Fiction and the Final Solution

Laurent Binet, Jonathan Littell and the Holocaust novel.

Laurent Binet seems to see his recently-published novel HHhH as an implicit critique, in the form of a novel, of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. In an interview with Jonathan Derbyshire for the New Statesman, Binet said he was “disturbed” by The Kindly Ones, which was published in France in 2006, and in particular criticised Littell’s apparent aspiration to take us inside the minds of the perpetrators of the Holocaust. “When I read Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones I don’t get any access to the consciousness of a Nazi,” he said. “I just have access to the mind of Jonathan Littell.” Binet says he was consciously taking a different approach to fictionalising the Nazi past. “I felt Littell was doing something I didn’t want to do”, he said. “His method was not mine.”
 
Binet’s novel is all about the difficulty of telling the story of the assassination by the Czech resistance of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in May 1942. Whereas Littell’s story is told from the perspective of an SS officer who remembers in perfect detail his exploits on the eastern front, Binet writes from his own perspective – in other words, that of a young French writer struggling at the beginning of the 21st century to understand the Nazi past. Binet’s narrator agonises over how to tell the story. But although he frets about speculating beyond what he knows to be true, he speculates anyway; although he promises the reader he will avoid imagining dialogue he cannot know to be accurate, he goes ahead and imagines. He finds himself “banging my head against the wall of history” and “fighting a losing battle”.
 
Perhaps, however, Binet has misunderstood Littell’s novel. He – and a lot of critics – seem to take at face value the narrator Maximilian Aue’s promise at the beginning of the novel to tell the reader “how it happened”. They therefore see The Kindly Ones as a more or less successful realistic novel (Binet compares it to War and Peace). But is this not to make the old mistake of confusing the author and the narrator? As an SS Sturmbannführer (equivalent to a major) involved in the Final Solution, Aue surely has every reason to lie, evade and obfuscate. So, even though he was there, why should we assume Littell would want us to see him as a reliable source on the Holocaust?
 
In fact, as I described in another blog post, Aue’s account is both anachronistic and full of gaps – for example about the murder of his mother. As the 900-page novel progresses, it becomes harder for the reader to believe anything he says. It seems to me therefore that Aue should actually be seen as an unreliable narrator. Aue’s postmodern tone, which Binet correctly identifies (his narrator describes The Kindly Ones as “Houellebecq does Nazism”), is surely a clue to the reader. By the end of the novel, when Aue bites Hitler’s nose in the Führerbunker, I even wondered whether perhaps he is a fantasist like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
 
Perhaps The Kindly Ones and HHhH are therefore not so different after all. James Lasdun contrasts Binet’s novel with Littell’s, which he says attempts to “feel its way into the inner psychological textures of Nazism”. But maybe, like HHhH, it actually illustrates how hard it is for us to do exactly this. The more we know about the Nazi past, the less we feel we understand it. In other words, although written from different perspectives, both The Kindly Ones and HHhH do the same thing: explore the impossibility, as the Nazi past recedes, of fictionalising and understanding “how it happened”.
 
SS men shoot Jews at Babi Yar, Ukraine in 1941 Photograph: Getty Images
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Is Danny Baker a “bona fide genius”? Not in his new show

The clichéd decade: Cradle to Grave and Danny and the Human Zoo reviewed.

I’m not qualified to rule on whether or not Danny Baker is, as the newspapers insist, a “bona fide genius”; I gave up listening to the ever more blokeish BBC Radio 5 Live a while ago, and I’m too young to remember the supposedly fantastic pieces he delivered to the NME back in the day (I read that they were even more amazing than those of Tony Parsons, which is saying something, isn’t it?). But I can tell you this: his new autobiographical comedy series, Cradle to Grave (Thursdays, BBC2, 9pm), displays no evidence at all of his talents, brilliant or otherwise. Anecdotes that just peter out. Jokes that fail to hit home. Misplaced nostalgia. Honestly, what’s the point? If you want 1974 – and quite a lot of us seem to, if the performance of Jeremy Corbyn is anything to judge by – you’d be better off treating yourself to a box set of the eternally satisfying Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?.

The series, co-written with Jeff Pope, is based on Baker’s memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve. It’s 1974, and Danny (Laurie Kynaston) is a randy teenager who still lives at home in good old Bermondsey with his ducking and diving docker dad, Fred, aka Spud (Peter Kay), his kindly mum, Bet (Lucy Speed), and his older sister, Sharon (Alice Sykes). A voice-over tells us, in effect, to forget all about the nasty old three-day week and to consider instead the warmth of lovely south-east London. How decent its people are, how eager to try out newfangled consumer goods such as the continental quilts Spud has pilfered and which now fill the hall of his tiny house like clouds. (Correct: he’s basically Del Boy, minus the Robin Reliant, the cocktail bar and, fatally, the workmanlike jokes.)

The denizens of Bermondsey are not, you understand, quite ready for the new world. In this part of London, bomb sites remain, merrily sprouting buddleia and pink willow herb; men are men and women are women. Spud is horrified to discover that his daughter’s new boyfriend wears – wait for it – white plimsolls, though not quite so horrified as Danny is to find a stranger’s ­penis flapping exuberantly against his cheek when he goes up west to see Hair (needless to say, our Danny was in search of naked girls, not sweaty blokes). If you find this kind of thing funny and (I can hardly bear to write the words) “heart-warming”, then you have seven weeks of bliss ahead. Who knows? Perhaps the characters will go on to debate the virtues of the various flavours of Old English Spangles. But I can’t believe that many people will be so easily pleased. Those who are old enough to remember the Seventies will know that the best of the decade’s own comedy was ten times more sophisticated than this, and those who aren’t – those who have never had anything other than a duvet on their bed, and can locate a naked female or even a flapping male member with just one tap of their mobile – will simply watch something altogether more grown-up on Netflix.

Kascion Franklin (centre) on BBC1. Photo: BBC/RED

Unfathomable BBC scheduling (is it having some kind of John Whittingdale-induced nervous breakdown?) treated us to two doses of 1974 as the summer limped to an end. The second loving spoonful came in the form of Danny and the Human Zoo (31 August, BBC1, 9pm), an almost-biopic drama in which Lenny Henry told the story of his painful start in comedy.

My TV critic colleagues have all been most respectful but, lovely as Kascion Franklin’s performance in the lead role was, I couldn’t altogether get with the show. Unlike Baker, Henry certainly wiped the Vaseline from the lens: his version of the Seventies was clear-eyed, particularly in the matter of racism. But his tendency as a writer is to tell rather than show, which becomes wearying, and the narrative he offered us – success on the New Faces talent show, followed by the self-loathing that came of joining the Black and White Minstrels – wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. An unscrupulous manager with bad hair; parents who think their son should get a “proper” job but are secretly oh-so-proud; Mud’s “Tiger Feet” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” on the soundtrack: such TV clichés really should be illegal by now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses

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