Recently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity. In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book. I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable. The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it. His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again. In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.
In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs. This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous. His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role. Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story. It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.
As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography. Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic. I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.