With the James Wood review in this week’s New Yorker, it’s official: everyone has reviewed HHhH by Lauren Binet. And, well, the critics that I trust haven’t thought too much of it. Wood gives it a very mediocre review, pointing out sloppy prose and a facile meta-narrative structure.
Sam Sacks in the Wall Street Journal writes,
The Heydrich story is one of the war’s darkest, his murder a sensational coup; it would be hard not to turn the tale into an exciting book. Mr. Binet has tried. His rendering (translated from the French by Sam Taylor) is less an imaginative narrative of the historical event than a rambling meditation on the morality of “novelistic invention.” He gives readers behind-the-scenes looks at his research process, and he is constantly interrupting the action to fret about whether it’s ethical to say, for example, that Himmler wore a blue shirt one day if there is no documentation to support the detail. Mr. Binet is passionate about his subject, but his moaning about the challenges of writing historical fiction diminishes the horror and courage at the heart of the story. “I keep banging my head up against the wall of history,” Mr. Binet writes—it isn’t clear why the reader should have to suffer with him.
Michael Orthofer calls it a YA novel, which seems about right.
I could go on. Since so few translations get any coverage whatsoever, it’s always a question when one manages to get attention virtually anywhere. Is it because HHhH was an international bestseller? Was it because it received the Prix Goncourt for a first book (not to be confused with the Prix Goncourt)? Because it’s yet another book about the Holocaust? Because FSG is pushing it hard?
All of those critics that rushed out to cover HHhH for whatever reason should smack themselves on the forehead and take a look at Mathematics: by Jacques Roubaud. Released on March 15 by the Dalkey Archive, it is the most criminally under-appreciated translation to have crossed my desk this year. The third book to be translated in his Great Fire of London “project,” Mathematics: is everything HHhH is not: charmingly bizarre, quietly but powerfully innovative in structure, and possessed of a truly strong, interesting literary voice.
Here are Ryan Ruby’s apt words in Bookforum:
As with Infinite Jest—a work by another author interested in the intersection between philosophy, mathematics, and literature—reading Mathematics: requires the use of multiple bookmarks: one for the main story of the “branch”; one for the extended “interpolations” that are placed at the end of each chapter; and one for the alternative narratives (or “bifurcations”) at the end of chapters two and three. As Roubaud piles tangent upon tangent and traces parallel lines of story, the reader is forced to switch back and forth across the pages until he is quite literally lost in the book. With this structure, which mimics the way our minds are invaded by memories and distractions, he crosses what may be the printed book’s final frontier—the linear progression of pagination.
While all books teach us how they are meant to be read, few do so as explicitly as the “Great Fire” series. A great deal of Mathematics: concerns itself with explaining how its narrative was constructed. There are accounts of the genesis of book’s particular architecture; the constraints under which it was composed; and an elucidation of everything from the interlocking parentheses to the multiple font sizes and typefaces down to the colon at the end of the word mathematics in the title (according to what Roubaud calls the “Gertrude Stein Axiom,” “A title is a proper noun describing a book “—or, to put it another way, “a book is an autobiography of its title.”)
All of this makes for highly self-conscious writing. But Mathematics: avoids the pitfalls of most metafiction: preciousness, smugness, self-indulgence. Though the melancholy tone of the first two branches is largely absent from this one, Mathematics: manages to retain a sense of gravity.
You Might Also Like:
More from Conversational Reading:
- Reviewing Vollmann and David Mitchell's Ugly Cover It's been an interesting week over at The Constant Conversation. We've got an interesting discussion of Vollmann's writing going on after John Lingan critiqued Pico...
- Reviewing The (Paris) Review Catherina Adams at Inkslinger has an interesting project going on. She’s working her way through the recently repackeged and rereleased four-volume set of The Paris...
- Book Reviewing According to the Lit Saloon, there’s a provocative piece in book reviewing in The New Republic. Of course critics should review books rather than personalities...
- Book-a-Day Reviewing Stop the insanity! ...
- Online Book Reviewing Well, the British newspaper spat over "online book reviewing" has (predictablly) become an attack on litblogs. The Literary Saloon takes a far more measured tone...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.