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Imagining the Real

HHhH

by Laurent Binet, translated from the French by Sam Taylor
Picador, 336 pp., $17.00 (paper)
Marc Fontanel/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images
Jacques Derrida (center) and Bernard-Henri Lévi at the Sorbonne, 1979

1.

The idea that certain words in a certain order can alter the balance of political power is central to the French writer Laurent Binet’s most recent novel, The Seventh Function of Language. Its title refers to a document by that name whose instructions, when read and comprehended and internalized, grant its reader the power to persuade anyone of anything. For a politician whose work as a candidate is vested in the production of language that would convince voters of its speaker’s integrity—language that, history teaches, routinely describes a person who does not exist in life and will not serve in office—such a capacity would be worth killing to obtain.

Binet’s novel exploits this conceit through a murder plot that sets in motion a police procedural: a man crossing a Paris street is hit by a van and gravely wounded; a detective from the intelligence service of the French police is sent to investigate the seemingly unsuspicious circumstances, because the man had just come from lunch with a Socialist candidate for president who is trailing badly in the polls and not known for persuasive rhetoric; the detective swiftly turns up irresolvables; those loose threads, chased and tugged, unravel into discoveries. On the traffic victim’s person at the time of the accident-that-will-turn-out-to-have-been-no-accident was the worth-killing-for document. Those pages will disappear before he reaches the hospital; while convalescing, he will be successfully murdered on the second attempt.

The detective’s pursuit traces the purloined text’s origins to the world of postmodern critical theory and discovers there a secret fight circuit called the Logos Club, where the battles are debates, and people of some fame engage mano a mano before a crowd of cultural elites. The cost of losing is paid in blood and bone. The presidential election simmering behind these events will be decided in favor of the candidate who lunched with the murdered man and who indeed got his hands on “The Seventh Function of Language,” the pages of which readers never get to see, for if we did…

In outline, Binet’s novel might sound something by Dan Brown, with a secret society that runs the world and a secret something being chased that, were it to fall into the wrong hands, etc. Binet’s novel is, however, distinct from such a book in that it is actively aware—and makes the reader aware that it is aware—that it is in winking dialogue with a Dan Brownish book, one it does not admire. The novel’s central character, Simon Herzog, a graduate student not in symbology but in linguistics—drafted by the investigating Jacques Bayard, a by-the-numbers detective, to play Virgil to his Dante and explain this dark world of language arts—frequently broadcasts his awareness of his part in the narrative. (“I think I’m trapped in a novel,” Herzog says. “The thought flashes through [his] mind that either he is being manipulated by a really bad novelist or Anastasia is some sort of superspy.”)

Not self-serious, then, Binet’s self-conscious thriller doesn’t buy stock in the woo-woo conceit he’s peddling. A kind of historical farce set in Paris in 1980, the novel’s extensive cast of extras consists, for the most part, of people one has heard of, everyone from Jean-Paul Sartre to Bono to Vitas Gerulaitis (1980s tennis legends, anyone?). The main characters are no less famous, an honor roll of recent French intellectual life: Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Hélène Cixous, Philippe Sollers, and Jacques Derrida. The man murdered for the secret document at the beginning of the novel is Roland Barthes, and the person who exploits it and wins the presidential election is François Mitterrand—that second-tier candidate for the Socialists who, nonetheless, beat Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and became the longest-serving president of the French Republic.

Between the critical and the political, Binet situates his satire. His title is taken from the literary theorist Roman Jakobson’s system of dividing language into six possible “functions”—referential, poetic, emotive, conative, phatic, and metalingual. Binet invents a seventh, devised by Jakobson as well—albeit Binet’s fictive Jakobson, who also runs around in the novel. This seventh is a “magical or incantatory” function. It casts a spell to literally kill for (and it is also the thing we like to say that language, figuratively, at its best, can do). Binet’s novel appeared in 2015, at a moment when the far right in France had begun making the historic gains that far-right parties continue to make throughout the West. It is written, it seems, in the spirit of looking to a recent past when the Socialists were ascendant (in France, anyway), as if to ask, playfully, what sort of magical language it took—and what sort, therefore, it might take again—to persuade a populace to elect public servants who might be trying to serve the public.

And so Binet sends his detective to interview one intellectual after the next, in hopes of solving the mystery of who murdered Barthes. He smuggles in a précis of each intellectual’s ideas before they are absorbed by the procedural plot.

Despite the charming pocket histories that Binet plants throughout his text, his novel’s ambition to marry the didactic to the satirical to the procedural to the magical is corrupted by the substance that would bind these modes together. Here, for example, is Foucault interrogated by Detective Bayard in a bathhouse busy with bodies:

Behind Bayard, a wiry, square-jawed, bald man is sitting, naked, arms outstretched and resting on the back of a wooden bench, legs spread wide, being sucked off by a skinny young man…. “Have you found anything interesting, Superintendent?” asks Michel Foucault….

Bayard: “I’m looking for someone who saw Roland Barthes not long before his accident.” Foucault, caressing the head of the young man hard at work between his legs: “Roland had a secret, you know…” Bayard asks what it was. The back-room panting grows louder.

Or here is Bernard-Henri Lévy at a party in Paris where “Lacan’s mistress uses her bare foot to caress BHL’s crotch. He is hard within seconds.” Or at a frat party in Ithaca, New York, Hélène Cixous spends time with the detective and a certain Judith:

Judith asks Bayard: “So where do you work, actually?” Bayard, taken by surprise, replies dumbly, immediately hoping that Cixous does not pick up on it: “I do research…at Vincennes.” But Cixous, of course, raises an eyebrow, so he looks her in the eye and says: “In law.” Cixous raises her other eyebrow. Not only has she never seen Bayard at Vincennes, but the university has no law department. To create a diversion, Bayard puts a hand under her blouse and squeezes a breast through her bra. Cixous suppresses a look of surprise but decides not to react, then Judith puts a hand on her other breast.

Whereupon Judith (Butler, we are to understand) “fucks him with a strap-on, yelling: ‘I am a man and I fuck you! Now you feel my performative, don’t you?’” And upon losing a rhetorical contest in the secret fight club, Philippe Sollers pays for it with his, well:

The guards strip Sollers from the waist down as he screams beneath Tintoretto’s Paradise…. Only the first few rows of the audience see what happens at the foot of the platform but everyone, all the way to the back, knows. The [man] with the doctor’s beak wedges Sollers’s balls between the two blades of the shears, firmly grips the handles, and presses them together. Snip.

And so forth. “What if the Marx Brothers were French theorists, and Monkey Business were a porno?” seems to have been Binet’s pitch to his inner producer. Which, in description, sounds as though it should be a romp. But for me, at least, it was not. Beyond Binet’s tireless use of these people as sex puppets—and it is not clear to me what algorithm Binet has applied to assign Sollers the eunuch’s role and Lévy that of an erection that has lasted too long—there is a graver, global issue, one that becomes perhaps clearest in the novel’s scenes featuring the late Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser.

The author of a few short books in the 1960s and 1970s of hermetic intellectual renown, Althusser’s considerable fame in France arrived two years after his death in 1990, with the posthumous publication of his memoir, Le Future dure longtemps, in which he narrated the circumstances surrounding his murder of his wife, Hélène Legotien, in 1980.1 The memoir, in addition to sketching the details of his long, persuasively miserable life, relates his frustration, upon strangling Legotien to death in their home, at having been deemed by court psychiatrists unfit to stand trial on grounds of insanity. Not charged with a crime and instead hospitalized for three years, Althusser, a lifelong manic-depressive, maintained that he was sane at the time of the crime. In an attempt to fortify that position, the memoir he produced suggests that it was not the murder of his wife or his long-standing battles with a mood disorder but the diagnosis of insanity that left him “deprived of his status as a philosopher”—a claim, in its dissociative clarity, that limits the reach of his persuasion.

To this depraved creature and the wife he killed, Binet devotes a few scenes: a dinner party with the randy French intellectuals, a domestic moment in the Althusser home. In one such scene, the philosopher asks his wife where some junk mail he’d left on his desk has gone. “Oh yes, I remember, that old envelope,” she says. “I threw it away.”

Time stops for Althusser…. He looks at his wife, dear old Hélène, who has put up with him for so many years, and he knows that he loves her, he admires her, he feels sorry for her, he blames himself, he knows what he put her through with his caprices, his infidelities, his immature behavior, his childlike need for his wife to support him in his choice of mistresses, and his manic-depressive fits (“hypomania,” they call it), but this, this is too much,…and he throws himself at his wife, screaming like a wild beast, and grabs her throat with his hands, which tighten around it like a vise, and Hélène, taken by surprise, stares at him wide-eyed but does not try to defend herself, putting her hands on his but not really struggling. Maybe she knew all along that it would have to end like this, or maybe she just wanted to put an end to it one way or another, and this way was as good as any, or maybe Althusser is just too fast, too violent. Maybe she wanted to live and recalled, at that instant, one or two phrases written by Althusser, this man she loved—“one does not abandon a concept like a dog,” perhaps—but Althusser strangles his wife like a dog, except that he is the dog, ferocious, selfish, irresponsible, maniacal. When he loosens his grip, she is dead.

Binet’s inclusion of the detail that Althusser’s wife, as she is being murdered by her husband, might be thinking of an epigram from his oeuvre is preposterous—a two-dimensional tag that categorizes her, unconvincingly, as “dutiful wife of a great man.” Yes, the reader is readied for it by two conjectural gestures (“Maybe she knew…”; “Maybe she wanted…”) and cushioned with a parting “perhaps,” but these are largely empty motions. Althusser’s real murder of Legotien was without motive, but Binet’s book gives him one: the philosopher is put in possession of the novel’s McGuffin, the magic document, by certain powerful individuals: his wife, finding it hiding in plain sight on his desk, discards it. So he kills her. And of course, it will turn out, once the plot grinds everything to dust, that it’s over nothing: Althusser didn’t even have the real document, just a fake that Derrida had ginned up. Oh, the irony.

One could call this—and much else in The Seventh Function of Language—a breach of taste or a trivializing of suffering. Whatever one calls it, it is a filling in of a meaningful question—why did this person hurt that person?—with a meaningless answer. As with Althusser, so too with Binet’s use of so many of these people; Roland Barthes was not murdered but did die from complications after he was hit by a van on a Paris street. Derrida won’t die until a quarter-century after Barthes, but Binet sets fictive dogs upon him, dogs that rip Derrida’s neck open, whereupon he bleeds to death, in a graveyard, with his head on the lap of a woman named Cordelia, not before uttering the words: “Smile for me as I will have smiled for you until the end, my child. Always prefer life and constantly affirm survival…” Those are almost Derrida’s actual last words, which he had his real son, Pierre, read at his real funeral, words he wrote to address his gathered friends and family, ex nihilo. Binet carrots in his own “my child,” and has fake Derrida say his real words into the fake eyes of the weeping Cordelia—who’d been giving a different character a blowjob in the graveyard just before the dogs attacked.

Binet cuts, actually, the last line of what Derrida intended to be heard by his intimates—“I love you and smile at you from wherever I am”—for who could make that fit into a dog attack in a cemetery?

2.

To date, everything Binet has written in his young career—born in 1972; five books to date2—has made targeted use of the real, while also presenting its author’s awareness of the ways in which such use might fail. La vie professionelle de Laurent B. (2004) begins:

There were a certain number of pitfalls to avoid in writing this book: easy satire, dimestore psychology, Poujadist pamphleteering, bitter seduction, well-meaning pity, republican poetics, knee-jerk conservatism, militant misery, self-justification, self-flagellation, self-aggrandizement, what else? Of all these pitfalls, I think, with total objectivity, I managed to avoid none of them.

The book in question was a work of nonfiction that gave a lively, angry account of Binet’s experiences as a student in the French system and then as a substitute teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis, at the lowest rung of the public pedagogical system.3 A French suburb northeast of Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis—Department 93—had the highest percentage of immigrants (22 percent) of any department in France, with 57 percent of children under eighteen foreign-born.

It was a challenging post for Binet, then a young teacher at the beginning of his career who had not distinguished himself as a student—or in fact had, albeit in a uniquely soul-destroying French way. Twice, while an undergraduate at the University of Paris XII (“the most rotten in France,” he has called it), Binet passed the rigorous written exam to matriculate into one of the Grandes Écoles, only to fail his orals twice, in successive years, and definitively not get in—a failure so rarified that there’s a term for it, bi admissable, which you actually put on your résumé to make clear that although you did not get into one of the best schools in France, you got further along in the process, twice, than a great many other people. Despite its author’s premonitory caution, the candor of Binet’s reporting in La vie professionelle is consistently winning: he confronts the real challenges his real students present to him and his real failures in being able to prepare many of these nonnative speakers for the mixed experience of college entry exams, not to say life itself.

Binet’s second novel, HHhH (2009), whose success allowed him to quit teaching high school (he now teaches literature to undergraduates at Paris III), has been translated into forty languages. France’s president at the time of the book’s publication, the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, cold-called left-leaning Binet to say he loved the book and to invite him to lunch. In part, the novel recounts the successful plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942. An architect of the Final Solution, Heydrich was described by Hitler as “the man with an iron heart.” Second in command to the Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich was nicknamed by his underlings “HHhH,” Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich (Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich). Binet’s novel is as concerned with Heydrich and his killers as it is with Binet’s own attempt to write a novel about that bit of history and his struggle, at every turn, to do it justice. Its first paragraph:

Gabčík—that’s his name—really did exist. Lying alone on a little iron bed, did he hear, from outside, beyond the shutters of a darkened apartment, the unmistakable creaking of the Prague tramways? I want to believe so. I know Prague well, so I can imagine the tram’s number (but perhaps it’s changed?), its route, and the place where Gabčík waits, thinking and listening. We are at the corner of Vyšehradská and Trojická. The number 18 tram (or the number 22) has stopped in front of the Botanical Gardens. We are, most important, in 1942. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera implies that he feels a bit ashamed at having to name his characters. And although this shame is hardly perceptible in his novels, which are full of Tomášes, Tominas, and Terezas, we can intuit the obvious meaning: what could be more vulgar than to arbitrarily give—from a childish desire for verisimilitude or, at best, mere convenience—an invented name to an invented character? In my opinion, Kundera should have gone further: what could be more vulgar than an invented character?

And all of a sudden, Binet sounds like David Shields—oh, the hunger for reality; oh, the life-leaching conventions of the novel form—and meets with great success as he traffics his very familiar, very tedious anxiety over the real into the marketplace. The reader of this review will not be surprised to learn that I found HHhH precisely as dull as Binet’s new novel, the tedium this time coming not from the whimsy of its content but from the whimsy of its form, Binet’s constantly interrupting to wring his hands over the inadequacy of language, as if no one had ever collared him and, with wild eyes, quoted from “Burnt Norton.”

I wish to confess to my exhaustion with this anxiety, an anxiety that a great many writers in various languages have lately been expressing over the part that reality should play in our conception of fiction, the degree to which they feel self-conscious before its imaginative foundations. How rich the real world is, and how down at the heels the novel form is, so calcified is it in its conventions, etc. In such expressions of anxiety, Philip Roth will typically be dragged forward to testify, with lines quoted from a talk he gave at Stanford in 1960 called “Writing American Fiction.” You know the line: “Actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” How true it still is! Only worse! says the sad novelist today feeling incapable before reality and before the novel’s suffocating history, failing to note that Roth, following that speech, produced twenty-six novels, each of which exhibits a different tone, and form, and substance. Anxiety over the real, Roth was arguing, is the goad to the imagination, not the easy neutering of it. A novel can be anything, if one believes in novels.

I appreciate that there is reason to despair in such belief, in much belief. It is very hard, isn’t it, to believe that a long, serious attempt at investigating imaginary human beings would be needed in a world where real human beings in and outside our country are being treated with unprecedented cruelty, and when the president of the United States acts like precisely the kind of human being whom hitherto one could barely imagine. The only useful thing about The Seventh Function of Language is the idea that one would need some magical means to persuade through language, some secret spell. Useful, because perfectly ridiculous. The spell, we know, exists: it is 140 characters long, and it can make anyone believe anything. Language, it is turning out, doesn’t need to do much to make someone believe what it says. Sometimes, the spell can be a novel, one that gets translated into forty languages and is fundamentally terrible, terrible because it doesn’t believe in novels. Rather, it believes that novels should be great again, but has no idea what that means.

  1. 1

    The Future Lasts Forever, translated by Richard Veasey (New Press, 1993).  

  2. 2

    With Binet, assigning a particular title as his first book is a bit tricky. His first, first book was a novel published in 2000, Strengths and Shortcomings of Our Mucus Membranes. Months of attempts to find a copy led nowhere, this despite the book being listed in all his bios and on Amazon (if actuellement indisponible), a novel that was suppressed, I suppose, to have allowed Binet to be considered for, and to win, the Prix Goncourt for first novels, which his second first novel and third book, HHhH, claimed.  

  3. 3

    He worked as a TZR—a titulaire en zone de remplacement, a substitute, one who works full-time but doesn’t stay at any school longer than a year.