HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.

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16 Responses to HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

  1. Tedium is the worst of sins. I wasn’t planning on reading this anyway, but now I’m definitely not going to read it.

    Christ but it sounds arch.

    • Kerry says:

      HHhH tends to polarize (and it won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman [edited for accuracy, see below: 18 Feb 2013]), so you may have completely the opposite reaction I had. On the other hand, I doubt it. As I said, I am not unhappy I read it, but mainly because it made me thing about the many ways I considered Binet’s arguments flawed in their premises.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve read other disquieting responses to this book (though not the review you refer to) and decided not to bother.
    But I like the way you’ve really tackled it in your review:)

  3. winstonsdad says:

    I like this when I read it but since it has faded quickly and I since found his tricks rather tiresome ,but quick note it actually won the prix goncourt for a first novel not the main prize ,I thing the main problem with the book is the parts cut from the english book ,the axe he has to grind on littel book (not sure why ),but I do think people should read and judge myself ,all the best stu

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for the correction re the Prix Goncourt vs. Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman! That is definitely an important distinction.

      Interesting that significant portions were cut from the English version. I suppose inevitable, but if it directly addressed The Kindly Ones, that would be something I would think worth keeping. There are definitely a diversity of opinions, and even those who don’t like it probably won’t mind having read it. Thanks for your more informed (having read the original language version, it sounds like) perspective. Good, but not great.

      Thanks, Stu, for the interesting comment.

  4. anokatony says:

    I’ve read HHhH and am indeed happy I was unable to plow through James Woods’ article beforehand. I know or care little about the philosophical contexts behind the scenes, but Binet tells a good story which I suspect is for the most part true.

    • Kerry says:

      Wood definitely colored my perceptions, but I do like to think (why???) that I would have been annoyed by some of the authorial intrusions anyway. But, it is a ripping good story and, despite those intrusions, it gets told more than reasonably well.

      I generally like to read books without preconceptions, if it is possible, though usually not. Knowing little to nothing is the only way to be sure the opinion I have is my own. And even then…..

  5. I haven’t read Wood’s article but, like Max and Lisa, had already decided that this one wasn’t for me. Having said that, I very much appreciated your analysis of the book, if only for confirming my decision.

    Your review did bring to my mind at least a comparison: Tony Judt. I don’t read a lot of history but found Postwar to be an engrossing and rewarding read (and not nearly as long as its physical weight promises). Even more interesting, however, is to add in The Memory Chalet, short essays written as his Lou Gehrig’s disease progressed, each of which provides a concrete example of the truth/interpretation/story-telling conundrum. Given the value you did find in Binet, I think you would find The Memory Chalet a worthwhile investment of reading time.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Kevin. I remember reading about Judt’s The Memory Chalet and it does sound intriguing. It goes on the TBR. For me, the things HHhH seemed to try hardest at worked the least. But, it did make me think about memory and what matters in getting historical fiction “right”. I think the pairing committee thought about this when putting it up against Bring Up the Bodies in the TOB. I know my favorite but, given others’ reactions, either has a shot.

  6. Felicity says:

    I am in the middle of HHhH now and reading it without having read any criticism or preconceptions, I am enjoying it very much. I have been reading Binet as a character and from that light I find it very funny. The tone (or I guess my reading of the constant revisions/retractions/etc.) reminds me a little bit of Pale Fire (though I would certainly never claim equivalence). I can see if you were reading the author as being in earnest how it would be annoying. But reading it as unreliable I am finding it very entertaining. Anyway, that’s why I never read James Wood’s reviews! He’s brilliant, but I never end up enjoy anything after I’ve heard his take on it…

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Felicity, for your comment. I do wish I had read it that way. Binet claims he was in earnest, though, so there is that.

      Still, I think this is a great place to wonder whether the book should be read as intended (author and character the same and in earnest) or as works best (character Binet not author and obviously a bit off). I like the comparison to Pale Fire, though, of course, not in terms of quality. (Only a handful of books could I even stand being compared in quality…heh) As an attempt at Nabokovian play with an unreliable narrator, I think I would like it much more than I did.

      Here is to ignoring what author’s think of their own works. At least in this case….

      Thanks!

      • Felicity says:

        I had this discussion in the back of my mind for the last third of the book (which I finished last night) and was trying to sort out if it was fair to read a real person as a character and laugh at him … but actually I think it is entirely fair, because by writing himself into the book he did exactly what he was protesting, and made a fiction of himself. For me, that was the point of the book, I think – that no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever tell a historical story without invention. Yes, he scrupulously cites sources, but it’s pretty clear to me those sources themselves are unreliable. And all the “slip-ups” he makes, describing a scene, or what someone was thinking – I read those as deliberate, as much a part of his ultimate goal of both challenging and reaffirming the writing of historical fiction as all of his earnest berating of historical fiction authors.

        You are probably right however that Binet actually IS in earnest (I have avoided reading anything he’s actually said outside of the book or anything about his stated goals for the book). But it was much more fun (and interesting) to read the book as a deliberate failure. I highly recommend it!

        Thanks for letting me ramble 🙂

      • Kerry says:

        Thank you, Felicity, for rambling. I’ve really enjoyed your thoughts. And I agree with you that the book must be more fun when read as a “deliberate failure” rather than an unintentional one.

  7. Nathan says:

    I liked it better than you did, and better than Wood did, though I think it should be mentioned for those who get it all at second or third hand that Wood is not dismissive of the book, though he takes issue with it. One example: “The result is the book’s captivating, paradoxical tone of playful fatalism. It’s a book of unconventionally conventional historical fiction” The phrase captures why I think the book remarkable even for those who don;t share the author/narrator’s puritan distrust of the ability of the invented or imaginative to tell the truth. I think the book a very playful worrying at the problem of the role of iimagination — stale and otherwise — in the telling of history. I don;t think we need to hold it against a novel that it implies a solution to a philosophical problem with which we disagree — if indeed the novel really does so clearly take sides. I think the book quite engaging.

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