The words that come to my mind when I think about Herman Koch’s writing are despicable characters, sardonic humour and very, very dark. Dear Mr. M without a doubt, lived up to this assessment, easily matching these ingredients first met in The Dinner and Summer House with Swimming Pool.
In this book we have a neighbour obsessed with a writer, aging M who lives in the same block of apartments as he does in Amsterdam.
Dear Mr. M,
I’d like to start by telling you that I’m doing better now. I do so because you probably have no idea that I was ever doing worse. Much worse, in fact, but I’ll get to that later on….
Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M You may think you’re alone, but as of today I’m here too…
Right from the off, even if you have picked this book up blind, there is a real sense of creepiness, and this persists right through the novel.
Our narrator, the neighbour gives us a full picture of just the kind of man is; a writer who had one hit book, Payback, a writer who although he has written other books now has his greatest hit quite far in the past. He is pompous and scathing of everyone he knows and seemingly incapable without his young wife to tend to him. We don’t however have a name for the narrator, or what he does, but we do know he stalks the author in the most insidious manner, and we have a feeling that there is a purpose, just what, is the mystery.
“By using the word ‘tolerance,’ you’re simply placing yourself on a higher plane than those you tolerate. Tolerance is only possible when one fosters a deep rooted sense of superiority.”
The subject matter for Mr. M’s best-seller was based on the mysterious disappearance forty years before of a trendy school-teacher. The last known sighting of the teacher, Mr Landzaat, was at the holiday home of his pupil Laura who was staying for the Christmas holiday with her classmate Herman. Laura had been the teacher’s lover, but by the time he disappeared their liaison was over and Mr Landzaat was on his way to Paris to welcome in the New Year with friends, but he disappeared one snowy day never to be seen again.
This book is, as might be expected, full of contradictions and spikiness. We attend literary events courtesy of our famous author and see his take on the behind the scenes one-upmanship which it’s only too easy to believe might just exist between literary authors. We also have a sense that his younger wife has been chosen just to get up the nose of those authors who are somewhat higher up the bestseller list than our subject, who churns out war stories, Payback being a one-off foray into a different kind of writing. The signings and the publisher events are marred not just by the lack of his current success but the belt-tightening of the industry with lavish dinners of the past giving way to buffets in the present day.
The seemingly unrelated storylines that make up this book are cleverly combined as the book progresses but even when I was unsure quite how this was going to work, each individual strand is a delight in itself, an insight into the most unattractive people you would probably wish to spend time with. Please don’t read this book if you need to like at least one of the characters, I can guarantee you won’t enjoy this bunch at all! But if like me, you enjoy a clever book, one that is quite unlike anything else you are likely to read, Dear Mr. M will both delight and horrify you in equal measure.
Dear Mr. M was my nineteenth read in my 20 Books of Summer Challenge.