Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Portrait of the author

HHhH by Laurent Binet is a novel about the real-life assassination of Nazi mastermind Reinhard Heydrich. The book got excellent reviews and won a prestigious French literary prize, and the topic could hardly be more fascinating. I enjoy historical fiction, and I was looking forward to it.

But I did not like HHhH.

 Laurent Binet opens the book not by describing Heydrich or the resistance fighters who killed him, but by talking about the novelist Milan Kundera, who (Binet says) was ashamed to assign names to his fictitious characters. “In my opinion,” concludes Binet, “Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”

In this way, Binet sets up what is the central conflict of the novel: the author’s struggle over how to write historical fiction. He frequently interrupts the story of Heydrich to write about his own feelings - how he came to be interested in this topic; how the writing of this book changed his life; the dreams he had as he became immersed in his research; how he wrestled with what to leave in, what to take out.

The reviewer for the New Yorker (who liked HHhH) says that the Binet “makes use of novelistic invention while apologizing for doing so.” It’s a good description.

For instance, at one point Binet calls attention to an error in an earlier chapter -- “I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination.” Instead of either fixing the mistake, or leaving it in in the interests of good storytelling, he both leaves it in and points out its inaccuracy, so that we can see the historical novelist at work.

This technique absolutely did not work for me; in fact, I found it extremely annoying.

There’s the scene in which Binet, having been dumped by his girlfriend, writes, “I wonder if Tukhachevsky felt this bad when he realized he’d lost the battle.” Tukhachevsky was a general of the Red Army whose stunning 1920 defeat at the hands of the Poles Binet has just described. Breaking up with your girlfriend probably doesn’t feel worse than that, actually. Who would even make that comparison?

Or the scene in which he obsesses over the presence of an Opel car in Jonathan Littell’s World War II novel The Kindly Ones. “If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before [Littell’s] superior research. But if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book. Of course it does! … I’m driveling, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.”

The problem, in my opinion, is that this book is duller than it had to be, because Binet is degrees of magnitude less interesting than his historical subjects. I kept thinking:  if you're so agonized by the artificiality of fiction, don't write it.

I suppose it’s all about expectations. If you would like to read about a novelist struggling with his novel - with how to tell the truth in a work of fiction, and where the line lies between honest storytelling and deceptive manipulation - you might enjoy HHhH very much.

But if you’re interested in the the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, you will probably be disappointed to discover that HHhH is largely about Binet and his artistic journey. You may come to find the whole thing to be a bit juvenile, and more than a bit pretentious.

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