‘Once again, the writer stains the tree of History with his thoughts, but it is not for us to find that trick that would enable us to put the animal back in its carrying cage.’
– Osip Mandelstam, ‘The End of the Novel’
‘You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success. And even if I can comfort myself by saying that our projects are not the same, I am forced to admit that the subject matter is fairly similar.’
– Laurent Binet, from HHhH, before the passages on The Kindly Ones were removed at editor’s request[i]
While a ready definition of ‘historical fiction’ remains elusive, most works that bear this label fall into one of two camps: those that use history as backdrop, or those that use it as blueprint. Two recent novels, both about the Nazi SS and both recipients of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, perfect these very different approaches. These works – and the praise and criticism they have garnered – also raise broader questions about the significance placed on historical fact, and the value of truth over honesty.
Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH documents Reinhard Heydrich’s rise to the head of the SS and his subsequent assassination at the hands of the Czech resistance heroes, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis. The novel has received a wealth of accolades from literary critics and historians alike. The opening line signals the author’s approach: “Gabcik – that’s his name – really did exist.”[ii] From these first words to the last, we are assured that all the characters encountered are real and that all events depicted are true. While history, in this novel, is very much the blueprint, with any embellishments and deviations heavily frowned upon (or cheekily winked at), Binet’s novel is not as straightforward as this.
“Once [Heydrich] was on the train, I suppose he sought out an empty compartment, and that he sat down either:
next to the window, so he could discourage anyone who attempted to begin a conversation […]
next to the door, so that he could watch all the comings and goings in the corridor.
Let’s put him next to the door.”
We are witnesses to the author’s struggle against the ‘vulgarity’ of fiction. At times he loses this struggle, leaving false information for several pages before admitting the deceit and offering the truth: “I’ve been talking rubbish, the victim of both a faulty memory and an overactive imagination […] That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up.”[iii] He tells us lies in order to emphasize the importance of the facts.
Throughout HHhH, Binet draws attention to his view of ‘artistic license,’ almost begging the reader to feel cheated by it: “How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet […] I am ashamed of myself.” The facts should be enough – Gabcik accomplishes heroic deeds, Heydrich ends up in charge of the Final Solution – the heroism and the horror stand out plainly in black and white without the need of splashes of colour, without the writer imagining how it feels to sentence millions of people to death. Such tactics serve to reduce reality to the level of fiction: the Hangman of Prague becomes a “paper monster.”
It is also Binet’s attempt to have his cake and eat it, too. Through his playful asides he is able to present both a journalistic fidelity to facts and, simultaneously, to save the story from being bogged down by the weight of those same facts.
“It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to tell 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?’”
Binet’s anguish is amusing, but his tricks can backfire. Constant authorial interruptions create a distance that prevents us from fully experiencing the (his)story.
Whether for praise or criticism, readers single out Binet’s devotion to the historical record: he doesn’t want artful impressions. He doesn’t want, for example, to reduce Gabcik “to the ranks of a vulgar character and his actions to literature.” Binet’s professed aim, then, is something more than fiction; something that doesn’t stain the tree of history. In agreement with many historians, Binet insists that the facts are the story. When fiction attempts to re-create history, it only diminishes it. “The good thing about writing a true story,” he writes, “is that you don’t have to worry about giving an impression of realism.”
Most historical fiction (even when not loudly pointing to it) involves a certain liberty with a character’s psychology and the timeframe of events. The coherence expected (required?) in a novel is of course absent from real life. Action is therefore streamlined or overstated, incidents re-ordered or synthesized, and information withheld to create tension and drama. “Historical fiction is like quicksand,” argues James Forrester, and many literary reviews would agree, “stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story.”[iv] Or, in Binet’s words, “forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories.”
Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones uses history as a backdrop. The novel is a blend of fictional and historical characters, but the protagonist is fictional – or, as the author says, an imagining of his own behavior had he been born in Nazi Germany. An attempt to create something, in other words, more than history. The novel is narrated from the point of view of unrepentant former SS officer, Dr. Maximilien Aue. In Aue’s intimate memoir, he describes at length and in grotesque detail the horrors of the extermination camps. The tone is detached, unemotional, and the reader is gradually stunned into submission. Littell’s intention is to examine, among other things, the rationale behind both the physical and bureaucratic aspects of the Holocaust. Presented with a cold, remorseless – yet still human – character, the reader is asked: can you see how this evil became possible? Can you imagine – can you feel – how collective desensitization operates, how collective pathology takes hold? The opening lines of The Kindly Ones read: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.”
The Kindly Ones is a work of meticulous research – a striking example of what is sometimes called ‘photo-realism’ – with Littell spending five years on the material and even walking the landscapes that he describes. But it is very much a work of fiction. The author imagines the troubled dreams of the killer and his mundane thoughts at the moment before he pulls the trigger.
Anita Brookner deems The Kindly Ones impressive, “not merely as an act of impersonation but perhaps above all for the fiendish diligence with which it is carried out.”[v] In the other corner, however, Michiko Kakutani does not believe the character, or the world, the novel creates, calling it “[w]illfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent.”[vi] Similarly, the historian Peter Shoettler dismisses the novel as a “strange, monstrous book” full of errors and anachronisms. But Patrick Marnham offers another angle: “Dr Aue cannot be brought to trial because he does not exist; on the other hand, he can give us something even more valuable than vengeance, something no real war criminal can manage, and that is total honesty.”[vii]
A historical text tells the facts, as far as it can. Honesty, paradoxically, can only be achieved through artful lying – by deliberately injecting authorial guesswork or by manipulating the historical record. Recent theories of history of the Third Reich directly challenge the “I was only following orders” excuse. Littell surely agrees; there is no pure evil, Dr Aue states, only “reasons, good or bad […] human reasons.” In his zeal to demonstrate this, Littell decides to place Aue at an impossible number of key moments – Babi Yar, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hitler’s bunker – where some of his beliefs are hardened and others torn apart. The story is not true, but it is honest.
We know Binet is wrong when he states that the head of the British secret service during WWII called himself “M” after the James Bond character.[viii] But he is telling a lie in order to show us the importance of the historical truth. Littell takes a much greater risk – and makes more errors – in order to achieve an honesty that is different from historical truth. But Binet would argue that Littell’s book is doomed to fail. Littell, after all, can only demonstrate how Littell imagines Nazism. Any attempt at interior monologue designed to reveal the psychology of an imaginary character “is at best an amusing farce.”[ix]
In the end, both novels want to bring history to life. In HHhH, the characters exist as facts, and little is added (or taken away?) by the author, because this would lessen the power of the historical truth: “I just hope that, however bright and blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this fabulous story you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality that lies behind.” But does this subjectivity have the opposite effect? Presenting the bare ‘facts’ relieves us of confronting the most difficult questions of all: who are the killers, and how do they become such? Binet says of Heydrich: “he was a monster.” His aim is to avoid pathos. Littell’s Dr Aue, on the other hand, says: “I am a man like other men, I am a man like you.” He urges acceptance.
One of Binet’s grievances with The Kindly Ones is the meticulous research Littell conducted. He freely accepts the worth of invented characters and dramatized history by authors like Dumas, Tolstoy, Shakespeare; but he objects to Littell’s attempts to root his fictional character in the strictest realism. Part of his problem is the historical record itself. Many critics rave of Hilary Mantel’s ‘educated guesswork’ in her imagining of Thomas Cromwell’s early life, but more recent – and better-documented – periods are viewed as being almost sacrosanct. We know, so why contrive? “What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism,” Binet asks us. Very little, unless we believe that novels like The Kindly Ones help us to understand Nazism – if not better, than in a different and important way.
History and fiction are often not as far apart as they seem. Anthony Beevor’s magisterial tome, Stalingrad (winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction) includes moments of artistic license such as “Chekov quivered with excitement.”[x] But historical fiction goes one step further (closer?) in imagining the characters, urging the reader not only to understand, but to react – to empathize or, even, in some cases, to feel complicit. Littell uses a scrupulous historical backdrop to shape a plausible character, to give the history a heartbeat. But this is art, Binet would respond, it is literature and it is, at best, misguided. Binet almost seems to suggest that history doesn’t need a writer at all – himself excluded, of course – and any writerly attempt to clarify or deviate from the historical blueprint is to inject the poison of pomposity.
Should historical fiction be bound to the historical blueprint – or does the history as backdrop approach provide the breathing room that brings the facts to life?[xi] In other words, does historical fiction complement history by adding honesty to truth? Or is it cheating, akin to fabricating evidence? Binet points to the veneer of fiction, acknowledging its existence but only as a fundamental weakness: “what could be more vulgar than an invented character?”[xii] Littell sees it as a strength, one that allows him a longer reach and a deeper grasp, forcing the reader to confront their own preconceptions. The success of such a weighty aim is uncertain, and Binet greets it with mockery – it can’t be believed and therefore its lessons will not stick. Littell, however, trudges further down the path, his worry emitting from a very different source; not that the truth will be lost, but that it won’t be internalized: “I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know.” Even in the most well-documented historical moments, there always comes a point where the facts run out. For Binet, this is the dead end; for Littell, it is the starting line.
John Owen Theobald is a writer of, among other things, historical fiction. His first novel, The Deserters’ Orchestra, will be published in the fall. Born and raised in eastern Canada, John now lives in London, UK. He holds a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.
[i] Binet’s editor requested that the author remove the twenty pages devoted to criticizing The Kindly Ones. The missing pages were later published by The Millions. “Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH,” The Millions, 16 April 2012.
[ii] Laurent Binet, HHhH (London, 2012).
[iii] I’m unsure of how many pages exactly, as Binet’s unique approach to historical fiction includes contempt for page numbers.
[iv] ‘The lying art of historical fiction,’ James Forrester, Guardian, 6 August 2010. See also, Jason Burke, “The evil that ordinary men can do,” Observer, 22 Feb 2009.
[v] Anita Brookner, “Prize-winning novels from France,” The Spectator, 30 Nov 2006.
[vi] Michiko Kakutani, “Unrepentant and Telling of Horrors Untellable – The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell,” The New York Times, 23 Feb 2009. Arguments remain whether the author has created a believable, sophisticated soldier trapped inside a darkening nightmare, or merely indulged in a lengthy bout of ‘Nazi porn.’
[vii] “France falls in love with American’s Nazi novel,” 28 Oct 2006. Patrick Marham, “Not for the faint-hearted,” The Spectator, 4 March 2009. For Laila Lalami, the characterization and point of view of The Kindly Ones raises a different concern: “the book [is] far more successful as a dramatized historical document than as a novel.” Los Angeles Times, 15 March 2009.
[viii] The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was written in 1952.
[ix] “Exclusive: The Missing Pages of Laurent Binet’s HHhH,” The Millions, 16 April 2012.
[x] Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad, London, 1999, 205.
[xi] Larissa MacFarquhar sums up the dilemma of historical fiction:
“It is, in some ways, a humble form. There are limits to the writer’s authority. She cannot know her character completely. She has no power to alter his world or postpone his death. But in other ways it is not humble at all: she presumes to know the secrets of the dead and the mechanics of history.”
“How Hilary Mantel Revitalized Historical Fiction,” The New Yorker, 15 Oct 2012.
[xii] Binet’s novel does not answer the wider question of historical fiction – his nervy, postmodern approach would swiftly prove irritating if adopted en masse.