Book of the month: Herman Koch

A while ago I got an email from a reader. She had enjoyed my novel, Beside Myself, she told me. But she particularly wanted to congratulate me on not having put a writer in it, this authorial habit being one of her pet hates.

Her message got me thinking. Stories featuring storytellers are pretty common. They’re also fairly universal. From Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire to Stephen King’s Misery, and from One Thousand and One Nights to Alice Munro’s ‘Family Furnishings’, the international literary landscape is thronged with imaginary wordsmiths. And, unfortunately for my correspondent, many of us seem to enjoy reading about them.

I suspect this is because where there are writers you usually find readers (or listeners) too. There can be few more satisfying things than recognising something in a book you are reading. Whether it’s an observation about an experience you have gone through or a truism about a particular sort of person or situation you know well, that flash of connection when a writer captures something you have long felt is a joy.

As a result, books that feature readers have a head start because they automatically contain subject matter that has the potential to resonate with every person who picks them up. This is a double-edged sword, however, because the sheer volume of literary works containing readers and writers means that any new contribution has to do something special to stand out.

At first glance, it seems that bestselling Dutch writer Herman Koch’s Dear Mr M, which hinges on the real-life and fictional accounts of the mysterious death of a school teacher several decades previously, may be a competent yet unremarkable addition to the genre. A number of familiar tropes and characters greet us in the opening chapters – the sinister fan with ‘certain plans’ for the object of his attentions, the jaded, ageing, white male author fearful that his greatest work is behind him, the suggestion that certain fictional events may bear more than a passing resemblance to real life.

Yet, as the pages turn, this literary novel in thriller’s clothing opens out like an umbrella, becoming something much more elaborate and impressive than its beginnings promise. Far from reading a neat and compulsive – yet ultimately familiar – account of the working through of a literary obsession, we find ourselves in the grip of a story that questions not only its own framework but the foundations of storymaking itself.

Looking and watching sit at the novel’s heart. Koch turns these themes around to explore their many angles using the ingenious device of having one of the central characters film various key events and then play them back at different points. The result is that we read several scenes from diverse perspectives, discovering how certain details recede or become accentuated depending on who is looking and why.

Although dark in tone, the book is not without playfulness. The jibes at the Amsterdam book-club scene (there is a particularly excellent sequence in a library, where Mr M is invited to do a reading and we are let in on his gripes about everything from the librarian’s haircut to the dog-haired blanket in the car that will drive him home) are as hilarious as they are daring. Similarly, numerous misanthropic observations about many of the lesser characters recall the delicious, if somewhat jaundiced, humour of recently translated Dutch classic The Evenings.

The complexity and sophistication of the narrative’s construction – it switches perspective and timeframes frequently – means that this is a more demanding read than its marketing might imply. Those wishing to be swept along by a comfortable whodunnit should opt for something else. It’s also the kind of book that repays lengthy reading sessions rather than brief dips in and out. There are so many threads that it’s easy to get in a tangle if you don’t keep a firm grip.

But for those with the time and energy, this story will more than reward the effort. Smart, stylish and beautifully controlled, this is one of those rare books that at once offers a great story and moves its genre forward.

Dear Mr M (Geachte heer M.) by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett (Picador, 2016)

Book of the month: Saskia De Coster

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Moving house is a chance to reflect on many things. As I wrote in my post about packing up my year of reading the world bookshelf, my recent change of address led me to ponder this project and the many different people and ideas to which it introduced me anew.

I also found that it reintroduced me to a lot of other books – not least some of the many volumes on my to-read mountain. Since 2012, this has grown to a massive size. Barely a days goes by without someone contacting me or leaving a comment here suggesting another intriguing book.

Publishers are no exception. I often get emails from presses keen to send me copies of their latest releases in the hope that I might write about them on this blog. I’m always glad to hear about great books, but I’m also very honest with companies that contact me like this: because I only choose one book to feature each month, I am unlikely to review most of the books publishers send me. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of review copies I have written about here.

Still, last month, as I was packing up, I happened upon an uncorrected proof sent to me by World Editions earlier this year. It was for the English-language version of Wij en ik (We and Me) by Belgian writer Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.

The accompanying publicity material was impressive. This was, according to World Editions, ‘a brilliant, incisive novel’. Indeed, they went so far as to call it a European response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

If that weren’t curiosity-piquing enough, the cover of the proof bore a ringing endorsement from Dutch author Herman Koch, whose Summer House with Swimming Pool I read recently and enjoyed. And so, taking the book up from the stack on which it had languished for half a year, I put the packing on hold for a bit and began to read.

The novel follows the fortunes of the Vandersanden family, spanning more than three decades from 1980 until almost present-day. Living in a housing estate high up a mountain, megalomaniac Mieke, her taciturn husband Stefaan and their increasingly wilful and non-communicative daughter Sarah move through their days in isolation, caught in a web of silence that threatens to strangle them all. Through their stories and those of the community around them, De Coster paints a devastating picture of the modern-day nuclear family, revealing how loneliness can be threaded through the most intimate relationships of all.

The comparison of De Coster to Franzen is understandable, but somewhat limited. Although the two share an expansiveness to their writing and a willingness to devote pages to teasing out minutiae that most writers would baulk at for fear of readers’ ever-shrinking attention spans, the Belgian author’s prose has a quality all its own.

At her best she gets inside the heads of her characters to the extent that the whole world and the images used to portray it are coloured and slanted by their specific neuroses and concerns. When we look through the eyes of Mieke – whose days consist of an obsessional round of domestic chores – life explains itself by way of housework metaphors, whereas increasingly paranoid Stefaan sees reality in terms of political plots and intrigues.

There are some lovely instances of humour too. De Coster delights in bathos, frequently undercutting her creations’ pretensions or delusions with sharp one-liners that stay just the right side of bitter.

In time, however, this falls away and in the second half of the book the narrative takes flight, steering an exhilarating course between the peaks and valleys of the emotional landscape, revealing stunning vistas and terrifying cliffs.

This is not a perfect novel. There are some clunky word choices and overworked imagery. Observations such as the would-be bon mot that ‘rain in Belgium is like the great leader in a dictatorship: it pops up everywhere’ feel laboured and unnecessary.

At times the pacing jolts, jerking us abruptly from one scene to the next. And although the shifts of perspective from one character’s mind to the next often feel natural and fluid, there are points at which they bewilder.

The biggest issue concerns the mysterious ‘we’ of the title – a strange disembodied consciousness that creeps into the story at odd moments, commenting on the action in the manner of a Greek chorus. Although this occasionally adds a nice sense of mystery, it is not developed enough to merit its place and feels rather like scaffolding that may have helped in the construction of the narrative but would have been best taken down to show off the finished work.

These near misses are symptomatic of the risks writers must take to do exciting, new things, however. And there can be no doubt that, for all its imperfections, this is a bold and daring book. The epigraph from Virginia Woolf is a key to De Coster’s ambitions for her story: ‘To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face.’

For my money, she has achieved this. Uneven though it may be, We and Me contains startling truths about the way we live and die. To read this story is to be changed by it.

Thanks for sending me the proof, World Editions. I wonder what other delights are lurking in my mountains of unread books…

We and Me (Wij en ik) by Saskia De Coster, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (World Editions, 2016)

By the way, it’s been great to see such a brilliant response to Postcards from my bookshelf – nearly 120 entries in the week since it went live. If you haven’t applied yet but would like to be in with a chance of receiving a book chosen by me next year, visit the post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read.