I’m not an ignoramus when it comes to contemporary international literature, but just about, so was not aware of Koch nor his “International bestseller The Dinner” before listening to Dear Mr M last week. It’s an impressive work, my library had a hard copy, so here’s a review.
Herman Koch (1953 – ) is Dutch, has written 9 novels and according to Wikipedia he writes and acts in satirical movies and tv shows. The Dinner appears to have been made into separate Dutch, Italian and US movies, none of which I’ve seen. This novel, his eighth, published as Geachte heer M in 2014, was translated by Sam Garrett. Luke Daniels’ reading was excellent though his strong American accent took some getting used to.
Too many authors since postmodernism became fashionable have responded to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1967) by inserting themselves into their works, by writing about themselves writing about …, by conflating the work being read and the work within the work being read, and so on, all the time crying out “Look. Here I am. I’m not dead” [more’s the pity!]. Dear Mr M as you might have guessed, is such a work and all I can say is it’s very well done. And in any case is not as meta as some reviewers make out.
M is an ageing author, a decade older than Koch probably – I didn’t get the impression it’s a self-portrait, though it probably contains some self-mocking elements – whose best work is behind him. Still, he presses on, writing, giving talks and attending functions whose description adds a comedic element and probably earned him some enemies in what must be the relatively small Dutch literary establishment.
The protagonist, Herman, lives in the apartment below M. In a really effective bit of writing, the author uses the first person when Herman is talking or thinking about himself, the second person when Herman addresses his thoughts to M, and an omniscient third person when other characters are being observed. The most important of these are M himself; M’s young wife; Laura who was Herman’s girlfriend at school; and Jan Landzaat, a history teacher who disappears.
This disappearance leads to Dear Mr M being labelled as ‘mystery’ but I think that is a mistake, this is a literary novel whose subject is writing and being written about. M turns out to have been the author some years earlier of a bestselling ‘true crime’ novel based on the disappearance of Landzaat, in which he posits that the history teacher, who had been briefly Laura’s lover, was murdered by Herman and Laura when he called on them at a remote cottage owned by Laura’s parents, to persuade them (or himself) that he was no longer infatuated.
M is unaware that Herman, forty years later, is now his neighbour, in fact is not sufficiently aware of Herman to recognise him in the street, and is certainly not conscious that Herman is stalking him, or as it turns out, successfully stalking M’s wife to get closer to him.
Unlike most postmodern novels the novel which the author in the novel has written doesn’t become a second stream leaking into the first; instead, we return to the originals, Herman and Laura and their friends and teachers, on whom M’s novel was based and so gradually, and in parallel with Herman’s pursuit of M, we build up to and eventually pass beyond Landzaat’s disappearance.
There is a little joke which the author carries on about Landzaat’s name, based on zaat=seed=semen I think, though the Dutch word for seed seems to be not zaat but zaad. Not important I suppose, but having got this far I just had to look it up.
Herman eventually gets close enough to M to ‘interview’ him about his book. M says he believed the murder of the teacher was spontaneous, but that this wasn’t interesting enough for a work of fiction, so he made it premeditated.
But in your book the idea came up beforehand. And not just after the teacher came by the holiday home.
“It was difficult. I struggled with the motive. Or let me put it another way. I simply couldn’t believe that they would have done it just like that. And of course, just like that wasn’t interesting for a book. In dramatic terms. Dramatically speaking, a murder is better if it’s planned beforehand.”
It is an important factor in the denoument that Herman and his friend David get hold of a cheap 8mm movie camera and use it to make short films of pranks they play on others, including a teacher, and of Herman’s parents who are about to separate, which they edit together into a silent ‘movie’ titled ‘Life before Death’. Herman also films a teacher who has died at his desk and, later, Landzaat before he disappears.
This, the relationships of Herman and Laura and their friends, their antics at school and at Laura’s parents’ cottage, Laura’s seducing and soon after, dumping their history teacher to get Herman’s attention, the teacher’s falling apart, would have been an interesting story even without the metafictional elements. Herman’s pursuit of M (to what end I am even now not sure) and M’s day to day travails as an once-esteemed author, culminating in a fist fight between tuxedoed writing rivals at a gala night – shades of Denmark’s Nobel committee – take it up another notch. Highly recommended.
Herman Koch, Dear Mr M, first pub. as Geachte heer M, 2014, translated by Sam Garrett, Picador, London, 2016. Audiobook: Brilliance Audio, read by Luke Daniels, 13 hours.