Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

This book is for lit lovers. It’s witty & meta. Koch is good at playing into a person’s reading expectations & flipping them. He makes people feel simultaneously “in” on the joke, but just enough out of the loop to save some surprises.

A literary thriller that is sectioned into several parts. The first deals with our narrator, who curiously has the same name as Herman. Herman lives below a once well-known, but now fading, author, who is supposedly also named Herman. Koch is quick to point out that in novels, no characters have the same name, but this isn’t a novel, it’s life. The fact that he lives directly under this author is also supposedly mere coincidence. An accident, the narrator informs us, that would never be believable in a contrived novel, but is perfectly normal in life.

This section felt a bit bitter to me, but many readers love it. It wasn’t off-hinge enough for me to fully feel creeped out by the narrator’s stalking & border-line obsessive habits. The second person narration was a bit annoying, but I found I rather liked it after the switch to third person in the next part.

The next part is sort of a trip back in time. It deals with the real life events that inspired the book that made the now-fading author famous. This was both one of the least tight sections, but also my favorite. It involves an affair between a student & teacher (reminded me a bit of You Deserve Nothing, especially the three part narrative & the Paris setting), & how this student along with her friend & classmate may or may not have exacted revenge.

Without spoiling the rest, we also get a look into the author’s literary world. This was comical, but dragged on a bit too long & didn’t serve much purpose. We also get a look into how all these characters connect & finally get the real story on what happened. I definitely didn’t see the ending coming, in fact it was a bit dramatic.

All of the flaws in this book would normally make for a choppy read, but Koch knows how to weave cliches into post-modern clever twists. I really enjoyed reading this & finished it in a series of train-rides, several of which I almost missed my stop entirely because I was that absorbed.

Definitely recommended if you liked The Dinner by Koch, or even if you’re a fan of coming of age clique tales like The Basic Eight or The Secret History, though that is one section of the story, it’s a huge chunk of the book. I also recommend it if you want to read random small talk about Dutch politics, or about the ironies of the literary world.

Here are some quotes from the author, discussing this work (click for links):

“But this is, you know, like making a wink at yourself, a bit like self-irony. There’s this whole lot of thing that what literature should do – you know, you should forget yourself and it’s – that’s the only objective it has”

“Yes, and of course [the characters] are not all that sympathetic. But if you’re talking about Dickens, would you have a beer with Fagin or an orange juice with Oliver? I think this is the whole point about unsympathetic characters. There’s something about madness or badness that we like.”

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