“Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: ‘Oh really, it’s not invented?’
“No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?”
In HHhH, Laurent Binet has an obsession for the truth. Or, as he says he would prefer in the exchange below, veracity. And yet he’s writing a novel. About Nazis. But that’s why he finds he can’t make anything up, because it’s the Nazis. How can you dare to fictionalize something so awful, so consuming? And so round and round he goes, and HHhH certainly does take the reader for a ride.
Read the last Bookslut on Elias Khoury's 'As Though She Were Sleeping.'
Binet takes a rather straightforward story, the assassination of one of the major architects of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, and interferes with it. Rather than just telling it verbatim, or tarting it up a bit and making a World War II thriller, easily adaptable for film, he keeps messing with the story. He finds himself unable to simply make up a few details, and so he inserts himself into the text, to let you know which parts are real (and where he discovered the information) and which parts he had to make up himself.
It’s part philosophical questioning about turning fact into fiction, part historical engagement, part playful experimental fiction. It came out of nowhere (Binet is a teacher by day) to win the Prix Goncourt in France. I spoke with Binet about his need for historical truth, and just how trustworthy an author he truly is.
Whenever a writer starts insisting they are telling the truth, particularly a novelist, I immediately start wondering whether they’re actually lying. So how much of the authorial voice of HHhH is truthfully you? How trustworthy are you as a narrator?
I'm as trustworthy as I can be. At least, in HHhH, there is a perfect equivalence between the author and the narrator.
Pretending that everything is true although the author knows that it is not is an old trick, and one that doesn't particularly interest me. I can make mistakes, but, if I am wrong, it is not intentional. But "truth" is a big word, and one with a metaphysical echo I don't like. I was searching more for "veracity" than "truth"—and that was difficult enough.
HHhH both is and is not a WWII novel, by which I mean I see a lot of novels set in WWII—love stories set in 1930s Berlin, tales of hope and redemption and so on. Why do we as readers and writers keep returning to WWII compulsively? Sure, it was dramatic, and sure it was perhaps the most black and white/good guy versus bad guy war of them all, but is there another reason?
I often think that WWII is our epoch's Trojan war. It is so full of amazing, tragic and epic stories. I'm sure people will still be writing about it centuries from now.
Any writer has to contend with the writers that came before, particularly when they're telling similar stories. But few actually add that contention to the book they're writing. You write about your experience reading similar books to the one you wrote, at least telling the story of the same assassination. How much of an influence did reading those books have on your novel? Did it push it into the rather strange form it ended up taking? Or did you know from the beginning how you wanted to structure the book?
We're all influenced by what we've read before. I just like to talk about it. I enjoy meta-fiction, and I like to share my interest, my discoveries, my analysis, my thoughts about books or movies or various things in my writing. With HHhH, I just felt like making the construction of the story part of the story itself.
I once read a man who teaches writing classes professionally write, "A writer should not know too much." As though imagination could be strangled with too much knowledge. Given your book's insistence on telling things straight, or at least admitting every time something was made up, would you agree? And what would you rather have: imaginative, knowledge-free literature, or wise books glued to their source material?
Don't know too much; it could hurt you! I totally disagree with that statement. The more you know, the better it is—for everything: books, movies, painting, music, architecture, sport. Inter-textuality is a real thing. If you ignore it, if you believe you can write just based on your personal experience of life, you'll make shit for sure. Imagination has nothing to fear from knowledge. On the contrary, the more you know, the more you aid your imagination.
One of my favorite books on WWII is The Third Reich by William Shirer. The book is nothing if not a monument to historical knowledge, and yet you read it as a bloody page-turner. In fact, I did read it as a page-turner! You can have your “love stories set in 1930s Berlin, and tales of hope and redemption." I'll take Shirer!
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.