Laurent Binet’s HHhH was released in 2010 in his native France to wide critical acclaim, winning the coveted Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, the famed prize for a debut novel. The English translation, by Sam Taylor, was released in 2012 and came with testimonials from Bret Easton Ellis and Martin Amis on the front cover (many friends, registering their distaste for these two particular authors, have suggested they would be more likely to read the book without them). It was a tweet, in fact, from Easton Ellis that first alerted me to the novel:
Laurent Binet’s HHhH is about the plan to assassinate the most dangerous man in Hitler’s cabinet. The best novel I’ve read in a long time.
HHhH tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, a tactical operation in 1942 in which Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis were sent into occupied Czechoslovakia from their London exile to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’ and seen by some as the heir-apparent to Hitler. The loopy title HHhH is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, which translates into English as ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’. Binet inserts himself into the plot from page one, airing anxieties about the writing of historical fiction and berating a number of novels and films for getting the details wrong. He spends pages, for instance, criticising just the opening paragraph of Alan Burgess’ 1960 novel Seven Men at Daybreak for getting the colour of Heydrich’s Mercedes incorrect. (It was black according to Binet, not dark green.)
HHhH, despite being classified as a novel by his publisher, is ultimately seen by its author as a work of nonfiction. His latest book, yet (and perhaps unlikely) to be translated into English, Rien Ne Se Passe Comme Prévu or Nothing Happens as Predicted, is a work of political reportage, written after Binet followed then candidate, now President Françoise Hollande around during his election campaign against Nicolas Sarkozy.
– Sam Twyford-Moore
KYD: You’ve said that HHhH took ten years to write, and you were working as a schoolteacher during this time, how did you find time to write the book in between teaching? Was that a challenge?
LB: Well, I don’t know. I had to work. It was kind of a hobby. After work, people would make small talk and here I was reading books about the Second World War and I guess that the reason – I mean, I had a lot of research to do – but the reason why it took me so long was I was working at the same time.
KYD: Was it difficult to live with the novel for so long? Ten years seems like a long time to live with a book.
LB: No, I mean I was not worried. I was very much alright. I was interested by the subject. I was interested by the books I was reading. I was not concerned that it was taking so long. Some friends of mine, they had told me it was an endless work and that I would never end it. But I was not too worried. It was like I could sense I was on my way and that it was okay.
KYD: At the start of HHhH you write about your father telling you as a child the story of the assassination of Heydrich, so the story itself has been with you for a long time. When did it become apparent to you that it had the potential to be a book?
LB: I think first when I was sent to Czechoslovakia for my military service. I was curious about that story and I think the turning point was maybe when I visited the crypt [where Gabcik and Kubis ultimately met their fate]. I was there for my own personal interest, but when I saw the crypt it was very moving and very impressive and I think this was the turning point. I decided I have to write it down, because I thought in Europe that story was not very well known. So after a couple of years being interested by that story I decided to make a book of it.
KYD: It seems like you had an interesting relationship with your publishers and editors. They seemed to make a lot of suggestions, like changing the title from Operation Anthropoid to HHhH, and the decision even to change the book from nonfiction as a genre to fiction, do you think this was because this was your first book or do you think the book was always going to be a little bit combative and at war with the publisher?
LB: Definitely. For ten years I wrote the book without knowing who would be my publisher, even if I could find one. So when I had the opportunity to sign with the publisher, which is a big one in France, it was a big opportunity and he told me the conditions, you know like, ‘Okay we sign, if you do this.’ And so it was possibly disappointing. It was a tough negotiation. And I didn’t feel very happy about it, but at the same time I thought that this was clever advice. The title was obviously a great, great idea. And when he told me that we had to change the title I was a little disappointed because I was used to it… I’d used it for ten years. But at the same time, I immediately realised it’s a great, great title. It made me feel confident, like I knew that the guy has good ideas and so then it was a fight to cut. He wanted me to cut some parts of the comments, not of the story, but the meta-novel parts. And so I kept some, and cut some others and it was okay. I was quite satisfied.
KYD: Was it hard to give up the classification of the book as nonfiction?
LB: The decision to write ‘novel’ on the cover, from the beginning I wasn’t surprised about this. In France, it’s much more commercial to write that it’s a novel. I wasn’t surprised and I wasn’t disturbed because I was saying enough inside the book about it.
KYD: It seems to come up a lot that people think that the narrator is a fictional version of you. It’s not a problem that people get confused about this?
LB: Actually it’s very strange, in France people don’t care very much about it. I have so many friends who told me, you know what I don’t care if it’s a true story, I just want a good story [laughs]. But this is how it works, so it was really not an issue, this question.
KYD: So this was a question that came up more with international audiences?
LB: Yeah, that question was more broached in other countries. From time to time I had to make it clear that the narrator is myself and there is no difference between us. Usually that question showed up abroad.
KYD: The book seems partly a kind of argument to stick to the facts and an argument against historical fiction writers making up details of their own. Throughout the book you’re very hard on yourself about keeping to this, did this present its own difficulties while you were writing?
LB: Yeah, it was very hard. Actually it was hard at first because I had some blanks to fill in, especially about the past. I missed historical information about the past so it was very frustrating. It was tempting to make up things about them as I reported it in the book and so even beyond that specific problem, there was a kind of novelist appeal – the call of fiction – and, like I said, it was going beyond history, that was the big temptation. You could see how I managed that temptation. From time to time, I just crossed the line sometimes in a way I wanted, and sometimes in a way I didn’t want. Instead of displacing the chapter, I kept it and then I used that chapter and I made it something to discuss with the reader, usually in the following chapter as an example to illustrate my problem and my… problematic, which was how to tell a true story.
KYD: Was there a model for you for this kind of storytelling – playing with fiction and then revealing the artifice almost immediately after? Was there a particular writer that inspired this approach?
LB: At the time I didn’t realise but I think that the closest model for my book was Maus by Art Spiegelman, the graphic novel. I read it when I was a teenager and I was really impressed. Then when I was writing HHhH I didn’t think it was that book, but if you think about it, it’s the same process. He’s interviewing his father, and telling the story of his father during the war and then relating visiting his father and dealing with him in the present time and then back to the past and present. I think it’s very close and while I was very proud when people told me I’d invented a new genre, I knew it was not true, but I did not have any other examples. So there is Maus, but there are other books I’m sure.
KYD: At a certain point in HHhH you write that you realise that the book is an infranovel? This is something you made up. Can you explain what you meant by that term?
LB: Because I didn’t know the English category of the nonfiction novel. I mean, if I knew that term, I wouldn’t have invented infranovel because I’m okay with the category nonfiction novel and it’s okay for me for it to be used about HHhH. By infranovel, I just meant it looks like a novel. I tried to write it as a novel, using all the tools of the novel, all the tricks of the novel, except fiction. I was proud I’d invented this term, and maybe the book was not the first of its own kind, but I think it won’t survive I’m afraid.
KYD: Do you know if anyone in France has used the term infranovel to describe their own work yet?
LB: Not yet, no. I’m afraid that it won’t be very useful [laughs].
KYD: HHhH also works as a kind of extended form of literary criticism. I’m thinking here specifically about Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which was released during the writing of your book and which you wrestle with openly in HHhH. Your publisher cut quite a few of the criticisms you made of that book and they ended up being published on the American website The Millions and it was great to access them. I’m wondering if you think it’s important to you to argue with contemporary books and not to hold back?
LB: Well, yes, I think it’s always interesting to argue with other writers, other works, other books and so in that case, I was arguing with The Kindly Ones. I don’t say I’m right, but, you know what, I felt my book was a discussion with the reader, talking about what’s interesting to me about other books I like, about the other books I don’t like and trying to explain why. What’s true about The Kindly Ones is that I was a bit obsessed about that book when it came out. Nearly every day I was writing a chapter about it, so my publisher asked me to cut some, but he kept the essence of what I thought, which was the sentence, which became a bit famous in France, that The Kindly Ones was Houellebecq doing Nazism. This is what I wanted to say. I think it’s a bit funny, but it’s true in a way, because what disturbed me the most with the book was that it was talking more about our time than the Second World War time. What I didn’t like about the reception of The Kindly Ones was that many critics in France said that if you want to understand the Second World War you just have to read that book, it’s better than any historical book, and I disagreed with that.
KYD: Do you see those arguments you make in the book as suggesting that writers of historical fiction should align themselves closer towards nonfiction and not take so many liberties with the truth? Is that something you are actively pushing for?
LB: Well, I don’t know. People can write what they want, but then it’s a good question. We’ll see what happens. I’m not against fiction at all, for instance I love many… let’s say entertaining historical books, like Ken Follett’s books. I have no problem with those, my problem is with the books that pretend to explain something about history or demonstrate a finality, like in the case of The Kindly Ones about the role of evil and pretends to explain history. I’m not very convinced when a novel tries to explain something. But there are a few writers… for instance, this year the winner of the Prix Goncourt, his name is Jérôme Ferrari and I met him and he had read my book and he said, ‘Yes, it was very interesting and it will influence me for my next book, that process I found it very interesting’ and so we’ll see if it changes something about the historical novel.
KYD: That’s really interesting.
LB: Of course it could be very pretentious, ‘I change the face of literature!’ [Laughs.]
KYD: The book really picks up as it reaches the end, as you begin to relate the actual story of the assassination of Heydrich. It’s incredibly effective and works as a kind of thriller and so I’m wondering whether you were reading any genre fiction – specifically thrillers – to make the writing of that work so well?
LB: Well, thank you. I read some detective books, some thrillers. I think maybe I was more influenced by movies or TV shows, like 24 [laughs]. I hadn’t actually seen 24 at the time, so it’s not so influential. For the assassination, I had very visual images in my mind and for some part I was thinking about Brian de Palma movies, the slow motion and the narrative of his movies. My favourite living writer, for instance, is Bret Easton Ellis.
KYD: He’s a writer who is obsessed with movies.
LB: That’s true. I love him for many reasons, but he’s a terrific thriller writer. I love when he is writing suspense things or dramatic things. He’s a master of suspense. So maybe he influenced me a little. But, as I told you, I was very impressed by a novel by Ken Follett when I was a teenager called Eye of the Needle, it was about the Overlord operation and the German spy winging to England, trying to escape to the MI6 and MI5. I like those kinds of books.
KYD: Back to TV for a moment, I’ve read that your new book about François Hollande’s presidential campaign was inspired by The West Wing. What about that show made you want to write a work of political reportage?
LB: I said that because The West Wing gave me the idea to follow the campaign, because I loved the show and there was an election in France and I thought, yeah why not get inside to see how it works. I have to say it was quite close to how it was. So The West Wing was very faithful to the truth [laughs]. But then, again, with this book I was really influenced by Bret Easton Ellis because the book was full of dialogue. I think he’s a master of dialogue. I read a lot of his dialogue to try to take the dialogue – I mean the dialogues were real, you know – but to reconstruct them and recreate them, to make them lively I read many dialogues by Bret Easton Ellis and other novelists. But I guess what I took from The West Wing was I tried to be inspired by the real result, going very fast and very lively and, which is true to the real life, it was very lively, but then you have to work to transcribe the reason and the speed.
KYD: How was it received in France?
LB: It came out. It was okay. It was not such a big hit as HHhH. And the reviews were more so-so, because in France politics makes us crazy. So, as I followed the winner, who was from the Left side, people were arguing about political issues, not really about the book.
KYD: Did working on the book change your opinion at all of Hollande?
LB: Yeah, if your question is whether I am disappointed, I am a little, but I knew I would be, because ‘a socialist’ my father always used to say – my father is an old communist – ‘they always betray’. But in a way, I didn’t change my opinion of Hollande as a candidate. Now many French magazines ask me to speak to them about him, to tell them my opinion about Hollande: a President, which I don’t feel like doing because I followed the candidate, and I can speak about the candidate but now I’m just an ordinary citizen. So we can have a beer and I can tell you what I think about French politics and Hollande as President, but I don’t feel legitimated to speak on radio or in the newspapers as an expert about French politics and Hollande now. I didn’t change my mind about Hollande as a candidate, then as a President it is a different story. And it’s not my story.
KYD: I read that Sarkozy called you to congratulate you on HHhH and invited you to lunch when he was still President. Did you take him up on his offer and go out to lunch?
LB: No, I declined. No, I didn’t want to because I didn’t like his politics at all. Even if I’m disappointed with Hollande as President, I’m thankful that he won against Sarkozy and Sarkozy is not President anymore because of him, because well I really didn’t like his politics. When he called me to invite me for lunch it was during his very, very hard politics against immigrants, like he wanted to fire them from the country, and he was really extreme about the troubles in France saying they are because of those poor guys who are a just a few thousand in France. It was really disgusting and I didn’t want to feel a part of it. I didn’t want him to use me as… I don’t know how to say in English… control? To credit him of something as a control… I am afraid of him, that’s it.
KYD: I’ve read that HHhH has been adapted into a play? What was that experience like?
LB: Yes, it was adapted. I loved it. I’ve seen it many times, at Festival d’Avignon, then in Paris. It’s brilliant, I loved the play, although it was just one hour and fifteen minutes, which was very strange to make it so short. But I didn’t feel it was short at all when I’ve seen it. It’s very clever and it was brilliant.
KYD: It’s interesting, because the book ends on such a melancholy note, that you are sad to be leaving the story and Gabcik and Kubis behind, but obviously we’re talking now and you’re soon to come out to Australia to discuss the book…
LB: Yeah, I was completely wrong because two years after I am still talking about it with you now and there was the play. It has its own life.
KYD: The book is pretty experimental when it comes to the form it takes, being a work of collage almost – you lift quotes from poetry and from Goebbels’s insufferable diaries – and you’ve been quite critical of other writers for not being so experimental with form, for instance criticising Michel Houellebecq for putting murdering himself in his novel when it was something Bret Easton Ellis did in Lunar Park years earlier. Is being experimental important to you as a writer?
LB: Yes. I think as a writer it’s more interesting, and for me as a reader too. If I just wanted to read a classical novel, I can. If you write a novel the same way it was written two centuries ago, it’s a problem. You can, of course. I don’t want to forbid you, but I won’t find it very interesting. I think now, the French, they are not very creative. I have to say American writers like Chuck Palahniuk or even Philip Roth they are much more playful. I think the novel is a genre, which has to be playful. It’s a playful genre, and I think French writers don’t care to be playful. Though to be fair, to be honest, the last Michel Houellebecq was quite playful – The Map and the Territory. Still, everybody says it’s funny, but I don’t think it’s that funny.
KYD: HHhH is an interesting book because it is very much about it’s own construction and I think the book will stay with me most because it’s incredibly open about the anxieties felt by writers. Do you think it’s important for writers to feel a certain level of anxiety?
LB: Well, I don’t know. There are many ways to write a book. For a very long time, I didn’t understand what I liked with Milan Kundera, because I loved his novels but he does those kind of stories I’m not fond of, those realistic, psychological stories. But what I love is that he shows up as the author from time to time, to construct his own story. I don’t say this is the only way but I love that way to tell a story. I used to say, you’ve got the movie and the making of all together. I love when I feel the writer is talking to me, so as a writer I wanted to make the book as a sort of discussion with the reader. This is the way I like as a reader and so as a writer. I think all my books, more or less, they will be that way.
KYD: I read in an interview published in The Guardian last year that you are now working on a semiotic detective novel. Is this still the case? Is this going to be a work of fiction?
LB: Yeah, I’m working on it now. I’m working on it most days. I can’t tell you much more because my publisher has forbidden me to talk about it.
KYD: The only thing you said in that interview about the book was that when you told people that it was a semiotic detective novel they tended to stop asking questions.
LB: [Laughs.] Of course.
KYD: One last question, it’s a pretty stupid question I guess, but is there anything you’re looking forward to about coming to Australia? Are you excited?
LB: Am I excited? Of course, of course. I mean when I was a kid I loved tennis and my favourite player was Pat Cash. [Laughs] Pat Cash… isn’t it a good stupid answer?