Harry Quebert: The French thriller that has taken the world by storm
‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’, a French novel by the 28 year-old lawyer Joel Dicker, may be the cleverest, creepiest book you’ll read this year, says Gaby Wood
Two years ago, Joël Dicker, a Swiss man in his mid-twenties, wrote a novel about a man in his mid-twenties who writes a novel. The book in the book becomes a bestseller, and the protagonist, Marcus Goldman, spends the next 700 pages trying to hide from, and live up to, his new-found fame.
What Dicker turned out to be writing was not just a book but his own future. A few weeks after The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair was published in France, it became the most talked-about French novel of the decade. It has now sold more than two million copies, is about to be translated into 32 languages and will be published in both Britain and the United States in May. Very few foreign-language novels make big waves in anglophone countries, but this one seems genuinely likely to buck the trend – and to judge by what went on behind the scenes, publishing insiders have known that for some time.
Dicker is now 28 years old, and a little unsure, still, what’s hit him. “It’s completely backwards!” he says of the self-fulfilling prophecy. We are sitting in a hotel bar in London, one of countless foreign cities to which Dicker has been whisked off by publicists. He is a sweet, gentlemanly sort – a lawyer by training – whose hype has reached a pitch of near-comedy. In Britain, his book is being sent out with a press release advertising Dicker as “Switzerland’s coolest export since Roger Federer”.
“It makes me realise that what I wrote was wrong,” he reflects, “because success isn’t like that when you’re living it. In my book, the guy’s novel becomes a bestseller and he takes off on holiday. I haven’t had a holiday for two years because I’ve been promoting this book!” He laughs. “Though some small details have happened to me too: the posters in the Metro, the display devoted to him in his old school…”
Dicker admits that he has become so recognisable in his native Geneva that he can’t have conversations on his mobile phone in public places, and his girlfriend – a sports psychologist for the Geneva hockey team – has taken a while to get used to it. Since September 2012, when the book was first published in French, his life has been, in his own description, “a crazy whirlwind”.
Still, success didn’t happen quite as overnight as that suggests. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is in fact the sixth book Dicker has written. Only one other has been published – Les derniers jours de nos pères, a book about the Second World War Special Operations Executive, sometimes known as “Churchill’s secret army”. It came out in January 2012 to little fanfare, and sold no more than a few hundred copies. Dispirited, Dicker sent out his next manuscript to as many publishers as he could; it was instantly intercepted with enthusiasm by the man who had published his first, who insisted on releasing it – to Dicker’s slight mystification – immediately.
I first heard of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair a month after that, at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It is rare, these days, for a single book to generate widespread whispers of excitement. But in October 2012, “the French novel with the long title” was genuinely the talk of the town. Everywhere you went, people would mention this book, sometimes pulling a folded piece of paper from their pockets to remind themselves of the name.
After Frankfurt, there was not so much a bidding war as a series of human stealth bombs. Matters were complicated – and made infinitely more intriguing – by the fact that the book had been published by a tiny house run by an 87-year-old man who had been about to wind up his business when Dicker’s manuscript arrived. Bernard de Fallois, a legendary editor who has counted among his close friends and authors the late Marcel Pagnol and Georges Simenon, made his name as a young editor at Gallimard when he found, assembled and published two manuscripts by Marcel Proust. Proust’s unfinished Jean Santeuil and critical work Contre Sainte-Beuve saw the light thanks to Fallois.
Christopher MacLehose, the publishing titan who brought us Stieg Larsson, thought the UK deal had been sealed in his favour by the time Frankfurt was over, but at least two female editors from separate major publishers subsequently flew to Paris to try to coax the elderly Frenchman into handing over the manuscript. The plot thickened.
In France by then, the book was everywhere. It won the Académie Française novel prize and the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens; it was shortlisted for the main Goncourt. But how often does the rest of the world care about the novel that wins the Goncourt prize? It’s no secret that, having led the charge through most of the 19th and 20th centuries, French fiction is now at a rather low ebb. But The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair seemed to mark a shift: it’s a cleverly constructed literary novel that is also a thriller; a novel written in French that is set in the US; a book full of dialogue that taps into trends set by high-end, well-written American television dramas. And so it became, in a way, French culture’s advertisement for itself. There was a period when, if you arrived off the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord, every inch of window space in the main newsagents was taken up by copies of Dicker’s book. The white cover with its inlaid Edward Hopper painting was so ubiquitous in Paris as to seem like a hallucination.
The book’s central plot concerns a murder investigation in New Hampshire, reopened 33 years after the events in question when two bodies are dug up in someone’s backyard. That backyard happens to belong to Harry Quebert, a much-loved novelist in his sixties who is still famous for a single book. Inevitably, the locals in the town of Aurora turn against him, and he is arrested. The only person who retains his faith in him is Quebert’s former student, the starry young novelist Marcus Goldman, now crippled with writer’s block. Goldman sets out to solve the mystery, and the result becomes his second book.
It’s like Twin Peaks meets Atonement meets In Cold Blood, with a bromance between literary jocks and some suspected paedophilia thrown in. It’s about fame and infamy, writing and love, theft and imposture; about murder, madness, and religious zealotry. It’s about guilt: not just in the criminal sense, but as an emotion that can dog you for life. It is breathtakingly plotted. But the fiendishness of the book’s construction is not merely mathematical; it relies on the built-in ambivalence of each character, or there wouldn’t be enough left to withhold for so long. The case looks to be solved several times, yet 100 pages before the end (of a 700-page total), just when all loose ends appear to have been tied, a sudden spinning ambiguity erupts in the clues. And we’re still a good couple of resolutions away from the truth.
Dicker has been compared to Nabokov and Roth – more, it must be said, for fleeting resemblances of subject matter than for anything more molecular. But there is the question of forbidden love, of many kinds, and whether love should be allowed at any cost. There is the New England setting – inspired by summers Dicker spent in Maine as a child, and immersively convincing. There are four books within the book, and despite an initial section that gives us some background on the narrator and his mentor, the reopened murder case takes over and moves addictively fast.
Also, it makes you ask: who is taking advantage of whom? Yes, someone somewhere is a murderer, but there are also people making money out of that – the lawyers, the agents, the publisher who fantasises that the name of the murder victim could become a registered trademark. Dicker is not afraid of satirising the publishing industry, or the idea of celebrity itself. Everyone wants a piece of someone, and the quest for ownership, his book suggests, doesn’t end with death.
MacLehose, who has overseen Sam Taylor’s seamless translation, describes The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair as “a kind of reader’s dream. I hadn’t read a book as cleverly contrived as that for a very long time. People are going to measure other books by what he has done here.” He chuckles a little when I say how much it reminded me of Twin Peaks. “I told Joël: don’t let Fallois sell the film rights until he has explored the possibility of a 20-part television series.”
Is it a French book, or is it an American book? And now that you can read the novel in English, does it make any difference? Dicker has been quite relaxed about the translation, and says he was happy to let the editors of the American edition (to be published by Penguin) change things they thought rang false. “It’s your territory,” he told them. But MacLehose advised him to be cautious. “He said, it’s a French book, set in the United States.” And that may be part of its success: Dicker is simply telling a story, not trying to be something else. The French edition contains no American jargon or slang. When asked if he was inspired by American film or TV, Dicker admits that he had not even seen Twin Peaks until so many people compared his book to it that he was forced to find out what they were talking about. He is not a film buff. If you prod him for literary role models he comes up with Romain Gary, then Marguerite Yourcenar and Marguerite Duras. He enjoys American literature, of course – “Steinbeck, Roth…” he says with a shrug – but this novel has sprung from that peculiar mix of an all-American setting and 20th-century French storytelling. It is a whole new thing.
Dicker tries to make light of his strangely peripatetic life. There are only, he says, “minor annoyances within a much greater joy”, and wherever he is, there is always Skype. “My day-to-day life hasn’t really changed,” he says, meaning that his friends are the same and his girlfriend is the same and he doesn’t live on a metaphorical red carpet. But surely now, I suggest, there is no day-to-day life? He smiles, and gives up. “No,” he repeats quietly, “There is no day-to-day life.”
‘The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair’ by Joël Dicker will be published by MacLehose Press in May