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Laurent Binet: HHhH (HHhH)

So is this a novel? The answer is a definite maybe. According to this blog (link in French), it is a new genre, the historical metanovel. Someone obviously has not read their Calasso, if they think it is new genre. Le Nouvel Observateur asks if it is the end of the novel (link in French), pointing not only to this novel but to other non-fiction novels. Of course, readers of this site know that there are quite a few novels written which are not novels but are novels. In other words, the form of the novel is changing. It is just not an entirely fictitious story any more. And that is a good thing. So back to the original question this is definitely a novel. Maybe. And if you are wondering about the title, it stands for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich [Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich].

Binet tells us – authorial intervention is strong in this book – that he set out to write about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich was, at the time of his death in 1942, the acting Reichsprotektor for Czechoslovakia, i.e. the de facto dictator of occupied Czechoslovakia. It was Heydrich who devised The Final Solution and who had started to implement it in Czechoslovakia. Binet wanted to focus on the assassination itself and also on the two men who carried it out, the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík. Instead, he found the character of Heydrich so fascinating that his book came to be about Heydrich more than just the assassination. Indeed this book is about Heydrich but also about Laurent Binet writing about Heydrich.

As in other such books – Sebald is the obvious but certainly not the only example – we are faced with various issues. Where is the boundary between fact and fiction? Is the Laurent Binet writing the book the same as the character called Laurent Binet in the book? If we are to believe Binet, the answer is a categorical yes. We learn about Binet’s personal life – his journey to Slovakia to teach French, his not always terribly successful love life and other odds and ends. We also learn about his writing of this book. He studied World War II in depth. We learn about the books he has read (fiction and non-fiction) and the films (fiction and documentary) that he has seen and his views on some of them. (Patton, he decides, is pure fiction.) We learn about his concerns when Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones) appears and he is quick to point out that Littell’s aims are very different, even though they cover some of the same ground and Heydrich appears in Littell’s book. He also wonders how Littell knows that Heydrich’s car was dark green as he, Binet, had always thought it was black. This becomes a minor issue for him. It turns out that, at his publisher’s suggestions, Binet had to excise some of his comments on the Littell book. The very wonderful The Millions has them here.

We learn about some of his travels for background. We learn about his writing technique. On more than one occasion, he feels that he has to embellish what is known by showing an action or reaction by one of the characters (usually Heydrich himself) which he then admits he has made up and, on one or two occasions, decides that his fictionalisation is wrong but, instead of just erasing it and writing something more appropriate, as a true fiction writer would have done, he leaves his original fictionalisation in. He is also concerned with not psychoanalysing Heydrich. He does not want to show that Heydrich’s subsequent career developed the way it did because of some event in his childhood, even though, by drawing attention to it, he does just that. There is no doubt that the book is about Heydrich, despite the rather drawn-out description of the assassination and its aftermath. From Heydrich’s birth and his musical abilities to his failed naval career to his rise in the Nazi party and then to his control of Czechoslovakia, Heydrich dominates the book. We learn a lot about the man from the various anecdotes Binet cites, some of which, he admits, may not be entirely accurate, from Heydrich’s failed attempt to shoot down a Russian fighter plane, resulting in his own crash behind Soviet lines to the proposal that Heydrich was to be promoted to be the Protector of France after his success in Czechoslovakia, though Binet only vaguely speculates on what that might have meant for France.

Does it work? In one of the comments in the Millions link above Peter Tame describes the book as self-centred and rather narcissistic, following on from a previous comment which says Its self-serving, narcissistic, and defensive/protective stance, labeled ‘confessions of the author’ has little to recommend it as a serious interrogation of how fiction and history work together.. Shock! Horror! An author is self-centred and narcissistic! From Byron to Houellebecq, that is what authors are, Dr. Tame, and is often why we love them. The question is, do we want an apparently historical fiction to contain details of the author’s love life, his speculations about the colour of the protagonist’s car and his comments on other works on the subject? My answer is, yes, on the whole I do. I found Binet’s comments amusing and often helpful. I can see that others might find them tiresome. However, I do hope that this is not going to become a trend, where all works of historical fiction do the same. Can you imagine Hilary Mantel‘s final work in her Cromwell trilogy doing the same? Her comments would undoubtedly be interesting but I am not sure she would do the jokey bits as well. But this is a novel, not a historical work. If you want to read a serious work about Heydrich and his assassination, these exist (Binet mentions some). This is not one. But, as a novel, it is an interesting idea and one I certainly would recommend to serious readers.

Other links

The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH

Publishing history

First published in 2009 by Bernard Grasset
First published in English in 2012 by Harvill Secker/Farrar, Straus and Giroux