The French writer talks semiotics, Foucault, pulp novels and James Bond.
Laurent Binet is a little tired of talking about the French election. "It's a choice between Thatcher and Hitler... I'll vote Thatcher, but don't ask me to like it," he tells me. Luckily for him, we're not really here to talk about the (now over) French election. I'm far more interested in his new book, The Seventh Function of Language, a fun and pulpy detective story about semiotics – the study of signs – and the made-up murder of French philosopher Roland Barthes.
Binet came to prominence after the release of his acclaimed debut novel HHhH, which was half about the plot to assassinate SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich and half about his struggle as a writer to represent the story properly. It was a meta-novel in the most traditional sense, and Binet often used cute trickery to throw the reader off. In The Seventh Function he behaves much the same, still sneakily entrapping the reader in mental scenarios and whipping them right back out again.
I sat down with Binet just after an interview he was meant to do with Sky News was cancelled due to Prince Phillip receding from public life (much to his relief). We spoke about philosophy, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes' marriage and novels that collapse in on themselves.
VICE: When I mention this book and its themes and characters to people, they say it sounds quite "niche". Does that worry you at all?
Laurent Binet: Not at all. I'm writing about what I'm interested in, so hopefully it will interest other people. If it doesn't, well, that's too bad for me. I think I'm a regular guy, so if I'm interested in something I can suppose somebody else will be interested too. Maybe not millions of people, but a few people at least.
Who do you think this book is for in that case?
It's for everybody. For me first, like always, just writing what I like to read. I was aware that I would play with some complicated concepts, like the performative, the semiotics. I used to be a teacher, so I try to give the tools to the reader to help them understand everything by themselves. To explain the things you need to know to follow the plot in a funny way. Not to make it a course or a lesson, but theatre. Especially with semiotics; I tried to explain what semiotics are with Sherlock Holmes, which is basically: to find signs everywhere.
And also with James Bond.
Yes, [I used] James Bond to explain what structuralism is – to understand that everything works with codes. James Bond was a good example. My novel is structured a bit like James Bond, and the main character, Simon, starts teaching a lesson about James Bond, and slowly he becomes James Bond. You know, the smoking, drinking cocktails, the car chase.
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Almost all of the characters in your books so far have been real people. Do you feel like writing about them is as close as you can get to meeting them? You don't write a book for random reasons, but one of the reasons was to make them alive, of course. Also, because I believe they're a bit forgotten now. At a symbolic level I enjoyed playing with them as characters, obviously, but more than that I want to feel that they're alive. Nothing could please me more than somebody telling me "because of you I read a book by Roland Barthes", so it makes me happy to make them alive in order to make their work vivid.
In HHhH you seem very fearful of misrepresenting historical figures, whereas here that doesn't seem like much of a concern. Is The Seventh Function as based on historical research as HHhH?
I needed a level of research, yes, but I changed my goal. You're right – I wanted to show the most faithful representation in HHhH, and this time I changed the angle completely. To me, it's two sides of the same question, which is the complicated relationship between fiction and truth, fiction and history, fiction and reality – only, this time I wanted to play with the reality. Still, I didn't want to pretend something happened if it didn't, so I don't hide that this is a game – I didn't want there to be any doubt that Barthes died in an accident…
It sounds like you had a lot more of an enjoyable time writing this – more playful, in a sense.
It is more playful than HHhH, but still, as you said, I played with my own mistakes in HHhH, and of course playful doesn't fit for HHhH, but in both cases the pleasure was similar. I was following an obsession. I was obsessed for ten years with the Anthropoid story [the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich] and I always wanted to know more. I think every writer has to be obsessive – you have to be obsessive to write a book. This is a good obsession. To be obsessed by a subject, a topic, either Heydrich's assassination or Roland Barthes accident, I enjoyed my obsession.
Well, not "of course", because some writers talk about how painful it is to write, and I have to say: that's not the case with me. I do it because I like it. I work a lot, you know, and I don't say it's easy – it's difficult – but I like it. When I was young I thought, 'If you believe it's work then it means you're just crap.' But now I think the opposite. Writing is working, but it's good work.
"You're not the first one to tell me, 'I'm not academic, I missed some theory.' But the academics, they missed many pulp references. Jacques Bayard was named after Jack Bauer out of 24."
Would you say your new work is more a historical novel with pulpy elements, or a pulp novel with historical elements?
It's mainly history and the pulpy aspect comes after. It's my style, you know? History would be the subject and pulp would be the form.
Is it easy to find the right balance between the two?
I couldn't tell you what the right balance was. It's a kind of instinct, I think. It's a question of feeling. Sometimes I feel 'this will be too much', or other times I will feel like 'let's go!' [laughs]. Let's unleash the horses!
What are you wanting the readers, who may not be well versed in French philosophy, to be thinking when they're reading these thick passages of semiotic theory, and then throwing them into a car chase or a sex scene?
The best thing I can do is do both at once! A car chase and theory at the same time. I wanted to challenge the reader, but I want to let them free too. If you want to skip the passage you can, of course, but I'll try to catch them somehow. I'll make a theatre scene. I always want a scene to work on several levels, not only one. If you just want to read my book like a detective story, it's not a problem with me. I want to give you different doors to open, which are all connected, but if you miss one or two connections it doesn't matter. You're not the first one to tell me, "I'm not academic, I missed some theory." But the academics, they missed many pulp references. Jacques Bayard was named after Jack Bauer out of 24.
An HHhH film is being made. Is that going to be the story of the book, or just a film of the assassination itself?
It'll be a Hollywood movie, but the difference with Anthropoid is that it's following the rise and fall of Heydrich, so it starts a lot further back than the operation. I have nothing against Hollywood movies. It's very different from the book, but it doesn't matter; it's a pretty good Hollywood movie with great actors, beautiful pictures, the music going well. The book is the book, the movie is the movie. The movie is nothing I have to be ashamed of. I'm glad they did it. I kind of like it.
Do you think The Seventh Function could be made into a movie, too?
Of course, and I'm sure it will be. There will be a theatre play of it in November actually. I've seen some rehearsals and it looked very funny. I can't wait.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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