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DEAR MR. M by Herman Koch


by Herman Koch translated by Sam Garrett

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-101-90332-2
Publisher: Hogarth/Crown

A man contemplates getting back at the novelist who exploited his life in fiction.

Koch’s third novel translated into English (Summer House with Swimming Pool, 2015, etc.) is partly a satire of the petty grievances of the literary world, partly a vision of sociopathic cruelty, though ultimately a little too much of both. The “Mr. M” of the title has had a long career writing novels that have garnered heaps of acclaim but modest sales—with the exception of Payback, his bestselling fictionalization of a much-discussed news story about a pair of teens who were accused of killing a teacher who’d had an affair with one of them. Herman, one of the students allegedly involved, hasn’t been able to let go of the experience decades later; indeed, he lives in the same building as the writer, and as M makes the publicity rounds for a new novel, Herman is increasingly invasive of his personal space, stalking his wife and posing as a journalist to ask some pointed questions of him. Koch (via Garrett’s translation) does a fine job of capturing Herman’s arrogant, narcissistic swagger (“I have certain plans for you…”; “Who are you trying to impress…?”), but he wisely pivots away from Herman’s narration to include multiple perspectives—Mr. M, the troubled teacher, and the classmates who witnessed Herman’s high school antics. (He enjoyed taunting a classmate whose mother was dying, for instance.) Koch suggests that in some ways Herman and M are similar—both exploit others’ pasts, have mean streaks (M fantasizes about mass-murdering his readers), and have troubled pasts to cover up. But that argument isn’t wholly persuasive—Herman’s adolescence was crueler—and the layering of Herman’s back story overwhelms the core mystery story of what truly happened with that teacher.

Koch is consistently attuned to our hidden foibles and fakery, which makes for deliberately discomfiting reading. Sleeker writing would enhance its impact.