HHhH & writing a novel about history
To mark 70 years since “Operation Anthropoid”, the assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich and the Nazi’s subsequent and brutal reprisals, The Wiener Library hosted an event with debut novelist Laurent Binet, author of a new history of Heydrich, “HHhH“. But is it history? And if so, why is he referred to as a novelist? In a room filled with mostly historians, attendees wanted to know how Binet labelled himself. “Your arms are tied by history,” he replied, but he acknowledged that the primary question when writing about historical subjects was to decide if you will be bound by the facts or if you will “fill in the blanks” of what you do not know. And, in doing so, do you “betray history”?
Historical fiction is big news. Since Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize win for “Wolf Hall“, which tells the life of Thomas Cromwell in the present tense, fiction seems keen to cover history. The last Costa Prize winner was Andrew Miller for “Pure”, a first person present tense tale set in pre-Revolutionary Paris (The New York Times disputes it is historical fiction, saying Miller “plunders history”) while the recent Orange Prize winner, “The Song of Achilles”, is a story from the Iliad; debut author Madeline Miller was lauded for being “faithful to Homer” in its writing. This is not a new trend, of course – many of us got our Greek from Mary Renault and our Roman from Robert Graves – but it does seem that more literary writers are tackling historical subjects – as literature.
And why not? Binet employs a raft of literary devices to bring Heydrich and 1942 Prague to life. Historians in Binet’s audience acknowledged that they should be taught to write compelling narratives as well as to be accurate in their research. “But,” asked one, “isn’t your book just history with the research (i.e. the footnotes) left out?” Binet agreed, to a certain degree. He said that he invented a name for his writing: infra-novel. When pressed for a better translation he said, “You English already have a word for it. A non-fiction novel.” Binet also felt that his work was more in keeping with postmodern novels by American writers, from David Wallace Foster to Dave Eggers, who often insert themselves into the narrative, as the writer, or speak from the sidelines in judgement or self-mockery. “It is more honest to show who is talking,” Binet argued. “The habit of historians is to hide their subjectivity (and to be invisible in the writing process), but their subjectivity is still there.”
Binet is certainly present in “HHhH”, present in a way that Mantel and the two Millers are not. His search for Heydrich is a large part of the narrative; he is a character in the story, a narcissistic and obsessive writer searching for the truth – whatever it was. But his voice is filled with self-mockery in the grand tradition of French writers. “I had to show I was aware that I was ridiculous,” Binet laughed. “A writer trying to write a novel that is too big for me.” He chose not to “invent a Nazi” to tell the story from his point of view, setting himself apart from Jonathan Littell, whose French novel, “The Kindly Ones,” Binet refers to as “Nazi porn.” “I don’t want to speak about evil,” Binet said. “I don’t believe you will discover the roots of evil through a novel, by inventing a Nazi character. Littell gives Littell’s range of fantasy. I cannot dig in (Heydrich’s) mind or speak from within him. As a writer, I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it will work.”
But speaking from within the character is exactly what Mantel is doing – and with terrific success. I am halfway through the “Wolf Hall” sequel, “Bring Up the Bodies”, and it reads as if she has been inhabited by Cromwell; she writes as if possessed, staring out at the story through his eyes, though she is writing in third person. But, as she noted at this year’s Hay Festival, “I am not claiming that my picture of him has the force of truth. I know it is one line in a line of representations, one more copy of a copy. All I can offer is a suggestion: stand here. Turn at this angle. Look again. Then step through the glass into the portrait and behind those sharp eyes: now look out at a world transformed, where all certainties have dissolved and the future is still to play for.” Binet acknowledges this as well, when he said how no writer can hope to create the definitive story of any history. His Heydrich is only an addition to all the books that have come before and a stepping stone to those that will come after.
Perhaps that helps to take the pressure off a writer approaching history, as I am with my second novel? We shall see. I am learning from how other writers grapple with the facts, if they wear them lightly or as manacles. “I wanted literature to serve history,” Binet said, “not history to serve literature.” I am not writing history, but I am aware that I owe a debt to the history that I am writing as fiction; I am telling a story that is, for four thousand women, true. I cannot mis-tell their story, manipulate it in the name of story so that they themselves would no longer recognise it. But what of the gaps in their histories? What of the larger story? What of the ineluctable fact that history is not, in and of itself, a compelling story that can be written down and read? That is where I am, I suppose, staring at my stacks of books and maps and charts and timelines, telling myself the story and writing it down.
Hilary Mantel spoke recently on Front Row about the task of bringing Cromwell to life. “The problem is the shortage of material on his private life,” she says. “This is the challenge for a biographer. I can speculate on the basis of good evidence. I can work with what’s plausible, but the biographer has a greater burden of proof than that.” She offers great advice to writers in this wonderful half hour, such as this: Start with a real, specific detail, one that is better than you can invent, and put a scene around it. Or: look at how events in history stand together and may have affected one another – the connection between them can be the story. There is a certain comfort in knowing that the struggle between writing history and creating a story is both real and common. And with that, it’s back to the writing…