Unapologetic: Dear Mr M

I’ve read The Dinner twice. It’s one of the only contemporary books that I’ve ever re-read.

I really liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. I have an immense appreciation for Herman Koch’s unapologetic writing style.

And I’m not alone:

Stephen King totally gets Herman Koch.

Aside from the fact that Koch has actually written eight novels – only three of them have been translated into English. Dear Mr M is the latest.


M, a writer, is long past his glory days. Years ago, his novel Payback, was a bestseller. It told the tale of teenaged lovers who offed their teacher after the teacher wouldn’t leave the girl alone. It was based on a real-life mystery that was never solved – the teacher’s body was never found. M’s downstairs neighbour has taken an intense interest in M’s life, finally figuring out a way to get to speak with him about more than just the weather.

This is a story about how decisions we make shape our lives. It’s about an author at the end of his career who doesn’t want to play the role of elder statesman anymore.

I was totally blindsided by the end of this book.

I will admit that there were times where I wondered where this was all going but the payoff! Oh the payoff was good. Koch’s unapologetic writing style is intact – there were actual moments where I was like “this guy! Who does he think he is?” It always takes me a minute to separate the author from the characters when I read Koch’s work – I always wonder where the line is, how much of what is written is the view of its creator? No one is safe – not readers, women, teachers, students, the young, the old, the Dutch, all are subject to the Koch Treatment.

I dogeared so many pages – and I never dog ear pages. But I wanted to be able to go back and read some of his passages. There are whole sections of the book dedicated to writing and readers and what it’s like to be an author and anyone that reads as much as I do will find that so fascinating. A kind of author’s inception. Koch’s writing is so clear eyed, his prose so spare in making points that make you go “huh.” More than any other author, I wonder what it’s like to have a conversation with Herman Koch, to have him come to dinner.

This book challenged me, it forced me to confront uncomfortable truths about people and stories and life. I wasn’t totally aware of what was happening the whole time but when I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it and couldn’t wait to get back to it.

I leave you with a few quotes from the book about books and reading:

A reader reads a book. If it’s a good book, he forgets himself. That’s all a book has to do. When the reader can’t forget himself and keeps having to think about the writer the whole time, the book is a failure. That has nothing to do with fun. If it’s fun you’re after, buy a ticket for a roller coaster.

He has never understood why people would want to borrow a book. […] He himself finds it filthy, a borrowed book. […] A book with wine spots and a crushed insect between the pages, with grains of sand from the last reader’s holiday falling out as you read.

We shouldn’t want to force anyone to read, just as little as we should want to force people to go to the movies, listen to music, have sex, or consume alcoholic beverages. Literature doesn’t belong in a secondary school. No, it belongs on the list of things I just mentioned. The list that includes sex and drugs, all the things that give us pleasure without any external coercion. A required reading list! How dare we!

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for an ARC of this book. Any errors in quoting are due to coming from an unfinished version of the book.

10 thoughts on “Unapologetic: Dear Mr M

    • Summer House had characters that were even harder to like than in The Dinner. The main character in particular is just the worst. I’m sure it turned off lots of readers! But with Koch, if you stick with it, there’s bound to be some payoff.

  1. You’ve convinced me! And, I’m happy to be convinced, because I never did feel convinced about his last one.
    I especially like that last quote!

  2. YAY!!! I’m so glad to find someone else who loved it! I feel like I’ve seen a lot of meh reviews for this one.

    And, I totally agree with you about Koch’s incredibly distinct style making you totally uncomfortable and wondering how much is the character vs. how much is the author. I just absolutely love his willingness to go to that uncomfortable place.

    • I think there are a lot of people that can’t appreciate Koch’s style. And I will admit that when I first started reading it, I was like “I hate this.” But it was that character, that opening. It was odd and sleazy. So glad I kept going.

  3. Pingback: The DNF Chronicles: The Last Days of Night | The Paperback Princess

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