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Famous in the Netherlands and – since the translation into English of The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool – well known elsewhere, Herman Koch is a most interesting man. He was in Auckland earlier this year for the Auckland Writers’ Festival and I was lucky enough to be able to go to his session. Smart, funny, quirky, ever so slightly subversive – after all he was in a Dutch version of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – this was an entertaining and stimulating session, and not at all what I was expecting from the author of the two aforementioned books which are more like psychological thrillers, with plot twists and cat and mouse maneuverings between horrible characters – at times really quite creepy.
He read an excerpt from Dear Mr M, just the first few pages as I recall, with all those elements so critical to The Dinner and Summer House simply dancing off the page. In beginning my own read of this, a huge sense of familiarity rose up, anticipation in knowing I was going to be reading more of the same, with a totally unexpected ending. Settle in for the ride.
This book, however, is considerably more complex than his two previous novels, and although a similar size and length to these others, actually feels much longer, often a bit of a wade through rather than a clear cut brisk hike. There are three, maybe four different narratives going on in this story.
Mr M, now well past middle age, is a famous writer, but beginning to feel the vulnerability of his age, with dwindling sales – wondering if he is still relevant, not wanting to lose his footing on the ladder of fame and the adulation and vanity this brings. Being married to a younger woman helps of course, but there is no denying he has become a grumpy old man.
Observing him is a younger man, Herman, the author of the letter, Dear Mr M, that opens the book. This younger man, perhaps in his mid 50s, has been an acute observer of Mr M, because some years ago, Mr M wrote about the involvement of Herman and girlfriend Laura who were teenagers at the time in the disappearance of their school teacher, Mr Landzaat. It is this creepiness of the adult Herman stalking Mr M and his family that is pure Herman Koch, and is done so very well.
The story of this disappearance is a second thread in the story and takes about half the book. This is actually a complete story of its own, that for the most part, is not at all connected to Mr M and Herman in the present day. But rather the story of teen love,its volatility and oddness, the angst of being a teenager, parents, sexual awakening, teachers. All quite normal and predictable really, giving me uncertainty while reading it, as to where it was all headed – other than the disappearance of the teacher. It takes a long time to get to this event, which after all, is what the whole book is really based on.
The third strand is Mr M himself. His vanity and insecurity fight with each other continually, gradually revealing themselves to the reader through interviews that take place with variously, a journalist, questions from the floor during a book reading, and with Herman himself, where he confronts Mr M with his novel of the teacher’s disappearance. This inevitable ‘confrontation’ between the two becomes the crux of the book – firstly the reader discovering who Herman is; secondly that in the novel, Mr M being very liberal with the facts of the case, essentially accusing Herman of causing the disappearance of the teacher, the burden of which Herman has had to carry all his life; and thirdly what is going to happen when Mr M figures out it is Herman who has infiltrated himself into the lives of him, his wife and child. How much of Mr M is in Herman Koch I wonder, or even how much of Herman is in Herman Koch?
This undercurrent of tension is most apparent when the narration is by Herman the adult. Mr M, by contrast, is far too preoccupied with his diminishing presence and influence in literary circles, and thus unaware of the danger that may be creeping up on him. Although he does become aware that there is something increasingly familiar about Herman, but unsure what it is. In the end the danger comes from a completely different source.
So you can see, there is a lot happening in this novel. Too much for me I am afraid, which makes it difficult to say what type of novel it is. Are we reading of the self-destruction of a gifted and famous writer? Is it a tale of revenge and thus a lesson to all writers that they must be careful how they tread when basing a novel upon actual events? Is it primarily a coming of age story for a group of teenagers and how quickly things can spiral out of control? I wanted much more of the interactions between nasty and horrible people, that make his other novels so fascinating and terrifying to read. I wanted more tension, twists and surprises that left me gasping with evil glee. With much less of the navel gazing, and self glorification that Mr M wallows in. Is this who all writers are? I hope not….
However despite the shortcomings for me in this novel, it is still a good read. Herman Koch fans will enjoy it very much, as there is still plenty of that mistrust and dread brought on by tigers circling each other so as to remain ahead of the game.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
Dear Mr M
by Herman Koch
Published by Text Publishing