HHhH by Laurent Binet

HHhH by Laurent Binet

French fiction

Translator – Sam Taylor

Laurent Binet is one of the hottest new writers in France ,this his debut novel won the Prix Goncourt prize for debut novel rather like our Costa prize for a first novel in the UK .He was Born and grew up in Paris, his father is a historian .He recently chronicled the campaign of the new french president Hollande .He currently teaches in Paris .

Well I think every one has heard of HHhH by now .I do wish every book in translation was given as much press time as this book has been .I think this is help in a large part by the wonderful job Harvill ecker have done on the book as an item of book art in its self a stunning cover shot, is match by a nice grey marble hardback and the use of a germanic style font for the HHhH which is also follow through on the edge of the pages a bit like a huge red ink stamp ,you may have seen in countless world war two movies .So I give it away the book is about the second world war and mainly about three people three people the first is the character of the tile as the title is an acronym for Herr Himmler gesicht heisst Heydrich or Himler’s brain is called Heydrich – Heydrich was Himler’s right hand man and for those of you who remember was played by Kenneth Branagh in the film (well tv play here but think a film abroad ) Conspiracy ,I have include the trailer here give an idea of the man we are talking about in the book .Binet opens the book with the build up of Heydrich from his youth ,then in the army and then as an officer in the S.S and how he ended up as the one that started the final solution he was the one the proposed the mass killing of the Jews in europe .

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 called him the goat .

A little boy who grew into ? well watch the trailer for an idea

So we see how the boy they called the ” goat ” became” the butcher of Prague” .As he rises in power and ends up in Czechoslovakia ,he becomes a target for assassination by the Czech resistance and this is the second part of the book to men are sent by Czechoslovakian resistance to kill him in Operation Anthripod the two men chosen are Gabik and Kubis are two very different men to one another but are sent with one purpose sent with one purpose to Kill the butcher of Prague .

Gabcik the Slovak and Kubis the Moravian have never been to Prague ,and in fact this is one of the reasons they were chosen .If they don’t know anyone the won’t be recognized .But lack of local knowledge is a handicap ,so part of the training involves studying maps of the beautiful city .

Is it a handicap the lack of knowledge you’ll have to read the book.

Well now I have a problem ,I liked this book a lot. But I did have one or two problems with it .The historic narrative is great the long passages of action are worthy to stand up with all great war fiction ,he captures the build up of Heydrich as an SS officer well and then the tension of the two men in pursuit of Heydrich well as well .No my problem is the third narrative strain which is Binet breaking out of the book and talking to you as the reader this is rather like Calvino did at time in if on a winter’s night, he address you as a reader ,the main drive of this discussion is a comparison between his book HHhH and the book the Kindly ones by Jonathan Littell (he is american but grew up speaking french and writes in french this book is the only book in the last ten years I ve not finished ) ,Now I didn’t particularly like the kindly ones but Binet really didn’t like it ,the french publisher had to remove twenty pages of his words about the kindly ones from the french edition of this book .I like some of his comments about writing in general but others seem less important .The book hasn’t page numbers just chapters number I do wonder if the chapters are like bits he collect as he thought of the book as some just half-dozen lines others tens of pages like he almost decide to include his own notes as he progressed through the book . The book remind a bit in style of the bits of USA by John dos Passos I read when I got it to read a few years ago a mish mash of narrative, fact and commentary thus build a novel a bit like you may a collage out of little bits of pictures to build a bigger picture that is HHhH .Now I ve read that some people having problems with the translation some names have been change from the French edition I m not overly concerned the change of the surname Veil in french to Weil in english as it is a germanic name the V is said like “vow” in english anyway so could sound like a w in english .As a first job of translating from french to english Sam Taylor has done a sterling job .

Have you read this book what did you think ?

26 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. gaskella
    May 17, 2012 @ 19:08:25

    Just starting it now… so no opinion yet!


  2. The Book Whisperer
    May 17, 2012 @ 19:29:30

    I must be the only person who hasn’t heard of this book yet then 😉

    I’ll keep a look out for it now though.


  3. parrish lantern
    May 17, 2012 @ 19:50:39

    not read it, but it sounds an interesting read


  4. whisperinggums
    May 18, 2012 @ 07:44:52

    I haven’t heard of it either – I don’t think it has had any big press over here. Interesting review Stu … must admit I haven’t read any contemporary French fiction so am really out of touch with French writing and French authors. This sounds like a good one to try (if I could get on top of my pile!)


  5. anthonycummins
    May 18, 2012 @ 09:09:37

    I take your point about ‘v’ and ‘w’ but Weil and Veil are different people. You can get an idea of the problems this might cause when you see that Frederic Raphael, discussing the novel in the Literary Review, sarcastically puts the error down to Binet’s playfulness, which he dislikes: http://literaryreview.co.uk/raphael_05_12.php (second-to-last paragraph).

    But the interest in the translation lies in more than just slips of the pen. It’s to do with purposeful cuts and changes to the text.

    For me, the success of HHhH has a lot to do with how sincere it seems. One source of this effect is Binet’s chatty and sometimes rambling style. Another is his use of detail. The translation tones down both.

    I don’t say this in order to criticise the individual translator or even his editor. Not at all: translation is very difficult!

    No, I think the point — however you feel about HHhH — is that the English text lets us see what’s being assumed about British and American readers: that we’re probably impatient and incurious (because we prefer wherever possible to read things only strictly relevant to the story), that we’d rather read simple sentences instead of complex ones, and that we may not be able to process information if its import isn’t immediately obvious.


    • winstonsdad
      May 20, 2012 @ 15:52:52

      I wonder how many of the changes were Binet’s own did he have final approval of the translation ,also sections cut in second french edition twenty pages in all for the attacks on Kindly ones ,all the best stu


  6. Caroline
    May 18, 2012 @ 14:39:23

    I had in my hands at the Frenhc book shop but then finally didn’t buy it. I’d rather read Sem-Sandbergh first.
    I would read it in French, not in translation so have no opinion but what anthony cummins writes gives me a lot to think…


  7. Penny
    May 20, 2012 @ 02:48:32

    The latest New Yorker magazine (May 21, 2012) has a review by James Wood of HHhH. In it, the odd numbering is not called Chapter Numbers; instead, “is broken into numbered paragraphs”. Amazon has a “Look Inside” feature on this book, and that will give most a view at both the numbering and the style.There is much discussion in the review that the narrator, who frequently interrupts the storytelling, is Binet himself (so stated in a Guardian interview) because Binet loathes the “artificiality and contrivance of most of the invented dialogue in historical fiction.”


    • winstonsdad
      May 20, 2012 @ 15:59:35

      Broken paragrapghs I did wonder if they were notes he wrote on the move and the added to the book so short pieces on the go and long piece written at home ,he use very little dialogue in the historic bits more people thpough and facts ,all the best stu


  8. markbooks
    May 21, 2012 @ 08:47:39

    Hi Stu, I’m going to read this eventually. Trying to lay off the Second World War for a bit after the IFFP, but I will get round to it. Maybe one of next year’s contenders?


  9. E.B
    May 21, 2012 @ 10:43:33

    This novel sounds intriguing, I’m about to read some WW II novels over the next few weeks so I might add this one to my list – thanks for posting on it.


  10. Jim Morphy at 366books
    May 23, 2012 @ 22:57:59

    I loved HHhH. Interesting thoughts about it above – there’s plenty to think/talk/argue about with this book, which has got to be a good thing! I liked most of the tricks, but can be see they’d annoy others. Was very curious as to how the translatino was handled, so interesting reading some points made here. My full review is at this link,
    Ta, Jim


  11. Violet
    May 24, 2012 @ 08:07:35

    I just posted about HHhH. It wasn’t quite the reading experience I expected, but I did get a timely lesson in making assumptions about books! The Littell and Houellebecq references were *interesting*. 🙂 I’m surprised you didn’t finish The Kindly Ones. I liked it a lot, although it was one of those books that people either liked or didn’t. I thought the translation read smoothly and I didn’t have any problems with it.


  12. Penny
    May 24, 2012 @ 16:53:17

    Did anyone think that the title was offputting? Clever, yes, but a bother in spoken word. And a bit of a bother in typing. I wonder (briefly) about the “forthcoming movie title.”


  13. Trackback: HHhH – Final Thoughts « Gaskella
  14. Trackback: Review: Laurent Binet – HHhH « crimepieces
  15. Trackback: Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013 (Shadow Jury combined reviews) | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  16. Trackback: HHhH, by Laurent Binet, translated by Sam Taylor | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
  17. Trackback: Best of the world under 40 in English translation | Winstonsdad's Blog
  18. Trackback: From the archives May 2013: HHhH by Laurent Binet trans Sam Taylor - Annabookbel

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May 2012


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