediate furor. Published in France in the summer of 2006, it became nothing short of a social phenomenon. Some critics hailed it as the "first masterpiece of the 21st century," others decried it as "the great hoax of the 21st century."
...The French press did not hesitate to speculate that Littell was not the real author and that the narrator-protagonist was a real person. Littell was compared with Proust, Stendhal and Flaubert, and also with the Marquis de Sade and Jean Genet - writers drawn to the portrayal of evil. The fact that the book was on the shortlist for the six most important literary prizes in France and became only the second book to win the Prix Goncourt and the French Academy prize simultaneously only intensified the hoopla.
While Michiko Kakutani of the Times savaged the book (there is no shortage of such reviews), Michael Korda extolls it here (again, good comments).
Below are some excerpts from another good interview of Littell.
... I am particularly fond of Margaret Atwood’s comment: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.”
... You can be sure you’re writing “literature” but actually fall short, or be tormented by doubts although literature has long been present. A book by a crazy person can prove to be literature when that of a great writer is not, for ambiguous and hard to explain reasons. One is always full of doubt. One doesn’t know. I think Tolstoy and Vasily Grossman were also full of doubt. Definitely Grossman, anyway. His stated ambition was to write as well as Tolstoy, but I’m sure he said to himself as he finished his book that he wasn’t worth Tolstoy’s little finger.
...A book is an experience. A writer asks questions as he tries to make his way through the darkness. Not towards the light, but further into the darkness, to arrive at a darkness even darker than his starting place. It is most certainly not the creation of a preconceived object. Which is why I have to write in one go. Writing is a throw of the dice. You never know what’s going to happen when you write. You try to set everything up as well as possible, and then you start. Once you’re at the writing stage, you think in words, not with your brain. It comes from a different place. The writing progresses, until you arrive at a place you never anticipated. That is why I am quite willing to accept the criticism that I made mistakes with this novel, that I did false or unacceptable things. Because I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought I did, beforehand, but the final result is something else entirely.
...When I started, I expected to find in the perpetrators’ testimonies things I could use. Between these and all the killers I had met in my professional life—in Bosnia when I worked on the Serbian side, in Chechnya with the Russian army, in Afghanistan with the Taliban, in Africa with the Rwandans and Congolese—I thought I would have something. But the more I read the perpetrators’ texts, the more I realized they were empty. I would never get anywhere by sticking with classic fictional recreation, with the omniscient author, mediating as Tolstoy does between good and evil. The only option was to put myself in the perpetrators’ shoes. And I knew that place. I had hung out with killers. I started with what I knew, which is to say myself, with my own ways of thinking and seeing the world, and decided to put myself in the shoes of a Nazi.
...Max Aue is a roving X-ray, a scanner. He is not, indeed, a plausible character. I was aiming not for plausibility but for truth. You cannot create a novel if you insist solely on plausibility. Novelistic truth is a different thing from historic or sociological truth. The issue of the perpetrator is the main issue the historians of the Shoah have been exploring for the last 15 years. The only remaining question is the motivation of the killers. Having read the works of the great researchers, it seems to me that they have hit a brick wall. This is very clear with Christopher Browning. He has created a list of potential motivations and has no way of arbitrating between them. Some prioritize anti-Semitism, others ideology. But in the end, they don’t know. The reason is simple. The historian works from documents, and so from the words of the perpetrators, which are themselves an aporia. And where can one go from there?
...When Claude Lanzmann comments that my perpetrator is implausible, and also unsavory, he is right. Except that there would never have been a novel if I had chosen an “Eichmann” as narrator. Lanzmann’s fear is that people’s only access to the Shoah will be through my book. The opposite is true. Sales of books by Raul Hilberg and Claude Lanzmann have increased since the publication of The Kindly Ones. Lanzmann and I start from the same question to arrive at different, irreconcilable conclusions. Both are true. Our discussion is not yet over.
Update: I've now read large sections of the book; it is brilliant in places and utterly absorbing -- I had to force myself to put it away each time.
Here is another good review with comments on Littell's historical and theoretical mastery of his subject. Also here.