Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.

dear-mr-m

A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

16 responses to “Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

  1. I was wondering whether The Dinner was a one off success – but I’d forgotten about Swimming Pool.

  2. Jonathan

    I’ve still only read The Dinner by Koch but both ‘Swimming Pool’ and this one sound as if they’d be a good read. I think I saw ‘Swimming Pool’ at my local library.

  3. I have to admit I did wonder what direction this book was going to take and I’m very grateful for your candid review. I will be reading this one as The Dinner is one of those books that truly shocked me and has become ingrained in my mind – I was slightly less impressed by ‘Summerhouse with Swimming Pool – It is just a shame the second half lacked some of the acerbity of the first I’ll let you know my thoughts when I get to it.

  4. I agree that he book is at its best in the first half. I thought the way he handled the constant crossing over and back from fiction to reality, or Herman’s view of reality, was brilliant, and Herman himself is a shockingly nasty character, both in his youth and now.

    • Yes, shockingly nasty is a good way of putting it–you really have to reevaluate the different story strands as you go along. Yes, brilliant, I agree, so it’s forgivable that it’s not perfect.

  5. I have yet to read any book by him, which is a shame, as he sounds quite on my wavelength. I love the way you describe the predator vs. idiot conundrum. I’ll never forget the moment when a group of husbands of my group of friends were going on about racing their cars and buying a Porsche, and my 19 year old niece piped up: ‘Oh, middle-aged men are so tiresome when they try to act cool…’ The husbands (none of whom were older than 40), after a moment of strained silence, changed the subject, while behind them us women (of equal age but less ‘coolness’) were cackling with laughter.

    • Yes we are trained to think ‘predator’ and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s also an idiot factor to be considered, at least in some cases (true in the book).
      Your comment made me think of Laura in the book. She has the affair for her own reasons and then realises that she did something stupid. her life isn’t wrecked, but the teacher’s life is.

  6. I’m looking forward to reading this one (when my Australian project is over) because I so enjoyed The Dinner and Swimming Pool.

  7. I still have to read The Dinner. Judging from your review, I’d only pick this one up if I trulx liked the first two. Is he becoming formulaic, you’d say?

    • No I’d not say that he’s formulaic at all. It’s just that the first part if so good, and then the plot loses its spark and becomes ordinary. I wanted the viciousness to keep up.

  8. I have The Dinner, but still haven’t read it. From what you say plainly this isn’t as strong, but it still sounds rewarding and worth reading.

    The predator versus idiot thing certainly rings true…

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