Friday, 20 September 2013

HHhH..ell Yeah!

Makes a great doorstop! Or weapon! Or gift!
Long time no speak, y'all.  Things fairly quiet on the Irregulars front.  No reviews recently to speak of though I've a gig or two coming up in the near future, more on these anon.

Anyway, with summer over and a proper job--thank God--to return to, I've not been doing too much structured writing.  Just a few bits here and there: notes, half-scenes, snatches of dialogue etc.  I have been doing some reading around the subject of my novel in progress, namely  the Indian Wars of the late 19th Century in Wyoming/Montana etc.  (And yes, I'm aware that calling the rampant, blood-soaked expansionism and treaty breaking of the period 'the Indian Wars' might, in some ways, be injudicious, but I use it as short hand.)

Aside from research, I've also just finished a fantastic book on the very nature of historical fiction: the very post-meta-modern-contemporary-historical 'novel' by Laurent Binet, HHhH.  (Talk about short hand!  The 4 h's an acronym for Himmlers hirn heisst Heydrich or 'Himmler's brain is called Heydrich')  Don't let my description put you off.  This book should be required reading for anyone interested in reading or writing historical fiction.
Post-Meta-Mod-Contempo Historical fiction...and quite brilliant as well
 HHhH is an (I assume) autobiographical account of Binet's attempt to write a novel about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich, Hitler's very own Butcher of Prague, by Czech partisan operatives sent from London.  The story itself I was familiar with, having read a non-fiction account at my parents' house several summers ago.  The ironic--and pleasantly fortuitous--thing is that I never actually finished the account.  It came time to leave before I got as far as the assassination--baggage weight limits mitigated against my taking a hardback in my luggage--and, though I knew the outcome of the action from other accounts etc., I didn't know what became of the assassins, brave, bold, patriots that they were.  (And I mean that without the slightest tint of irony.  Heydrich was as evil as they come, even by Third Reich standards, and his treatment of the Czechs made him deserving of his fate and then some.)  This made reading Binet's HHhH a particular pleasure because he treats the story--the true story-- of the assassination with the reverence it deserves. And as a story it is beyond parallel in terms of suspense, action, treachery, love.  It's a rare book that can make you think about the process of the story being told while maintaining its grip on the story, and the reader. HHhH is a book you can't put down and yet it makes you stop and contemplate the very nature of its telling.

Laurent Binet, author of the brilliant HHhH--if you're an historical novelist or reader of historical fiction, read it.
In fact, the whole book--while telling the story of the operation, of Heydrich and Czech and Slovak history, among other things--is a reflection on the historical novelist's right to co-opt historical events and real people for the sake of fiction.  This had a particular impact on me as I've wrestled with this myself as a novelist.  Oh, I've wrestled with it...and then simply left the ring and wrote what I wanted.  But like Binet, I was wary of putting words into the mouths of characters from history.  As he says in HHhH:  There is nothing more artificial in a historical narrative than...dialogue--reconstructed from more or less firsthand accounts with the idea of breathing life into the dead pages of history...When a writer tries to bring a conversation back to life in this way, the result is often contrived and the effect the opposite of that desired: you see too clearly the strings controlling the puppets, you hear too distinctly the author's voice in the mouths of these historical figures.

On the other hand, like Binet, I am equally compelled to tell the stories that, for whatever reason, have lodged themselves in my conscious and subconscious mind.  As Binet says:  I don't want to drag this vision around with me all my life without having tried, at least, to give it some substance.  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.

What I'm saying, I suppose--and perhaps I'll write more about this in another post--is that the writer must treat the subjects he has chosen, the historical personages--characters if you will--with the respect they are worthy of.  Not the best sentence there, but you get my drift.  Binet has been brutally honest about the doubt and the conviction; the obsession, the honesty and dishonesty that go into a work of historical fiction.  The above quote could, in fact, serve as a manifesto of sorts.