Laurent Binet and HHhH

I read a bit more of HHhH last night, but I was so whacked I couldn’t read much. (Twitter does seem a little quiet today, I think people are catching their collective breath after an amazing first few days.)

The voice of HHhH is easy to read I find; the narrator, purportedly Binet himself, cast as narrator-character, is easy to get on with. There is no pomposity, and no exaggeration, no flourish. It’s just a readable voice, someone telling you something about something very interesting. Which doesn’t mean he is casual about it, no. Every word is carefully selected – I believe – and it makes me wonder about the effect of translation. But that’s another blog post.

When I went to see Laurent Binet at the Melbourne Writers Festival on Friday, it was the first session at 10am and the place was packed. Unfortunately, the MWF website has updated and isn’t showing sessions that have already finished. (I was going to link to it.) The Binet interview was broadcast on Radio National and the interviewer was Michael Cathcart. Looks like it’s available here.

For me, there were several interesting things I made notes of.

– the idea of fictional character (CH), how can the reader really care about them, Binet asked.

– I think he said that the 19th century realist model is still the current literary model in France

– Binet loves Milan Kundera, loves the idea of breaking the fictional magic, breaking the illusion (pretty sure he’s talking about meta-fiction here, which is what I think he does in HHhH; he breaks the illusion that it is a novel with the intrusion of the narrator’s, er, narrative. ‘Let me tell you about what I found out about this story.’ But so far, it’s not an intrusive element for me. In fact, I can see it seeming to add to the veracity of the tale, rather than detract from it. More about veracity later.

– Heydrich was in charge of Kristallnacht and organiser of the ‘final solution’. This was a man who was key in the Nazi template of power and destruction. The meaning behind the wonderfully unique title is that Heydrich was Himmler’s brain. Himmler was #1 and Heydrich was #2. I’m not sure where Hitler’s number is, but I’m guessing the 1 and 2 refer to the direct line of power in the hierarchy, so Heydrich under Himmler. Himmler under Hitler like everyone.

– the novel is more seductive as a truth illusion than a film, Binet said. He said that with film, you know they are actors playing a role, and therefore you can’t believe fully. But in a novel, presumably even though it’s fiction, the truth can be found

– in his storytelling approach, instead of a straight historical telling of the facts, Binet ‘holds a constant conversation with the reader’

– Kundera breaks the rules of the novel, showing himself as the author (metaF). Binet loves the idea of the writer talking directly to him as a reader

– he mentioned Jonathan Littell The Kindly Ones (a book I had recommended vigorously to me, yet it sits on my shelf. It’s an enormous tome, perhaps it’s that which is inhibiting me. Also knowing it’s from the POV of an ex Nazi who I believe has no remorse, maybe that’s stopping me as well?) Bearing in mind The Kindly Ones was published in 2006 in French and was a huge success, I did wonder whether Binet’s disparagement and dismissal of it may have partly been because of a professional rivalry (Binet’s book I think has won only one of the two prestigious prizes that Littell’s book was awarded) and no doubt there have been many many people drawing comparisons, they’ve probably talked about it so much, and he did seem a little touchy about it. He said his problem with KO was that the narrator was very interior and lasting for 900 pages of fiction as it did, was flawed because the character wasn’t real, and never existed. It disturbed him too that the main character of The KO was more like a ‘legend’ rather than historical character.

– Binet said he doesn’t ‘buy’ novelistic truth. ‘Truth is a big word’ he said; he prefers the word veracity. Either it happened or it didn’t. This is where I disagree. I think a lot of truth can be found in good fiction. Universal truths, like what it feels like when this happens, or that. Truth about love and death and family. In some ways I feel novels are the only place to go to find these truths, because if a novel is written in a particular way, where space is left for the reader to bring their own stuff into a kind of imaginarium of the reading process, then each different reader will have their own truths hovering there in the mix.

– Binet said his purpose for reading War and Peace was not to learn about Napoleon, he is ‘not inside the mind of Napoleon, I feel I’m inside the mind of Tolstoy’ and as I think Cathcart said: Not a bad place to be. I see Binet’s point here, and that’s fine, but isn’t it a little more than such a binary decision. Does it have to be either/or? If historic truth cannot be found within a novel (and historic truth, what is that? Again, another blog post) can’t emotional truth be found against the historical backdrop of an era or event that the reader is interested in? I’m not an historical fiction reader but I can see how people love it. It’s something extra that interests a lot of people.

– in writing the book, he read a lot and tried to make sense of the material. He wrote the chapters (and they aren’t full conventional chapters, some are mere snippets and all are numbered up to about 250) and thought he had finished (oh what a familiar story) then realised he wasn‘t, and he re-organised the order of those chapters. The English publisher decided no page numbers (I hadn’t even noticed) and the manuscript consists of a series of numbered sections. (All the other countries have page numbers.)

– it took ten years to write (again, reassuring) and thought he would never finish it (yes).

– the new book is called Nothing Goes as Planned and because he loves West Wing, he wanted to research the recent French political campaign (and yes, found it was surprisingly like West Wing, behind the scenes.)

I’m not sure when the book will be out but the pressure will be intense because HHhH is his first novel, hell it’s probably his first book. He looks about 22 years old, is very attractive and has that French accent, so what more could a publisher want? A follow-up best-seller I’m guessing.

I don’t have it written down but there was mention of Binet wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it too’ with wanting to write historically accurate stories but using the novelistic/fictional devices. I don’t have a problem with this. There shouldn’t be any rules. If it works, if it’s strong, good writing and a great story, jeez, who cares? I don’t understand this sort of territorial attitude but I wonder what others think.

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