Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Part One)

As mentioned in my prelude post, my first event at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was an interview with French writer Laurent Binet, here to discuss his very successful novel, HHhH.  After my long wait, I was happy to get into the room, one of the cinemas at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), to join a fair-sized crowd of around 120 people – many of whom were middle-aged women…

…which (if I were cynical – and of course I’m not…) might be attributable to the fact that Binet is a very good-looking man, casually dressed in a top with his sleeves rolled up.  He was chatting with the moderator, Michael Cathcart, the presenter of the Books & Arts Daily show on Radio National, and before the talk started, we were informed that we’d be live on the radio 🙂 ***

Cathcart started by asking Binet about his background and upbringing, before moving on to the writer’s move from history, his first love, to literature.  Despite deciding not to pursue studies in history, Binet’s background leaves him suspicious towards the novel, and he’s not a fan of the traditional French model of the realistic, psychological novel (as displayed in the works of Zola and Balzac).  In fact, he said: “I was never really interested in the fate of a fictional character.”  I’m not sure many of my readers would agree with that viewpoint 😉

Cathcart then interjected, talking about how Bertolt Brecht’s plays constantly reminded the audience that what they were seeing wasn’t actually real, and Binet agreed that his style works in a similar way, in an attempt to remind the reader of the fictional nature, not of the story, but of the details which the writer could never really know. In HHhH, Binet (or the voice of the novel) frequently chides himself for including scenes whose veracity he could never be sure of.  Which led nicely onto a discussion of…

Jonathan Littell’s novel The Kindly Ones (at which point, Binet became a lot more animated).  Littell’s book, featuring a fictional SS officer, was hugely successful in France, but Binet, it’s fair to say, is not a fan.  He seemed a little disturbed by the possibility of readers confusing fact and fiction, and hates that they might believe Littell’s stories.  When Cathcart brought up the idea of ‘novelistic truth’, Binet was quick to dismissively say: “Novelistic truth?  I don’t buy that.” (which got the biggest laugh of the session!).

HHhH is composed of over 250 short chapters, and Binet said that when he had finished writing them, the job was still far from done as he had to decide the order – he found it hard to decide where the narrator’s interjections would best fit into the ‘real’ story.  In fact, with the intense research he undertook (and the difficulty in setting boundaries for his research), it ended up taking him ten years to complete the book.  By the way, for those of you who have read the book, the idea of having no page numbers came from the English publishers – this was not the case for the original French-language version…

In closing, Cathcart asked Binet about his core values, and the writer responded by affirming his need for honesty and truth.  He said that he hates fakeness, and that’s one reason why he’s so obsessed with history.  I was interested in the way Binet seemed to be more attached to history than to literature, and after the session (when I sneaked into the book-signing queue without a book…), I asked him if he actually thought of himself as a novelist and whether he intended to write more fiction.  He said that he now considers himself to be more of a writer of fiction and that he plans to write more novels in the future.  Sadly, I had to leave it there as I’d been spotted, and the security guards were ready to haul me away 😉

All in all, it was an interesting session, and I enjoyed my first taste of a literary festival.  As some of you may know, I didn’t rate HHhH that highly when I read it earlier this year, but it was still fascinating hearing the writer explain and justify the way he wrote the book and the choices he made.  One interesting piece of information I learned was that there were some major cuts made, most of which referred to The Kindly Ones.  I bet that would have spiced HHhH up a little…

One down, two to go – next time, I’m hanging with Teju Cole (well, thirty metres away) as we talk about the future of the novel.  Stamp your ticket at the door, please 😉

*** The talk is currently available online at this link 🙂

4 thoughts on “Tony at the Melbourne Writers Festival (Part One)

  1. Great wrap-up! I'm going to check out the podcast of the session, looking forward to hearing it and the one I was also at.

    I heard Teju Cole at the Morning Reads session I went to – love his voice. I'm going to purchase the book he was reading from when I'm back at the festival later this week.


  2. Bree – It was an interesting session, well worth a listen (very convenient that it was broadcast too!). Teju Cole was great – I'll be posting on that one on Wednesday. I've actually just got a copy of 'Open City' from the library, and I'll be making a start on it very soon 🙂


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