On a tennis court, left-handed Laurent Binet is comfortable with the serve and volley – an “old-fashioned game” that reminds him of his childhood idols, Borg and McEnroe, and which defines him “far more than the question of identity everyone keeps harping on about.” When he writes, he enjoys climbing figurative mountains. Each of his three novels explores, in their own way, the relationships between history and fiction, and resembles a challenge willingly accepted. In HHhH (an acronym of Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich, “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), he recreates the assassination of Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, carried out in Prague by Czech paratroopers dispatched by London. Meanwhile, The Seventh Function of Language is a disoriented crime thriller against the backdrop of literary squabbles in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris. The novel imagines that renowned critic and semiologist Roland Barthes was murdered several weeks before the election of François Mitterrand.
The final book in the trio, Civilizations, whose name was inspired by a renowned strategy video game, offers an alternate history in which Inca leader Atahualpa conquers Europe and captures Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The novel begins in the Viking Age and ends with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, weaving a pastiche of literary genres and eras including Islandic sagas, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Christopher Columbus’ journal, and accounts of war and conquest. “I came up with the idea while reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by American geographer and biologist Jared Diamond,” says the novelist, who remembers devouring Marvel’s counterfactual stories as a child. “What really fascinated me was understanding how Cortés and Pizarro were able to conquer a whole empire with just 200 men, and whether these events were transposable. As usual, I was absorbed in my research. I traveled to Cuba, visited Peru twice, and went to Grenada, Seville, and Germany. From the Vikings to the birth of capitalism, the fields of study were enormous and disparate.”
A Critical Success in the United States
Sitting in a cafe near the Maison de la Radio in Paris on a rainy fall morning, Binet digresses, quotes Guy Debord and Umberto Eco, and voices his concern about the Trumpization of French political debate and the denial of historical truths – behavior now defined by certain media outlets and social networks as “ just another opinion.” In the space of three books, he has become one of the major French authors in the United States, where his work has been applauded by the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal. “I know I’ll have made it when the Paris Review writes a piece, but they haven’t contacted me yet,” he says, jokingly.
Binet is also one of the few French writers to combine academic knowledge with pop culture, creating a dialogue between literature and comics, French Theory and Star Wars. “I draw on a vast array of things. I like seeing Shakespeare in Game of Thrones, for example. The Seventh Function of Language features many references to spy novels and the 1981 Roland-Garros tournament, for which I reversed the result. I also took inspiration from the final exchange in The Empire Strikes Back to write a conversation between French culture minister Jack Lang and director Serge Moati.” François Hollande’s presidential campaign, which was the subject of another of Binet’s books (Rien ne se passe comme prévu), also fed into his work as a novelist. “The political betrayal was incredibly violent, but it remains a fond memory because it was interesting to see behind the scenes.”
Born in Paris in 1972, Binet grew up in the Yvelines département, in “a middle-class suburb.” His parents, both communist activists, met at the party’s 16th–arrondissement bureau. His father was the son of a caretaker who became a teacher, and passed down his love of history. “He would tell me historical anecdotes. He was the first to talk to me about Heydrich when I was a boy. They were like half-open doors; I wanted to push them open.” After completing a history degree, he turned to modern literature and passed the agrégation teaching diploma. He then spent ten years teaching in Seine-Saint-Denis, a “complicated” département, although without ever being given a permanent position. He emerged from this “interesting and difficult” experience somewhat bitter. “The situation has only worsened. I have observed a political will to abandon, if not destroy, the national education system in France.”
Translated in Forty Countries
After writing two relatively little-known books, a surrealist account published “almost at my own expense” and his “teacher’s journal” (La vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a publisher’s allusion to The Sexual Life of Catherine M.), his first novel made him a best-selling author. “I remember the exact day when my life changed, after the release of HHhH. The director of foreign rights at Grasset called me to say that she had sold the rights in Germany and Italy. The sums she mentioned were more than a year’s salary. Since then, she has sold the three books to almost forty countries, there has been a film adaptation of HHhH, and I have agreed to work on a series adaptation of Civilizations.”
Freed from “financial concerns” and having resigned from his job as a teacher, Binet now savors the luxury of spending four or five years writing a book. The next one, which has seen him “submerged in research,” will be a crime novel set in 16th-century Florence. This is a slight departure from his trademark of radically shifting time periods and genres in each book. “Until now, I made huge leaps with every work,” he says. “What defines me as a writer is the fact that I tread a different path each time. There is something exciting about doing thrilling things with a complex subject. I have a taste for page-turners, but not everyone turns pages for the same reasons!”
Civilizations by Laurent Binet, translated from French by Sam Taylor, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Article published in the December 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.