Joël Dicker The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Translated by Sam Taylor
Penguin Books, 641pp.
Reviewed by Yaëlle Azagury
What makes literary celebrity?
A few months ago, I attended a reading and book signing by 28-year-old Swiss author Joël Dicker at the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in New York. Baby-faced and candid, Mr. Dicker exuded the accidental charm of a neophyte, unencumbered by sophistication or pedantry. Seeming almost surprised to be questioned, as though whatever he had written was entirely coincidental, he was gracious and modest., And I thought his success was in no small way due to this alluring cocktail of innocence and craft, and the way in which he invokes tradition in novel and disconcerting ways. In fact, all good literature is perhaps about unsettling expectations, the transformative encounter between modernity and tradition. It unnerves our habits as reader, unveiling multiple layers and levels of reading.
His 641-page novel The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair (adeptly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Penguin Books, 641pp., May 27,2014)) was a literary sensation in France when the novel was published in 2013, with almost one million copies sold. It was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Femina, two prestigious literary prizes, and awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (a less re-knowned Goncourt bestowed by high school students). And it is, precisely, about unsettling expectations. Both a thriller and a parody of one, a novel about America, and a thoroughly un-American novel, it is chiefly a Bildungsroman – a tale about coming-of-age , and a reflection in disguise on writing and literary fame — most fittingly for a bestselling first novel.
The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is the story of Marcus Goldman, a young and successful New York writer who becomes afflicted with writer’s block when faced with the looming deadline for his second novel. When his friend and mentor, Professor Harry Quebert, also one of the most respected writers in the country and the author of a famous novel enigmatically entitled The Origins of Evil, is accused of murder, Marcus starts investigating the case to clear his friend’s name, but also, to make a book out of it. Professor Quebert is accused of having killed the 15-year-old Nola Kellergan – whose unsolved murder in New Hampshire dates back 33 years. Marcus is a good friend, a do-gooder. But he is looking out for his own interests, as well . Innocence and calculation are inextricable in Dicker’s universe.
This refreshing and imaginative first novel, written in Mr. Dicker’s effortless and elegant prose, toys with the reader’s sense of anticipation, planting clues for elucidation – both of the mystery of the girl’s death and of the meaning of the book itself – that will eventually turn out to be red herrings.
It is a polyphonic creation wherein the truth is revisited, reversed, polished and fine-tuned as multiple versions of the fateful events of the summer of 1975 are woven into the narrative and various characters each provide a possible but partial version of the truth. The story grows like a tree with ramifications and multiple branchings out – a fitting metaphor for the Internet age — but also trimmings and cuttings, all leading to the intentional effect of destabilizing the truth.
For instance, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is set in America, and has been hailed as a critique of across-the-Atlantic ways. But at the FIAF signing, Mr. Dicker told the audience the following rather funny anecdote: when the book first came out in France, he was immediately invited to his first Foire du Livre (book fair), a literary event which establishes a writer’s reputation in France. He was automatically placed on a panel with André Kaspi, the eminent French expert on the United States. Surprised, yet ever inclined to embody the ironic misrepresentation, Dicker played along, but he rejects all claims to being an Alexis de Tocqueville for the 21st-century. Having spent all of his summers in Maine as a child, he says he simply enjoyed writing about a place of which he is fond.
In fact, a close reading shows the characters are more universal archetypes than in-depth explorations of an American “essence.” There is the greedy Roy Barnaski, Marcus’ New York publisher, Benjamin Roth, the sharky lawyer, Srgt. Perry Gahalowood, the rough policeman with a golden heart who will help Marcus in the investigation, Jenny Quinn, the blond and voluptuous waitress who is secretly in love with Harry Quebert, her matter-of-fact mother Tamara Quinn, owner of the Clark’s Diner, bossy and relentless; Luther Caleb, an underdog and Quasimodo of sorts whose ominous name and monstrous deformities naturally designate him as the bad guy. Even their appellations sound more foreign than genuinely American. They represent a postcard America rather than America itself.
At times even, characters, especially secondary ones, seem as though they have sprung from the pages of a comic book: There is the starlet Lydia Gloor whose delightful name might also be found in People magazine. Or Marcus Goldman’s mother, a stereotype of the Jewish mother — overprotective, neurotic and eager to find her son a wife. Or Tamara Quinn, another devouring Medea who overshadows her daughter Jenny.
In general, mothers are rather absent in the novel or, as above, caricatured (this is a novel about fathers as I will show later). Yet, caricature often alternates with surprise along the way, and a relative complexity: Luther Caleb is not, it turns out, who we thought he was, neither is the millionaire Elijah Stern, who appears to have had an affair with Nola, nor is Harry Quebert himself, whose many facets slowly unfold over the course of the novel. As for Nola, is she angelic muse or diabolical seductress, as her name, whose quasi-homonymity with Nabokov’s Lolita, seems to suggest? Narrative reversals, volte-faces, impasses and traps are in abundance. Mr. Dicker uses literary tradition (in interviews, he speaks, for instance, of the influence Russian literature had on him when growing up), yet he updates tradition in contemporary ways. Nola is Lolita but she is also the girl next door.
The story, as previously noted, is a thriller, but the writer as detective also becomes a key metaphor for novelistic craft. Dicker’s book is thus a painstaking construction where the novelist’s task is the patient placement of clues leading to a discovery, the slow unveiling of the truth, but also, and perhaps, primarily, of the meaning of literary endeavors. It is a reflection on the architecture of a novel, on foreground and background and, with Goldman himself a writer within the wider framework of the novel, it is essentially a myse en abyme on the art of writing.
The telling of the narrative, for instance, alternates with chapters of advice to the aspiring writer, reminiscent of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write. See whether it has spread roots into the very depths of your heart.” Letter 1).
And here is Harry Quebert’s advice to Marcus Goldman:
“The gift of writing is a gift not because you are an adequate writer, but rather because you are giving meaning to your life. (…) Writers live life more intensely then others, I think. Do not write in the name of our friendship, Marcus. Write because it is the only way for you to make of this minuscule and insignificant thing called life a valuable and gratifying experience.” (my translation)
Because this is a Proustian exploration on how to become a writer, the Truth is also a delving into the notion of fraud. Who is a true writer? Is Harry Quebert a master or a murderer? Both? Neither? Is Marcus Goldman the real thing, even though he seems unable to write a second novel? Significantly, his character is construed to be an impostor early on. We learn for instance how he cheated his way through high school sports, inventing himself as the Formidable, an athletic superstar. Yet, as he overcomes successive hurdles and failures, Marcus’ efforts are crowned at book’s end, with the receiving of advice from his mentor Harry Quebert, who is an obvious father figure. Here is, for instance, what Harry tells Marcus in the book’s final pages: “I have loved you like a son, more than like a friend, Marcus.” Harry gives his talented pupil all the necessary clues to eventually bring about his very own demise, much as a father would do. The novel is about learning how to write and learning how to become an adult. For The Truth is about debunking the teacher, the Father. The mystery revealed at the end may be less about the solving of a murder than simply about learning to grow up. That is perhaps why the Truth resonates better with a younger audience (and may be why it won the Goncourt des Lycéens): there is still both a playfulness and lightness to it that makes it different from say, Donna Tartt’s the Goldfinch, the other thriller of the season, and a much darker and complex work. In some ways, the Truth is still reveling in the marvelous mechanics of writing, showing off meta-narratives and lessons learned. It is didactic, as a first novel often is.
Perhaps the book’s convoluted denouement is its only weakness: We learn who killed Nola –I won’t tell you-, but I wished here complexity had not defaulted to mere complication. I was left somehow with the feeling that a simpler ending is often more satisfying than a labyrinthine resolution. Age and experience often teach you that, but I guess, this is a lesson Mr. Dicker still has time to learn.