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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear