Hay 2012: Laurent Binet and Simon Mawer talk to Rosie Goldsmith

Dylan Moore was on hand to witness a discussion concerning Inventing the ‘Infra-Novel’; Rosie Goldsmith chats to Simon Mawer and Laurent Binet.

‘I started calling it an infra-novel,’ says Laurent Binet, ‘I invented the phrase’. ‘Why not call it a nonfiction novel?’ counters Simon Mawer. ‘We don’t have that phrase in French,’ comes the reply. ‘Well, you should have just asked; it would have saved you a whole lot of trouble.’

Laurent Binet Simon MawerTrying to explain the intricacies of fiction, faction and fiction based on fact, the French novelist whose debut is HHhH – about Reinhard Heydrich, architect of the ‘final solution’ – does remarkably well. The Q&A session reveals that his English is not perfect – at one point his girlfriend comes to the side of the stage to translate for him in a lengthy whisper – but for the initial forty minutes chaired by Rosie Goldsmith, Laurent Binet proves himself a witty and engaging speaker.

Ten years in the making, Laurent Binet’s novel is intricately researched and – as far as possible – is based on real events. He tried, he claims, to ‘resist the novelist’s temptation to invent.’ Simon Mawer had no such qualms. For the writer of Booker-nominated The Glass Room, ‘telling a fictional story is a way of getting at what is a truth.’

The Glass Room Simon MawerHis latest novel, The Girl Who fell From the Sky, about a 19-year-old British woman trained at ‘spy school’ in Hampshire and then dropped into occupied France during World War II, is based on a true story. But unlike Laurent Binet, Mawer is unconcerned about anything other than the ‘factual foundations’ needed for the fiction to convince.

The different approaches and attitudes of the two writers, not to mention Mawer’s tempered demeanour and short silver hair contrasted with Binet’s rock star looks, expansive gestures and often carried-away enthusiasm, makes for a fascinating discussion. There is no right answer of course, but what is clear is the extent to which the second world war period still looms large over the European imagination.

Simon Mawer says it ‘was an extraordinary time… which you need to understand to understand Europe today’. The generation gap between the writers means that Mawer’s father served in the British special forces while Binet relied on the stories of his grandfather, who became a POW in Germany. ‘I am of the last generation to hear from a direct witness’, says Binet and it is clear that part of his project is passing on the baton for future generations to understand. It comes up, almost in passing, that his mother is Jewish. Binet claims this is little to do with his motivation for writing the book, but given that he devoted ten years of his life to the project, he concedes: ‘I don’t know what a psychologist would say.’

What is clear throughout this session – and indeed the one that preceded it [Niklas Frank talks to Philippe Sands] – is that however we tread the borderline between fact and fiction, what we can never afford to do is fail to distinguish between truth and lies.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis