The Dinner, by Herman Koch

by

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Review copy courtesy Random House Canada

Translated by Sam Garrett

The Dinner is the first of Herman Koch’s seven novels that I have read (actually, as far as I can tell it is the only one that has been translated into English) but the Dutch author has already claimed a spot in a sparsely-populated room in KfC’s gallery of reading.

I have an abiding affection for books that successfully establish an engaging “realistic” story and then, dramatically or with careful deliberation, successfully change course and head somewhere far darker. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels are a perfect example — although, after you have read the first one, you know a bizarre twist is inevitable in the others. Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment is one that features a number of sudden left-turns in plot, all accomplished without losing momentum. And while I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s best-selling Gone Girl I gather it hinges on a plot disruption so important that every review I have read goes out of its way to avoid a reveal — so it is fitting that Flynn blurbs The Dinner on my copy.

As the title promises, Koch’s book is about a “dinner” and the volume is structured with labelled courses, opening with Apertif and concluding with Digestif, and like any multi-course dinner the interesting tastes of the first few courses acquire increasing boldness and complexity as the experience proceeds.

The Apertif course of the book opens with the first-person narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, heading out for dinner with his brother Serge and his wife, Babette. We know from the start that Paul wants no part of this dinner; Koch builds sympathy for him because this is one of those fancy restaurants where reservations need to be made three months in advance:

A few centuries from now, when historians want to know what kind of crazies people were at the start of the twenty-first century, all they have to do is look at the computer files of the so-called “top” restaurants. That information is kept on file — I happen to know that. If Mr. L was prepared to wait three months for a window seat last time, then this time he’ll wait for five months for a table beside the men’s room — that’s what restaurants call “customer relations management”.

Serge never reserves a table three months in advance. Serge makes the reservation on the day itself — he says he thinks of it as a sport. You have restaurants that reserve a table for people like Serge Lohman, and this restaurant happens to be one of them. One of many I should say. It makes you wonder whether there isn’t one restaurant in the whole country where they don’t go faint right away when they hear the name Serge Lohman on the phone. He doesn’t make the call himself, of course; he lets his secretary or one of his assistants do that. “Don’t worry about it,” he told me when I talked to him a few days ago. “They know me there; I can get us a table.”

Except for one important detail, that pretty much sets up the first few “courses” in the book. Paul’s brother is one of those pretentiously successful people who love to exercise their influence — and there are restaurants that are every bit as pretentious that cater to them. Serge had wanted to show his “people” side by meeting Paul and Claire for a drink at a nearby, very unpretentious, cafe where they are regulars before the meal. Paul rejected the invitation because the cafe is Paul and Claire’s kind of place and they don’t want to introduce his phoniness to it: that “important detail” yet to be revealed is that Serge is the leader of the Opposition party in Holland and is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister. Visiting the populist cafe would merely be an exercise in vote-building imagery for him.

Koch has more great fun with the restaurant, which deserves attention. Paul and Claire accept the offer of “the apertif of the house…pink champagne” served with “Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia, and polished off with rosemary from…” — only later realizing that the house apertif comes at ten euros a glass. By way of contrast, the cafe serves a full meal of spareribs and fries for 11.50 euros.

All of this makes Paul aggressively uncomfortable — he is making no friend of the maitre d’ with his responses — and Serge and Babette haven’t even arrived yet. The greeting they get on entry provides an indication of the dynamic that will drive the novel’s first few chapters: Serge’s incredible arrogance, management and staff’s fawning response and Paul’s growing anger:

Yes, it had to be the owner, for now he stepped forward to extend a personal welcome to Serge and Babette. “They know me there,” Serge had told me a few days ago. He knew the man in the white turtleneck, a man who didn’t emerge from the open kitchen to shake hands with just anyone.

The guests, however, pretended not to notice; in a restaurant where you had to pay ten euros for the apertif of the house, the rules of etiquette probably didn’t allow for an open display of recognition. They all seemed to lean a few fractions of an inch closer to their plates, all apparently doing their best at the same time to forge ahead with their conversations, to avoid falling silent, because the volume of the general hubbub increased audibly as well.

And while the manager (the white turtleneck had disappeared back into the kitchen) was escorting Serge and Babette past the tables, no more than a barely perceptable ripple ran across the restaurant: a breeze falling across the still-smooth surface of a pond, a breath of wind through a field of grain, no more than that.

Koch is not one of those authors who opts for a sudden turn in his plot — rather he carefully spreads out the seeding of the elements of change as the “normal” one progresses. For example, before leaving home Paul contemplated checking out what was on his 15-year-old son’s cellphone. And we already have a sense that Paul’s distaste for Serge will blossom into something more disturbing, but another element is added when he notices Babette’s eyes, unusually hidden behind tinted glasses:

They were red around the edges, and bigger than normal: unmistakable signs of a recent crying jag. Not a crying jag that had happened a few hours ago — no, crying that had happened just now, in the car, on the way to the restaurant.

The author takes all those no further at this stage — indeed, it will be a number of chapters before we discover what produced them. We also learn that this dinner is not just a social occasion but has an agenda: there is something the two couples “need” to discuss. And that both couples have teenage sons, Michel and Rick. Serge and Babette actually have two: Beau is from Burkina Faso and was supported financially by them there, but is now staying with them in Holland on what Paul calls a “rent-to-own” basis (he may or may not be staying on — the “adoption’ was a gesture from Serge to show his liberality).

All of this is revealed almost in asides to the amusing phoney restaurant action (“The lamb’s-neck sweetbread has been marinated in Sardinian olive oil and is served with arugula,” said the manager…pointing with his pinky at two minuscule pieces of meat. “The sun-dried tomatoes come from Bulgaria.”), accompanied by Paul’s hilarious ongoing commentary on how awful all this is — his prominent brother included.

Slowly but very, very surely, the disturbing plot elements move the restaurant phoniness to the side and introduce a harsh, disturbing reality to the dinner. The sons (Michel and Rick for sure, maybe Beau as well) have done something terrible, perhaps even criminal; it has been captured on a smartphone camera and is now on the internet, with promises of even more to come.

Both sets of parents are aware of part (but not all) of what is behind this — both are also aware that it might also simply slip away out of sight if nothing is done. Once Koch gets all this established (say two-thirds of the way through the novel), we have a four-way dynamic between the parents and a three-way one between the teenagers on just what might or might not be done. Suffice to say, the decent, honorable, option is only one of the many that are available.

It is important to note that Koch does not desert the restaurant story line — he piles these other ones on top of it (not unlike those fancy restaurant entrees that arrive in a carefully-stacked pile of five different “things”, with the hardest to cut on top, if I might be permitted a whining foodie metaphor). The humor of the phoney dining experience is now contrasted directly with the sordidness of what the adults seem willing to do.

The result for this reader was a very well-balanced read, that touched a number of different taste buds. Released only recently in North America (to much media attention), it has now been published in 25 countries — one of those rare best-sellers that strikes my fancy. I’ve been waiting for the Canadian release following two enthusiastic reviews last year from bloggers whom I respect — Tom Cunliffe at A Common Reader and Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations — and it was worth the wait. I’ll even be happy to be assigned a table by the men’s room when Koch’s next English translation appears.

24 Responses to “The Dinner, by Herman Koch”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    One of my favourites from last year, Kevin. Like you, I look forward to the next one to be translated.

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  2. Michael Says:

    OMG! You HAVEN’T read Gone Girl?

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Indeed, I have not. It is one of those books that I have heard enough about that I am completely confident pretending that I have read it — which I suspect is the best investment of my time.🙂

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  3. anokatony Says:

    Thanks, “The Dinner” is on my TBR list.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think you will find Paul’s never-flagging crankiness suits your taste — sometimes he is just a complainer but most of the time there is a fair bit of substance to his grumpiness.

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  4. Tom Cunlfife Says:

    As always, you pick out things I passed over. I didn’t really notice the business with the aperitif. It’s strange how few Dutch writers seem to attract international attention. Looking at my stats I’ve only reviewed three but they’re all rather quirky and unusual. I loved the way this one turned very sinister indeed but how rapidly the parents began to look for ways to minimise the damage to their own lives.

    If you get a chance to see the movie Carnage you might enjoy it – the theme is similar to this book

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I found the way Koch portrayed the parents in the latter part of the book to be a real strength — he managed to develop four very different versions of selfishness.

      I’ll keep an eye out for Carnage.

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  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I noted this when Guy reviewed it, and I’m delighted to be reminded of it as it does sound very much my thing (not least as I’m prone on occasion to going to just that sort of restaurant).

    Good to see the confirmation of its quality. On the list it goes.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I’ve been to more than a few restaurants like this as well — and that was what I was most looking forward to when I started the book. My expectations were more than met on that front. The characters were a very pleasant surprise.

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  6. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    I have to admit that I only skimmed this review, Kevin, because I am on the waiting list for this novel from the library, and I am afraid of spoilers! Your opening comments led me to believe that it is a book worth reading, so now I am really looking forward to it. After I finish the book, I will read your review thoroughly–and gain much insight, no doubt, into the novel–thanks for your great reviews.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      If you are going to read the book anyway, my review is definitely best read after, not before. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Not a great literary work, but a most engaging read.

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  7. Brett Says:

    Kevin,

    I’m surprised to see your good review as I really did not feel this book worked. Like you I am a fan of “books that successfully establish an engaging “realistic” story and then, dramatically or with careful deliberation, successfully change course and head somewhere far darker.” I just didn’t feel this happened. I found the adult characters too juvenile by half and the situation – as related to us by our narrator – highly implausible. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Ian McEwan’s “The Cement Garden” (or any number of his books) and Slavenka Drakulic’s “The Taste of a Man” – two books that have the reader reeling by the end, and yet feeling like there was no other possible outcome to the story. I just think there are writers (like McEwan and Drakulic) who do this sort of thing much, much better. To each his own, I guess.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for offering your point of view — I know The Cement Garden but had not made the comparison, although I can see why you do. I can accept that some might find a problem with the way that Koch unfolds his plot; I did not. As you say, “each to his own”.

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  8. Crake Says:

    Thanks for reviewing “The Dinner”, Kevin.

    I, too, skimmed the review because I hope to get around this novel before the end of the month.

    Koch will be visiting the Buenos Aires Book Fair since Amsterdam was selected as its “City of Honor” this year. Several other Dutch writers will also be here including “The Twin”’s Gerbrand Bakker (!) and perennial Nobel candidate Cees Nooteboom.

    So I’m guessing a number of Dutch novels will be crowding my TBR pile quite soon. ; )

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      That is a good bunch that you have coming. This was my first Koch and I will be reading more — I was also impressed with the only Bakker that I have read (just ordered his most recent one). I too know Nooteboom only by reputation.

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  9. Liz at Literary Masters Says:

    After I finished Gone Girl, I felt as if I had binged on a hot fudge sundae. I gobbled it down but then felt kind of yucky. Then I forgot about it. I don’t think it compares to The Dinner, which is both riveting and thought-provoking. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I am considering using it for my Literary Masters book groups next season because a) it’s so well written, and b) there’s so much to talk about!

    Kevin, I can’t wait to read your review of The Woman Upstairs, another “best book” of this year for me. I am definitely using that for my LM groups next season.

    I am currently reading Ten White Geese, the latest from Gerbrand Bakker. Not loving it like I did The Twin, but I’m staying with it.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      The Dinner continues to come to mind every now and then (often when dining out, alas). It is a fine book.

      Thoughts on The Woman Upstairs have been delayed a day or two. Your comment actually is right on the mark — I was thinking about how to address the issue that I thought many book clubs would find it a different book than I did.

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  10. Deirdre O'Brien Says:

    Kevin, I finally got this book from Calgary Pub. Lib. and it is amazing. I could hardly put it down and, as another reader says, I’ll recommend it to our book club when it becomes easier to get hold of. “The Dinner” reminded me of Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader” although the latter deals with past struggles. I don’t think you have reviewed it as yet but I found both books equally thought provoking.

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  11. Deirdre O'Brien Says:

    Thinking more about “The Reader” which I read sometime ago, it is a more complex story, more nuanced. However, both deal with the complex ethical dilemma’s that individuals and society are forced to deal with. The issues in “The Reader’ are more difficult I think, for me at least, to resolve in my mind.

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  12. acommonreaderuk Says:

    Thank you for the mention Kevin. I greatly enjoyed this book – even though it concerns a much-used trope – “proud parents confronting the misbehaviour of their children”. Brett (above) found the adult characters juvenile – yes, but as I read the daily papers I see frequent references to similarly immature parents. I would say The Reader is a much more serious book, whereas The Dinner is altogether more pacy and even humorous (at times).

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  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    One year after reading it, I have to say it is the funny parts that are strongest in memory — particularly the early chapters where he is most into satirizing the phoney restaurant.

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  14. Karyn Says:

    A superb book! As the plot progresses from a seemingly “normal” dinner with two brothers and their wives, it quickly take on a “take no prisoners’ bent – a shocking, psychological thriller. To what lengths would any of us to to protect our children? I was thinking that it would be a great play, similar to the impact of the rising, uncompromising tensions in Edward Albee’s plays. I understand that Herman Koch is also an actor. And now I read that it is to be made into an English language film directed by Cate Blanchett, announced in 2013. Having had the privilege of seeing her perform at the Sydney Theatre Company in the gripping one person play “Gross und Klein (Big and Small”) by Botho Strauss, I can only imagine that the pace will be unrelenting. This is not a work of great literature, but a gripping story that likely is all too familiar to many families.

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