Laurent Binet and the Invention of Characters in Historical Fiction

Historical novelists tend to fall into two camps: Those who prefer to explore the lives and deeds of real persons, and those who try to sidestep the challenges and pitfalls inherent in such an attempt by inserting fictional characters into a past era. French author Laurent Binet stand firmly in the first camp: He believes that inventing historical characters is tantamount to “fabricating evidence.”

Yet as any writer of historical fiction can testify, creating a novel that mirrors “reality” is a conceit doomed from the start.

In the May 21 edition of The New Yorker, critic James Wood takes Binet to task for criticizing the use of conventional novelistic techniques that Binet himself subtlety employs in his debut novel HHhH, which follows the career of Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler’s architects for the Holocaust camps. In April, an English translation of the novel, which won the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman award in 2010, was released in the United States byFarrar, Straus and Giroux.

Wood’s analysis is invaluable for every historical novelist who must answer the question: Why not just write a non-fiction book about your period or protagonist?

He accuses Binet, the son of a Paris historian, of wanting it both ways by having the narrator of HHhH periodically pull out of the story and apologize for the use of the fictional “artifice.”

This device of narrative self-reflection and loathing, as Wood observes, is itself a time-honored trick. Wood deftly sums up the indictment against historians who hiss disdain for historical fiction:

Curiously, although Binet performs like a postmodernist, he acts like a nineteenth-century positivist, with an almost religious respect for “reality” and the unsullied purity of “how things really happened.” He is suspicious of fiction, but not suspicious enough of the fictionality of the historical record.

Read the full review here.