April 21, 2014

Laurent Binet’s HHhH Is a Thrilling Intertextual Adventure Story

by Edwin Turner

View of Prague — Oskar Kokoschka

The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.

–Cormac McCarthy, interview in The New York Times, 1992.

Novelist’s personal genre. For all its seeming fragmentation, nonetheless obstinately cross-referential and of cryptic interconnective syntax.

–David Markson, The Last Novel, 2007

I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel.

–Laurent Binet, HHhH, 2010 / English trans. by Sam Taylor, 2012.

. . . it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is absolutely true.

–Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990.

From the current (18 April 2014) Wikipedia entry for Laurent Binet’s novel HHhH:

HHhH is the debut novel of French author Laurent Binet. It recounts Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. It was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman.

The novel follows the history of the operation and the life of its protagonists – Heydrich and his assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš. But it is also interlaced with the author’s account of the process of researching and writing the book, his commentary about other literary and media treatments of the subject, and reflections about the extent to which the behavior of real people may of necessity be fictionalised in a historical novel.

The title is an acronym for Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich (“Himmler‘s brain is called Heydrich”), a quip about Heydrich said to have circulated in Nazi Germany.

If I were the narrator of HHhH—which is to say, if I were a version of Binet, a version that I might describe (and am describing, I guess) as Binet-the-writer-performing-Binet-the-author-performing-Binet-the-author-as-narrator-narrating-the-author-trying-to-write-HHhH (awful description)—if I were the narrator of HHhH I’d probably now dole out a droll little chapter about how the gesture I’ve just committed (lazily using Wikipedia to summarize the novel and prefacing that lazy summary with a few citations that might make cribbing from Wikipedia seem, I dunno, clever (which I do not think said cribbing is))—If I were the narrator of HHhH I might riff on how what I just did  is the result of some kind of 21st-century paralysis induced by an overload of information combined with a deep sincere genuine honest-to-gawd love for my subject.

Or maybe I’d just claim to be writing an infrareview.

Has this been a bad start?

I think HHhH gets off to a bad start, but I could be wrong.

Maybe you should judge for yourself, dear reader. Here is its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

Actually, rereading it now, this seems like a perfect start, although I’ll admit it stalled me on the first few attempts. I mean, that’s a bit alienating, yes? Names, dates, places—and then a shift to Kundera, the immediate assault on fiction? But it fits, in retrospect. Maybe this is another way of saying that HHhH, despite a difficult first few chapters (What is the book aboutWhat is the book?) quickly becomes thrilling, engrossing, a cerebral spy novel, a study in power and terror, a love letter to Prague, a moody bit of flanerie, at times—and mostly an intertextual adventure yarn that shouldn’t work but does, that succeeds wildly.

In chapters that are often short, punchy, and precise, Binet spends much of the first part of the novel building the character of Reinhard Heydrich, “‘the Hangman,’ ‘the Butcher,’ ‘the Blond Beast.” Binet’s Heydrich is fascinating but never sympathetic, a psychological portrait that Binet draws in spite of himself. The author’s radical ambivalence is evident in two early consecutive chapters, which are worth sharing in full, I think, as they illustrate both Binet’s prose as well as his program. Chapter 16:

Little Heydrich—cute, blond, studious, hardworking, loved by his parents. Violinist, pianist, junior chemist. A boy with a shrill voice which earns him a nickname, the first in a long list: at school, they call him “the Goat.” At this point in his life, it is still possible to mock him without risking death. But it is during this delicate period of childhood that one learns resentment.

And Chapter 17:

In Death Is My Trade, Robert Merle creates a novelized biography of Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz, based on firsthand accounts and on notes that Höss himself wrote in prison before being hanged in 1947. The whole of the first part is given over to his childhood and his unbelievably deadening upbringing at the hands of an ultraconservative and emotionally crippled father. It’s obvious what the author is trying to do: find the causes, if not the explanations, for the path this man would later take. Robert Merle attempts to guess—I say guess, not understand—how someone becomes commandant of Auschwitz.

This is not my intention—I say intention, not ambition—with regard to Heydrich. I do not claim that Heydrich ended up in charge of the Final Solution because his schoolmates called him “the Goat” when he was ten years old. Nor do I think that the ragging he took because they thought he was a Jew should necessarily explain anything. I mention these facts only for the ironic coloring they give to his destiny: “the Goat” will grow up to be the man called, at the height of his power, “the most dangerous man in the Third Reich.” And the Jew, Süss, will become the Great Architect of the Holocaust. Who could have guessed such a thing?

Throughout HHhH, Binet-the-narrator repeatedly voices his concerns for spending so much time on Heydrich; these anxieties are frequently tethered to other texts (as we see both in the first paragraph of the novel, and in the first line of Chapter 17). It’s not just that the Nazis in particular were such fastidious record-keepers (“The Nazis love burning books, but not files”); it’s also that WWII has arguably produced more literature—narrative entertainment!—than anyone could hope to wade through.

But Binet-narrator assures us he’s waded, especially into territories where Heyrdrich might show his yellow head. Blazoning an often truculent anxiety of influence, the narrator of HHhH reflects and opines on numerous Nazi narratives, from Kenneth Brannagh’s role as Heydrich in Conspiracy to Rutger Hauer in Twilight of the Eagles (adapted from a Robert Harris novel, it sounds like a ripoff of PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones to William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Binet also lards the novel with historical documents, like journal entries, newspaper records, excerpts from speeches, etc., along with rumor and speculation. He often crams a story or an anecdote into HHhH that he claims has no business there, like the (apocryphal?) tale of a soccer match between occupied Ukraine and the Nazis:

. . . none of the main characters of Operation Anthropoid is involved, so theoretically it has no place in my novel. But one of the great advantages of the genre is the almost unlimited freedom it gives the author.

This kind of bait and switch is characteristic of HHhH, and it should be annoying as hell. But for some reason it isn’t—just the right amount of restraint? Just the right note of ironic dissonance? I’m not sure. Binet’s earnest pleas that he wishes to do justice to the reality of his characters can become overbearing at times, but the earnestness is tempered in a kind of postmodern distance. But maybe I brought that with me. (Although of course the reader bears some responsibility, especially in such an intertextual reading).

Binet-as-narrator pleads at the gaps in history:

My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

But of course the rhetoric here, the language itself, is a contrivance, a making, a bit of artifice—a decision. And, near the end of HHhH, exhausted from witnessing, from channeling that witnessing:

Worn-out by my muddled efforts to salute these people, I tremble with guilt at the thought of all those hundreds, those thousands, whom I have allowed to die in anonymity. But I want to believe that people exist even if we don’t speak of them.

Binet-as-narrator overestimates his powers if he thinks that he allowed those anonymous deaths. But his creation does not stink of hubris.

No, what happens here—and gosh darn, I’ve really failed to describe it adequatley—what HHhH ultimately offers is the very thing it sets out to deconstruct: A ripping, gripping adventure yarn. The final sequence—I really want to just lay it all out here, now, but c’mon, spoilers! You should read this book!—the final sequence deserves more than the review-hack cliches I’ll rest on here: Breathtaking, spellbinding, engrossing, thrilling, etc. Just wonderful, and Binet knows it, stretches it out, repeatedly gnashes and wails that he doesn’t want it to end, and for good reason—it’s really damn good.

I listened to Audible’s unabridged version of HHhH, narrated by John Lee (and then reread sections at night on my Kindle). Lee’s been a dealbreaker for me in the past (I barely made it through his narration of Martin’s A Feast for Crows and gave up on his take on China Miéville’s Kraken), but his evocation of the narrator’s voice here is perfect—intelligent, slightly ironic. Perhaps it helps that Binet is unequivocal about his characters’ voices (which are rare in the novel)—he’s always pointing out, Hey, look hereI’m the ventriloquist! I looked forward to the narrative in my commute and often lingered over chores to listen longer. Great stuff.

Is HHhH an infranovel? I don’t know because I don’t know really what Binet means by “infranovel.” It is an entertaining and smart take on a worn-out genre though, which is more than enough. Recommended.

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April 21, 2014

A kind of prayer.

by Biblioklept

prayer

April 21, 2014

Courtesan Reading — Kikugawa Eizan

by Biblioklept

eizan

April 20, 2014

Rabbit, Upper-Right Corner (Bosch)

by Biblioklept

April 20, 2014

Don’t let’s do anything.

by Biblioklept

dont

April 20, 2014

The Gospel According to St. Matthew — Pier Paolo Pasolini (Full Film)

by Biblioklept
April 20, 2014

Golgotha — Edvard Munch

by Biblioklept

April 20, 2014

Easter in Shakespeare

by Biblioklept

From Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer’s indispensable volume Folk-lore in Shakespeare:

Easter. According to a popular superstition, it is considered unlucky to omit wearing new clothes on Easter Day, to which Shakespeare no doubt alludes in “Romeo and Juliet” (iii. 1), when he makes Mercutio ask Benvolio whether he did “not fall out with a tailor for wearing his new doublet before Easter.” In East Yorkshire, on Easter Eve, young folks go to the nearest market-town to buy some new article of dress or personal adornment to wear for the first time on Easter Day, as otherwise they believe that birds—notably rooks or “crakes”—will spoil their clothes. In “Poor Robin’s Almanac” we are told: “At Easter let your clothes be new, Or else be sure you will it rue.” Some think that the custom of “clacking” at Easter—which is not quite obsolete in some counties—is incidentally alluded to in “Measure for Measure” (iii. 2) by Lucio: “his use was, to put a ducat in her clack-dish.” [649] The clack or clap dish was a wooden dish with a movable cover, formerly carried by beggars, which they clacked and clattered to show that it was empty. In this they received the alms. Lepers and other paupers deemed infectious originally used it, that the sound might give warning not to approach too near, and alms be given without touching the person. A popular name for Easter Monday was Black Monday, so called, says Stow, because “in the 34th of Edward III. (1360), the 14th of April, and the morrow after Easter Day, King Edward, with his host, lay before the city of Paris; which day was full dark of mist and hail, and so bitter cold, that many men died on their horses’ backs with the cold. Wherefore unto this day it hath been call’d the Blacke Monday.” Thus, in the “Merchant of Venice” (ii. 5), Launcelot says, “it was not for nothing that my nose fell a-bleeding on Black Monday last at six o’clock i’ the morning.”

April 20, 2014

Springtime (Bunny Boy) — Norman Rockwell

by Biblioklept

April 19, 2014

Ben Jonson’s Egg Wine

by Biblioklept

From Books and my food: with literary quotations and original recipes for every day of the year by Elisabeth Luther Cary and Annie Maria Jones

April 19, 2014

Bunny Pit (Perry Bible Fellowship)

by Biblioklept

PBF077-Bunny_Pit

April 19, 2014

Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

by Biblioklept

hang

April 19, 2014

Five Angora Rabbits — Theo van Hoytema

by Biblioklept

April 19, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people (Kollwitz/Vollmann)

by Biblioklept

kathe-kollwitz4

She worked without reference to the fiery proto-Cubism of those years, the representational, classical past as dead as the Second Reich itself, dead, dead!—as dead as the Tsarist officers who’d now sunk beneath their own weedy mucky parade grounds so that the Party of Lenin and Stalin could march across their moldering faces. Since 1912 she had kept a room on Siegmund-shof for her plastic arts. That was where she would create the mourning woman out of stone. Mostly she carved, etched, and painted in that flat on Weissenbürgerstrasse. Those were the years when the figures in other people’s paintings began to go ever flatter, more garish, more distorted, the colors hurtful to her although she liked some of the galloping calligraphic riders in Kandinsky. Grosz’s desperately angry caricatures, the X-ray bitterness of Otto Dix, not to mention abstract constructivism; she didn’t swim with that tide. Käthe Kollwitz kept painting poor people, starving people (white figures in dark fields, dark chalk on brown Ingres paper), raped women, mothers with dying children, mothers with dead children. In the end she depicted mainly herself, her stricken, simian face thinking and grieving. She too was a mother with a dead child.

From William Vollmann’s Europe Central.

April 19, 2014

How to Spell the Alphabet — Tauba Auerbach

by Biblioklept

HowtoSpelltheAlphabet

April 19, 2014

Reading Man (Self-Portrait) — Forrest Bess

by Biblioklept

April 18, 2014

Eggs à la Nabocoque

by Biblioklept

Vladimir Nabokov’s recipe for eggs (à la Nabocoque, natch)–

Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!). Take two eggs (for one person) out of the refrigerator. Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.

Place each in a pan, one after the other, and let them slip soundlessly into the (boiling) water. Consult your wristwatch. Stand over them with a spoon preventing them (they are apt to roll) from knocking against the damned side of the pan.

If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an oldfashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.

After 200 seconds have passed, or, say, 240 (taking interruptions into account), start scooping the eggs out. Place them, round end up, in two egg cups. With a small spoon tap-tap in a circle and hen pry open the lid of the shell. Have some salt and buttered bread (white) ready. Eat.

V.N.
November 18, 1972

April 18, 2014

Naked Girl with Egg — Lucian Freud

by Biblioklept

April 18, 2014

“The Easter Fires” (From Frazer’s The Golden Bough)

by Biblioklept

A passage Sir James George Frazer’s The  Golden Bough:

The Easter Fires

ANOTHER occasion on which these fire-festivals are held is Easter Eve, the Saturday before Easter Sunday. On that day it has been customary in Catholic countries to extinguish all the lights in the churches, and then to make a new fire, sometimes with flint and steel, sometimes with a burning-glass. At this fire is lit the great Paschal or Easter candle, which is then used to rekindle all the extinguished lights in the church. In many parts of Germany a bonfire is also kindled, by means of the new fire, on some open space near the church. It is consecrated, and the people bring sticks of oak, walnut, and beech, which they char in the fire, and then take home with them. Some of these charred sticks are thereupon burned at home in a newly-kindled fire, with a prayer that God will preserve the homestead from fire, lightning, and hail. Thus every house receives “new fire.” Some of the sticks are kept throughout the year and laid on the hearth-fire during heavy thunder-storms to prevent the house from being struck by lightning, or they are inserted in the roof with the like intention. Others are placed in the fields, gardens, and meadows, with a prayer that God will keep them from blight and hail. Such fields and gardens are thought to thrive more than others; the corn and the plants that grow in them are not beaten down by hail, nor devoured by mice, vermin, and beetles; no witch harms them, and the ears of corn stand close and full. The charred sticks are also applied to the plough. The ashes of the Easter bonfire, together with the ashes of the consecrated palm-branches, are mixed with the seed at sowing. A wooden figure called Judas is sometimes burned in the consecrated bonfire, and even where this custom has been abolished the bonfire itself in some places goes by the name of “the burning of Judas.” The essentially pagan character of the Easter fire festival appears plainly both from the mode in which it is celebrated by the peasants and from the superstitious beliefs which they associate with it. All over Northern and Central Germany, from Altmark and Anhalt on the east, through Brunswick, Hanover, Oldenburg, the Harz district, and Hesse to Westphalia the Easter bonfires still blaze simultaneously on the hill-tops. As many as forty may sometimes be counted within sight at once. Long before Easter the young people have been busy collecting firewood; every farmer contributes, and tar-barrels, petroleum cases, and so forth go to swell the pile. Neighbouring villages vie with each other as to which shall send up the greatest blaze. The fires are always kindled, year after year, on the same hill, which accordingly often takes the name of Easter Mountain. It is a fine spectacle to watch from some eminence the bonfires flaring up one after another on the neighbouring heights. As far as their light reaches, so far, in the belief of the peasants, the fields will be fruitful, and the houses on which they shine will be safe from conflagration or sickness.

At Volkmarsen and other places in Hesse the people used to observe which way the wind blew the flames, and then they sowed flax seed in that direction, confident that it would grow well. Brands taken from the bonfires preserve houses from being struck by lightning; and the ashes increase the fertility of the fields, protect them from mice, and mixed with the drinking-water of cattle make the animals thrive and ensure them against plague. As the flames die down, young and old leap over them, and cattle are sometimes driven through the smouldering embers. In some places tar-barrels or wheels wrapt in straw used to be set on fire, and then sent rolling down the hillside. In others the boys light torches and wisps of straw at the bonfires and rush about brandishing them in their hands. In Munsterland these Easter fires are always kindled upon certain definite hills, which are hence known as Easter or Paschal Mountains. The whole community assembles about the fire. The young men and maidens, singing Easter hymns, march round and round the fire, till the blaze dies down. Then the girls jump over the fire in a line, one after the other, each supported by two young men who hold her hands and run beside her. In the twilight boys with blazing bundles of straw run over the fields to make them fruitful.

At Delmenhorst, in Oldenburg, it used to be the custom to cut down two trees, plant them in the ground side by side, and pile twelve tar-barrels against each. Brush-wood was then heaped about the trees, and on the evening of Easter Saturday the boys, after rushing about with blazing bean-poles in their hands, set fire to the whole. At the end of the ceremony the urchins tried to blacken each other and the clothes of grown-up people. In the Altmark it is believed that as far as the blaze of the Easter bonfire is visible, the corn will grow well throughout the year, and no conflagration will break out. At Braunrude, in the Harz Mountains, it was the custom to burn squirrels in the Easter bonfire. In the Altmark, bones were burned in it. Near Forchheim, in Upper Franken, a straw-man called the Judas used to be burned in the churchyards on Easter Saturday. The whole village contributed wood to the pyre on which he perished, and the charred sticks were afterwards kept and planted in the fields on Walpurgis Day (the first of May) to preserve the wheat from blight and mildew. About a hundred years ago or more the custom at Althenneberg, in Upper Bavaria, used to be as follows. On the afternoon of Easter Saturday the lads collected wood, which they piled in a cornfield, while in the middle of the pile they set up a tall wooden cross all swathed in straw. After the evening service they lighted their lanterns at the consecrated candle in the church, and ran with them at full speed to the pyre, each striving to get there first. The first to arrive set fire to the heap. No woman or girl might come near the bonfire, but they were allowed to watch it from a distance. As the flames rose the men and lads rejoiced and made merry, shouting, “We are burning the Judas!” The man who had been the first to reach the pyre and to kindle it was rewarded on Easter Sunday by the women, who gave him coloured eggs at the church door. The object of the whole ceremony was to keep off the hail.

At other villages of Upper Bavaria the ceremony, which took place between nine and ten at night on Easter Saturday, was called “burning the Easter Man.” On a height about mile from the village the young fellows set up a tall cross enveloped in straw, so that it looked like a man with his arms stretched out. This was the Easter Man. No lad under eighteen years of age might take part in the ceremony. One of the young men stationed himself beside the Easter Man, holding in his hand a consecrated taper which he had brought from the church and lighted. The rest stood at equal intervals in a great circle round the cross. At a given signal they raced thrice round the circle, and then at a second signal ran straight at the cross and at the lad with the lighted taper beside it; the one who reached the goal first had the right of setting fire to the Easter Man. Great was the jubilation while he was burning. When he had been consumed in the flames, three lads were chosen from among the rest, and each of the three drew a circle on the ground with a stick thrice round the ashes. Then they all left the spot. On Easter Monday the villagers gathered the ashes and strewed them on their fields; also they planted in the fields palmbranches which had been consecrated on Palm Sunday, and sticks which had been charred and hallowed on Good Friday, all for the purpose of protecting their fields against showers of hail. In some parts of Swabia the Easter fires might not be kindled with iron or steel or flint, but only by the friction of wood. The custom of the Easter fires appears to have prevailed all over Central and Western Germany from north to south. We find it also in Holland, where the fires were kindled on the highest eminences, and the people danced round them and leaped through the flames or over the glowing embers. Here too, as often in Germany, the materials for the bonfire were collected by the young folk from door to door. In many parts of Sweden firearms are discharged in all directions on Easter Eve, and huge bonfires are lighted on hills and eminences. Some people think that the intention is to keep off the Troll and other evil spirits.

April 18, 2014

You know the story of the Englishman in the brothel?

by Biblioklept

englishman

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