Herman Koch is a master storyteller. His two earlier novels, Summer House with Swimming Pool and The Dinner, which spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide, both delve into the mysteries of the human psyche—not without a biting sense of humour and satirical examination of the way we live now.
In Dear Mr M, Koch brings us another intense and sophisticated thriller. Mr M is a famous writer, although interest in his work has been dwindling of late. But there is someone still keeping an extremely close eye on him—someone whose own story bears more than a passing resemblance to the plot of Mr M’s bestselling thriller. In Mr M’s book, the body is never found—but this might be about to change.
Read an extract below—you won’t want to stop!
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.
In your books you often describe faces, but I’d like to challenge you to describe mine. Down here, beside the front door we share, or in the elevator, you nod to me politely, but on the street and at the supermarket, and even just a few days ago, when you and your wife were having dinner at La B., you showed no sign of recognition.
I can imagine that a writer’s gaze is mostly directed inward, but then you shouldn’t try to describe faces in your books. Descriptions of faces are quite obsolete, actually, as are descriptions of landscapes, so it all makes sense as far as that goes. Because you too are quite obsolete, and I mean that not only in terms of age—a person can be old but not nearly obsolete—but you are both: old and obsolete.
You and your wife had a window table. As usual. I was at the bar—also as usual. I had just taken a sip of my beer when your gaze passed over my face, but you didn’t recognize me. Then your wife looked in my direction and smiled, and then you leaned over and asked her something, after which you nodded to me at last, in hindsight.
Women are better at faces. Especially men’s faces. Women don’t have to describe faces, only remember them. They can tell at a glance whether it’s a strong face or a weak one; whether they, by any stretch of the imagination, would want to carry that face’s child inside their body. Women watch over the fitness of the species. Your wife, too, once looked at your face that way and decided that it was strong enough—that it posed no risk for the human race.
Your wife’s willingness to allow a daughter to grow inside her who had, by all laws of probability, a fifty-percent chance of inheriting your face, is something you should view as a compliment. Perhaps the greatest compliment a woman can give a man.
Yes, I’m doing better now. In fact, when I watched you this morning as you helped her into the taxi, I couldn’t help smiling. You have a lovely wife. Lovely and young. I attach no value judgment to the difference in your ages. A writer has to have a young and lovely wife. Or perhaps it’s more like a writer has a right to a lovely, young wife.
A writer doesn’t have to do anything, of course. All a writer has to do is write books. But a lovely, young wife can help him do that. Especially when that wife is completely self-effacing; the kind who spreads her wings over his talent like a mother hen and chases away anyone who comes too close to the nest; who tiptoes around the house when he’s working in his study and only slides a cup of tea or a plate of chocolates through a crack in the doorway at fixed times; who puts up with half-mumbled replies to her questions at the dinner table; who knows that it might be better not to talk to him at all, not even when they go out to eat at the restaurant around the corner from their house, because his mind, after all, is brimming over with things that she, with her limited body of thought—her limited feminine body of thought—could never fathom anyway.
This morning I looked down from my balcony at you and your wife, and I couldn’t help but think about these things. I examined your movements, how you held open the door of the taxi for her: gallant as always, but also overly deliberate as always, so stiff and wooden, sometimes it’s as though your own body is struggling against your presence. Anyone can learn the steps, but not everyone can really dance. This morning, the difference in age between you and your wife could have been expressed only in light-years. When she’s around, you sometimes remind me of a reproduction of a dark and crackly seventeenth-century painting hung beside a sunny new postcard.
In fact, though, I was looking mostly at your wife. And again I noticed how pretty she is. In her white sneakers, her white T-shirt, and her blue jeans she danced before me the dance that you, at moments like that, barely seem to fathom. I looked at the sunglasses slid up on her hair—the hair she had pinned up behind her ears—and everything, every movement she made, spoke of her excitement at her coming departure, making her even prettier than usual.
It was as though, in the clothing she’d chosen, in everything down to the slightest gesture, she was looking forward to going where she was going. And while I watched her from my balcony I also saw, for a fleeting moment, reflected in your wife’s appearance, the glistening sand and the seawater in slow retreat across the shells. The next moment, she disappeared from my field of vision—from our field of vision—in the back of the taxi as it pulled away.
How long will she be gone? A week? Two weeks? It doesn’t matter all that much. You are alone, that’s what counts. A week ought to be enough.
Yes, I have certain plans for you, Mr. M. You may think you’re alone, but as of today I’m here too. In a certain sense, of course, I’ve always been here, but now I’m really here. I’m here, and I won’t be going away, not for a while yet.
I wish you a good night—your first night alone. I’m turning off the lights now, but I remain with you.
I went to the bookstore this morning. Copies are still piled up beside the register, but then you probably know that already. You seem to me like the kind of writer who goes into a bookstore and the first thing he does is look to see how many inches his own work takes up on the shelves. I imagine you might also be the kind who’s bold enough to ask the clerk how sales are going. Or have you become more reticent about that in recent years?
In any case, there’s still a big pile of them at the front desk. There was even a potential customer who took one and turned it over and over in his hands, as though trying to measure its importance by weight. I had a hard time not saying anything. Put it back, it’s not worth your time. Or: I highly recommend that one, it’s a masterpiece.
But I couldn’t decide so quickly between such extremes, and so I said nothing at all. It probably had to do with that big pile, which already spoke volumes. Anything piled up high beside the register is, after all, either a masterpiece or anything but—there is no middle ground.
While the customer was standing there with your book in his hands, I caught another glimpse of your photo on the back cover. I’ve always felt that there is something obscene about that expression you wear as you look out into the world. It’s the expression of someone pulling on his swim trunks with unbearable slowness on a busy beach, with no hint of shame, because he doesn’t care whether people see him. You’re not looking at the reader, no, you’re challenging him to look at you—to keep looking at you. It’s like one of those contests to see who’ll avert their eyes first; a contest the reader always loses.
By the way, I still haven’t asked how you slept last night. And what you did with that suddenly empty space beside you in bed? Did you stay on your own side, or did you slide over a little more toward the middle?
Last night you listened to music: that CD you never put on when your wife is home. I heard your footsteps all over the house, as though you were trying to make sure you were really alone—how you opened windows everywhere, then the door to the balcony too. Were you trying to drive something out, to exorcise it? The smell of her, perhaps? People in love, when the object of their affection is not around, will bury their nose in a piece of their sweetheart’s clothing. People whose love has run its course throw open the windows, the way you hang an old suit out in the wind if it’s been in mothballs too long, even if you know full well that you’ll never wear it again.
You were out on the balcony, and I could hear you singing along. It’s not the kind of music I’m fond of myself, but I understand how someone who likes such music might write such books. You had it turned up pretty loud, by the way, just a little short of public nuisance. But I’m not fussy about things like that. I didn’t want to be the killjoy on your first evening alone.
Why, by the way, didn’t you dare to come downstairs yourself that time, to complain about my music being too loud? Why did you send your wife?
“My husband’s a writer,” she said. “He can’t stand noise.”
I invited her in, but she took only a few steps into the hallway, she didn’t want to come any further. I noticed her craning her neck at one point, trying to catch a glimpse of my apartment. I looked at her face, and at the same time I smelled something—something I didn’t want to go away quite yet.
A few hours later, on my way to bed, I passed through the hallway and that scent was still there. I stood there in the dark for a long time, as long as it took for me not to smell it anymore. In any case, I didn’t throw open any doors or windows to drive out her scent. I waited patiently until the scent felt that it was time to go.
As I saw that evening close-up, she is indeed no longer the young girl who came to interview you for the school paper back then. How did you put it? “One day she showed up toting a notebook and a whole list of questions, and to be honest she still isn’t finished asking them.”
What was the first thing she asked you, after she stepped over the threshold? “Why do you write?” A question schoolgirls are prone to ask. And what did you tell her? What answer would you give these days?
At the dinner table you tend to be silent. Not that I would be able to make out the words themselves if you did talk, but the sound of voices comes through the ceiling quite readily. I hear the tick of silverware on the plates and, in summer, when the windows are open, I can even hear the glasses being filled.
While your mouth is busy grinding your food, your head is still in your study. You can’t tell her what’s occupying you. She wouldn’t understand anyway, after all: she’s a woman.
So the meals go by in a silence broken only sparingly by questions. I can’t hear what she’s asking, I only hear that she’s asking a question. Questions to which you must reply with only a nod or a shake of the head.
If I don’t hear you respond, that means you’re moving your head, the head itself is in your study: it can’t speak, only move.
Later, after you get up, she clears the table and puts the glasses and plates in the dishwasher. Then she withdraws to the room on the side facing the street, where she stays until it is time to go to bed.
I still haven’t figured out exactly how your wife passes those hours alone in that room. Does she read a book? Does she watch TV with the volume down low or off?
I often imagine to myself that she just sits there—a woman in a chair, a life that goes by like the hands of a clock, with no one ever looking to see what time it is.
You will have noticed by now that I’ve put on some music of my own. I’m sure it’s not your kind of music. I’ve cranked up the volume on my stereo a little louder, to more or less the same level as on that evening when your wife came down to ask if I could lower it a little.
I know that you, as a matter of principle, will not come down. You have to be able to send someone else, you’re not the kind to come down yourself. Which is why I turn up the volume a little more. The sound of it could now, I believe, rightfully be described as a public nuisance.
I have no fixed plan. In any case, I regret the fact that a pretty young woman like that is condemned to your company, that she withers away by your side.
Now I really do hear the doorbell, you’re quicker than I expected.
“Could you perhaps turn the music down a bit?”
I won’t try to describe your face, describing faces is something I leave completely to you.
“Of course,” I say.
After closing the door in your face—your undescribed face—I turn the music down. Then I gradually turn it back up. My guess is that you won’t come down again.
I guess right.
Tomorrow you have a signing session at the bookstore, I saw the poster in the window. Will the line of people waiting for your signature be long or short? Or will there be no line at all? Sometimes those big piles beside the register don’t mean a thing. Sometimes it rains, sometimes the sun is shining.
“It must be the weather,” the bookstore owner will say when no one shows up.
But someone will show, in any case. I’ll be there.
I’ll see you tomorrow.