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.
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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 school-girls 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.
I sometimes wonder what that must feel like, mediocrity. By which I mean what it feels like from the inside, for the mediocre man himself. To what extent is he aware of his mediocrity? Is he locked up inside his own mediocre mind and does he run around tugging at doors and windows, trying to get someone to let him out? Without anyone ever hearing a thing?
That’s how I often imagine it, as a bad dream, a desperate scream for help. The mediocre intelligence knows that the outside world exists. He can smell the grass, hear the wind rustling through the trees, see the sunlight coming through the windows—but he also knows that he is doomed to stay inside for the rest of his life.
How does the mediocre intelligence deal with that knowledge? Does he try to buck himself up? Does he realize that there are certain boundaries he will never break through? Or does he tell himself that it’s not really all that bad, that this very morning, after all, he finished the crossword puzzle in the newspaper without any noticeable sign of exertion?
If you ask me, there’s only one real rule of thumb, and that rule says that you’ll never hear people of above-average intelligence mention how smart they are. It’s like millionaires. You have millionaires in jeans and scruffy sweaters, and you have millionaires in sports cars with the top down. Anyone can get a catalogue and look up the price of the sports car, but I’ll give you ten-to-one odds that the scruffy sweater guy could leave the same car behind in a restaurant for a tip.
You’re more the kind with the convertible. Even when it’s raining you drive with the top down, past the outdoor cafés down by the beach. “As early as kindergarten, teachers noticed that I was exceptionally intelligent.” It’s a subject that often (too often, to the point of nausea in fact) comes up in your work and in interviews. “My IQ is just a fraction higher than that of Albert Einstein.” I could go on—“When, like me, one possesses an intelligence found among barely two percent of the population”—but why should I? There are women who say out loud that every man turns and looks when they walk past, and there are women who don’t have to say that.
In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit that has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway—and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.
A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from his mediocrity.
His writing is “not without merit,” that’s what we say about the mediocre writer. For him, that’s the pinnacle of achievement, to produce books that are not without merit. You really do have to be mediocre to go on living once you’ve realized that. To go on caring about a life like that, that’s what I should really say—to not prefer death.
The line at the bookstore wasn’t so bad after all. It had rained a little earlier in the morning, then the sun came out. The people were lined up to the door, but they were all inside. Not a bestselling author’s kind of line. Not a line out to the street, or all the way around the corner, no, just the normal kind of line you’d expect for a writer in whom interest has been waning for the last decade or so. Lots of middle-aged women. Far past middle age, I’m sorry to say—women no one turns to watch as they go past.
I took a copy of Liberation Year off the pile and went to the back of the line. There was a man in front of me. The only man there, except for me. Everything about him told you that he wasn’t there of his own free will, as they say, but that he’d come along with his wife, the way husbands go with their wives to IKEA or some furniture outlet. At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing increasingly desperate glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.
And it was his wife who was holding your book, not him. Women have more time than men. Once the vacuuming is done they open a book—your book—and start to read. And that evening in bed they’re still reading. When their husband rolls onto his side and places a hand on their stomach, close to the navel or just below the breasts, they push that hand away. “Leave me alone, okay, I just want to finish this chapter,” they say, then read on. Sometimes women have a headache, sometimes they’re having their period, sometimes they’re reading a book.
Again, I’m not going to attempt to describe your face. The expression you wore when I put my copy of Liberation Year on the table for you to sign. Suffice it to say that you looked at me the way you look at someone you’ve never seen anywhere but on the other side of a counter. Across the counter at the drugstore, for example, the cashier you suddenly run into on the street: you recognize the face, but have no idea where from. Without the context of the counter, the razor blades, and the painkillers, you can’t place the face.
“Is it for someone special?” you asked, the same way you’d asked the people in front of me. Meanwhile, you looked at my face. The face that seemed familiar to you, but that you still couldn’t pin down.
“No, it’s for myself.”
You sign with a fountain pen. A fountain pen you screw the cap back onto after each signature or personal inscription. You’re afraid that otherwise it will dry up. You’re afraid that you yourself are going to dry up; that’s what a dime-store psychologist might conclude, before going on to ask you more about your parents and your childhood.
“And the name is—?” The cap was already off, the fountain pen already poised above the title page, when suddenly I thought about something. I looked at your hand holding the pen, your old hand with the clearly visible veins. As long as you continue to breathe, the blood will keep on transporting oxygen to your hand—that’s also how long you’ll be able to sit at a table in a bookstore and sign books that are not without merit.
What I thought about was this: I thought about your face poised above your wife’s face, your face in the semi-darkness of the bedroom, your face as it slowly approaches hers. I thought about it from her perspective, how she sees that face approaching: the bleary old eyes, the whites of them not completely white anymore, the chapped and wrinkled lips, the old teeth, not yellow but mostly gray, the smell that passes between those teeth and reaches her nostrils. It’s the same odor you smell when the sea pulls back, leaving behind it on the beach only algae and empty mussel shells.
The odor is so strong that it overrides the normal, old-man smells: the smell of diapers, of flaking skin, of dying tissue. Yet, a little more than three years ago, there must have been a night when she saw a future in all of that. A night when she decided that having a child by that uncongenial-smelling face could be regarded as an investment.
That your wife was able to see a future, I can almost believe that. But what kind of future did you see? She saw a child that would grow first inside, then outside, her body. But what about you? Did you see yourself waiting at the gate of the elementary school, later, amid all the young mothers? As an admittedly old but famous father? Did your fame, in other words, make you free to bring a child into the world at a ridiculously advanced age?
Because what future awaits her, your daughter? All you have to do is look at the calendar. That future, namely, doesn’t exist. Even if it all goes unexpectedly well, from a point somewhere halfway through high school she’ll have to make do with nothing but the memory of her father. In the middle of those “difficult years.” Those same difficult years during which her mother once knocked on your door in her capacity as reporter for the school paper.
You spoke my name, and once again looked at me with that gaze in which—somewhere far away—something like recognition had begun to dawn. As though you heard a song that sounded vaguely familiar, but you couldn’t come up with the name of the singer.
Your fountain pen scratched across the page. Then you blew softly on the letters before closing the book—and I smelled the odor. You’re almost done for. One signature, one inscription on a title page separates you from the grave and oblivion. That’s another thing we need to talk about: the future, after you’re gone. I could be mistaken, of course, but my impression is that it will go quickly. In southern countries, the dead are buried the very same day. For reasons of hygiene. The pharaohs were wrapped in bandages and buried along with their most prized possessions: their favorite pets, their favorite wives . . . I think it will look something like that. The Big Forgetting will begin the very same day. You will be buried along with your work. Of course there will be speeches, and the list of speakers will be impressive enough. Full or half pages in the papers will be dedicated to the importance of your oeuvre. That oeuvre will be collected in a leather-bound, seven-volume edition, subscriptions to which are open even as we speak. And that will be that. In no time, separate volumes of the luxury edition will start popping up at secondhand book sales. The people who have subscribed won’t show up to collect the series—or they’ll be dead—on the day it appears.
And your wife? Oh sure, she will go on playing the widow for a while. Maybe she will even play hardball and forbid some biographer to cite from your personal correspondence. But that doesn’t seem like a very realistic scenario to me. Guarding access to correspondence is more the kind of thing the older widows do. The widows with no future. Your wife is young. It won’t be long before she starts thinking about a life without you. She probably already thinks about that with some regularity.
And by the time your daughter turns eighteen and has to apply for an official document (a passport, a driver’s license), the person behind the counter will already be asking her to spell her surname. Perhaps she’ll still say: I’m the daughter of . . .
Yes, that’s how it will end. You won’t live on in your work, but in the child you brought into the world in the nick of time—just like everyone else.
Maybe you’ve noticed that, so far, I have been extremely discreet in dealing with your daughter as a private individual. I have not, for example, made any attempt to describe her. In situations where she was physically present, I have left her out of my descriptions. In the tabloids, faces of the children of celebrities are sometimes rendered unrecognizable, in order to protect their privacy. Your daughter’s presence yesterday, for instance, when your wife left in the cab, is something I have not mentioned. I remember how she waved to you through the rear window of the taxi. From my balcony, I could see her little hand waving. I saw her face, too, but I won’t describe it.
And I’ve left her out of your shared dinners, because you yourself always do too. Your wife brings your daughter to bed before you start in. The silent dinner. You are, of course, completely within your rights to feed your daughter beforehand and then put her to bed. There are couples who think that in that way they can keep something alive, something of the old, romantic days when it was just the two of them. With no children. But how is that supposed to work when your daughter grows older? Will she put up with that silence the way her mother does? Or will she, like all children, fire off questions at you? Questions that can only help you out. That could make you a more rounded person—even now, even though she’s not quite four.
There are wars in which only military targets are fired upon, and there are wars in which everyone is a target. You, more than anyone, know exactly which war I’m referring to. You write about it. Too often, to my taste. Your new book, too, harks back once again to that war. As a matter of fact, the war is the only subject you have.
Which brings me straight to today’s sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: What does a war do to a person of mediocre intelligence? Or perhaps: What would that same mediocre intelligence have done without that war?
I could help you out with some new material. The women and children have meanwhile been herded to the air-raid shelters. Nothing prevents me now from handing you the new material on a silver platter. That in doing so I consider you a military target is something you should take as a compliment.
The material, by the way, is perhaps not entirely new. It might be better to speak of old material seen from a fresh perspective.
I am going home now.
The first thing I’ll do is read your book.
Reprinted from Dear Mr. M © 2016 by Herman Koch. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.