6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

The latest review to our Reviews Section is a piece by Vincent Francone on Laurent Binet’s HHhH, which Sam Taylor translated from the French and is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Laurent Binet was born in Paris, France, in 1972. He is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. In March 2010, his debut novel, HHhH, won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman. Laurent Binet is a professor at the University of Paris III, where he lectures on French literature.

Here is part of his review:

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

Click here to read the entire review.

6 June 12 | Will Evans | Comments

There is no such thing as nonfiction. Without a doubt, someone will disagree with that statement, though they would be hard pressed to compile sufficient evidence to support their position. Even the most skilled biographer or historian must confront the reality that it is never possible to accurately recreate an event without exercising the rights of artistic license.

Laurent Binet not only realizes this—he embraces it. HHhH, his first novel (if it can be called such) spends a considerable amount if its 327 pages dwelling on Binet’s inability to truthfully tell the story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague,” Nazi extraordinaire. In this sense, HHhH is not a traditional work of historical fiction, as it meanders, strays, and focuses more than slightly on Binet’s life in conjunction with his Heydrich obsession. I write that he has an obsession with Heydrich himself—his early life, his rise to power, and his death—as the book deals more with him than with Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, the assassins who (barely) complete their mission. These figures, though they play an important part of the book, are introduced mostly as they are a fact of Heydrich’s life. As such, they are a bit ancillary, though their mission is treated with the same importance as the slaughters of Babi Yar. All of these events circle around Heydrich, the subject of HHhH, though, again, Binet’s struggle in writing the book is as much a part of it as anything else.

That said, I do not wish to criticize the book for a lack of focus. HHhH is hardly a book about Heydrich or Nazism or Gabčík and Kubiš. HHhH is about the limits of recreation. Much has already been made over the meta structure of the book and Binet’s interjections. Early in the story, Binet discovers an expensive volume that would aid in his research, though he is conflicted about whether or not to spend the money. The book in question, written by Heydrich’s wife, would surely pay an important role in the retelling of Heydrich’s wedding, but Binet justifies not buying the book by writing:

It’s not a bad story. I just don’t feel like doing a ballroom scene, and even less the romantic walk in the park. So it’s better for me not to know more of the details; that way I won’t be tempted to share them […] so in the end, maybe I can do without this overpriced book.

Such statements, which may suggest a lack of commitment to some readers, can also be seen as a confession, one that must ring true to even seasoned historians. There are limits to research, sure, but how often have writers imposed them on themselves? Is this laziness or the admission that not everything needs to be included? If we accept this, we must also accept that even the most exhaustively researched material is subject to the whims, tastes, and interpretation of the writer. Binet’s confessions do not shake my confidence in his ability to tell a story; they merely remind me that all nonfiction is filtered through a net of subjectivity.

What Binet decides is that he is writing an “infranovel”—this after reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. He wonders how Littell “knows that [Paul] Blobel had an Opel.” Binet’s contention is that “if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book.” He goes on to discuss the plausibility of Bobel having an Opel, but decides that, “plausible is not known.” This is the sort of quandary that torments him, the sort of small detail the average reader would accept without question. Such is Binet’s true concern in writing HHhH: to show the reader how much of their cherished historical works—be they billed as historical novels or nonfiction—are peppered with bullshit.

The savvy reader will not care. Many of us are aware that even the most detailed and researched work will fall short of the truth (whatever that is). And we will scratch our heads and wonder why the reading public privileges experience over invention. We will wonder, again, why memoirs are so damn important to people who would never pick up a novel. We will be reminded of the debacle over James Fray’s A Million Little Pieces and ask ourselves how so many people could be so easily duped and, more importantly, why they were so hurt to learn that this absurd book was really fiction.

If Binet succeeds in reminding readers that historical fiction, as HHhH could be labeled, is riddled with bits of speculation, that’s great. He has picked up and added to an interesting conversation. This is why HHhH should be read and discussed. Also, it’s quite fun. The story is good and, at times, riveting. Binet’s prose, translated by Sam Taylor, is enjoyable in a way that reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut, more so for the often amusing injections than the brief chapters, some of which total a sentence or two. There are definitely worse ways to introduce such a conversation to a wide reading public. To that end, the publicity onslaught of HHhH is justified. Here’s hoping that readers normally averse to works in translation will pick up a copy of this book and reconsider long held beliefs in the superiority of factual literature.

13 May 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Back in February, shortly after returning from the Non-fiction Conference in Amsterdam, we ran this piece on the newly established European Literature Prize. Just to refresh your memory, this is based on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Best Translated Book Award and honors the best Dutch translations of European literary novels. At the time, the 20 title longlist had just been released, and contained a lot of interesting books—many of which hadn’t made their way into English.

Today, the chairman of the jury, Frans Timmermans, announced the five title shortlist:

  • HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Liesbeth van Nes (Meulenhoff)
  • Dat weet je niet by Jens Christian Grøndahl, translated from the Danish by Annelies van Hees (Meulenhoff)
  • De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, translated from the English by Harm Damsma en Niek Miedema (Ailantus)
  • Drie sterke vrouwen by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jeanne Holierhoek (De Geus)
  • De werkplaats van de duivel by Jáchym Topol, translated from the Czech by Edgar de Bruin (Ambo І Anthos)

Obviously, the Mitchell book was written in English (and is really quite amazing), but additionally Grøndahl, Topol, and NDiaye have all been published in the U.S. (Although not necessarily these particular titles.) Based on my knowlege of those four authors, I personally think this is a pretty solid list, and am really looking forward to the September 3rd announcement of the winner . . .

In the meantime, here are a few quotes from the jury about the shortlisted titles:

“The exceptionally original hybrid of fiction and non-fiction” in HHhH by Laurent Binet, a literary reconstruction of the assassination of leading Nazi Reinhard Heydrich and its consequences, “allows the reader to participate in the author’s quest, even when the sources contradict each other.” The result is both “an exciting novel and an idiosyncratic commentary on the writing of history.”

Dat weet je niet (Det gør du ikke) by Jens Christian Grøndahl is centred around the marriage between an artist and a Danish Jew. The jury praised this psychological novel for its “subtle and at the same time pitiless analysis of major topics such as origin, identity and intimacy. Skilful realism, quietly expressed.”

In De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) by David Mitchell we travel to Japan with a young clerk sent out there in 1799 to put affairs in order at a remote Dutch East India Company trading post. “A compelling piece of historical novel writing; pleasure in storytelling leaps from the pages.” The compliment applies to the translation as well. The care and suppleness with which the different voices and the historical vocabulary have been rendered in Dutch can only be called impressive.

“Strong characterization, magnificent literature” was the jury’s verdict after reading Drie sterke vrouwen (Trois femmes puissantes) by Marie NDiaye. This incisive triptych about family relationships, banishment and violence, set in France and Senegal, “offers a painful insight into human cruelty, human impotence and the survival instinct”. The melodious style of NDiaye’s writing has been exceptionally beautifully preserved in the Dutch translation.

With De werkplaats van de duivel (Chladnou zemí), Jáchym Topol has written a grotesque novel about the latter-day history of the notorious concentration camp at the Czech fortress town of Theresienstadt, recounting how a traumatic history is being transformed into commercial entertainment. The Czech Arnon Grunberg at his best: sardonic and intelligent in equal measure.

The European Literature Prize will be awarded in 2011 for the first time, recognizing the best novel translated into Dutch from another European language and published in 2010. The winning author will receive the sum of €10,000. The prize is exceptional in that it is also awarded to the Dutch translator of the chosen book; he or she will receive € 2.500. The longlist was selected by thirteen independent bookshops. A professional jury is responsible for selecting the shortlist and the winner.

And in case you’re interested, here’s the list of jury members and supporting bookstores:

Frans Timmermans, member of the Lower House, former Secretary of State for European Affairs (chairman)
Marja Pruis, author and literary critic for De Groene Amsterdammer
Guido Snel, lecturer in modern European literature at the University of Amsterdam, writer and literary translator
Herm Pol, Athenaeum Booksellers, Amsterdam
Edith Aerts, De Groene Waterman bookshop, Antwerp, Belgium

The European Literature Prize is an initiative of the Academic-Cultural Centre SPUI25, the Dutch Foundation for Literature, the weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer and Athenaeum Booksellers. The following independent bookshops participated in the selection process:

Athenaeum Boekhandel, Amsterdam
Boekhandel de Groene Waterman, Antwerpen
Boekhandel De Omslag, Delft
Boekhandel H. de Vries, Haarlem
Boekhandel Het Martyrium, Amsterdam
Boekhandel Krings, Sittard
Literaire Boekhandel Lijnmarkt, Utrecht
Boekhandel Paagman, Den Haag
Boekhandel van Gennep, Rotterdam
Boekhandel Verkaaik, Gouda
Eerste Bergensche Boekhandel, Bergen N-H
Linnaeus Boekhandel, Amsterdam
Boekhandel Van Rossum, Amsterdam

....
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