Monday, 25 February 2013

Reading around (and away from) the subject

One of my passions is reading. Another is 20th century history. So when the two come together, I'm hooked.

I've just finished reading HHhH, Laurent Binet's really rather excellent recounting of the plot to kill Reinhard Heydrich, the convener of the Wannsee Conference and a key player in the devising of the Final Solution. Last year I'd read Robert Gerwarth's scholarly account of the Acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia - Hitler's Hangman. It was a good solid read: lively for a scholarly work and strong on historical detail. But it had neither the edge not the cheek of Binet's work.

Binet gives us an historical narrative wrapped round with an intrusive first-person narrator (ostensibly the author) who tells the story of the plot while equally telling the story of how he is crafting his 'novel'. The energy is immense. His ability to pull the reader into the story shows a deft skill. And the fact that the work feels spontaneous is a testament to fine craftsmanship in what must have been a drawn-out and laboured process. HHhH is just very different from both historical accounts and novels covering well known events.

I really got on Binet's side in the book when he had a pop at Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. A few years ago this had been hailed as one of the most important first novels in the last 50 years. But, while it's clearly forensically researched, I never believed in Max Aue the novel's chief protagonist. There was something too modern; too clinical and too knowing about him. The accounts of the Einsatzgruppen activities of the first 200 pages are remorseless - and frankly, having got through four or five bedtimes with industrial killing perpetrated by a character I couldn't believe in, I laid the book to one side. Two years on, I still haven't picked it up again.

I'm a sucker for historical fiction that feels real but his an air of humanity. I grew up on John Le Carré. I still rush out and buy his new books as soon as they hit the shops - always in person, always hardback - but doubt anything will ever surpass the The Karla Trilogy: quite simply the British spy novel at its best. Le Carré surpasses the kind of genre fiction of the likes of David Downing with his Berlin Stations series, Tom Robb Smith's Child 44 books or even the early Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith (which rather lost its way in its latest manifestation). But in terms of both historic police procedurals and pre-war spies, I most definitely have my favourites.

Alan Furst's spy novels that revolve around Paris' fictional Brasserie Heininger Capture the spirit of the time: the menace just around the corner and the belief that things can't surely be as bad as they seem. He has woven a three dimensional map of European intrigue where characters cross each other's paths and interact with real events in a way that seems natural and unforced. Meanwhile, Philip Kerr's doing a pretty good job to humanise the Kripo with his Bernie Gunther police and gumshoe procedurals set across the Nazi era. Some work better than others - but he's never better than when he's dealing with the complex relationship between his 'anto hero' and Gunther's boss: one Reinhard Heydrich. And isn't that where I came in?