Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wednesday, November 14, 2012: Maximum Shelf: The Dinner


Hogarth: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Hogarth: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Hogarth: The Dinner by Herman Koch

Hogarth: The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner

by Herman Koch

The Dinner, the sixth novel from award-winning Dutch author Herman Koch and already a bestseller in Europe, arrives in the U.S. with an excellent translation and great deal of well-deserved advance praise. A slow-burn creeper, this suspenseful and unsettling novel turns a microscope on parenthood, exploring the knotty question of whether nature or nurture is the more powerful force in shaping our personalities and in the process, examines the darkness that may lie just below the thin veneer of civilization, social grace and propriety.

The novel begins innocently enough with our narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, preparing to meet his brother Serge and sister-in-law Babette for dinner at an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam. Paul is completely devoted to his wife and their teenage son, Michel, but is querulous and out of sorts; he hates the pretentiousness of the fancy restaurant experience, he's concerned about Michel's state of mind and he doesn't care for his brother, a local celebrity who is favored to become Prime Minister in Holland's upcoming election. Paul, a history teacher on leave, appears to be articulate and quite reasonable and at first it is easy to understand his discomfort. Serge, at least the way Paul presents him--as a hypocritical seeker of the limelight--does seem a bit of a preening narcissist, and Babette, dark glasses covering her eyes, seems cold and oddly distant. What's more, Paul's description of the annoying, fawning maître d' with a perpetually raised pinkie and his details of the fare (sun-dried tomatoes imported from Bulgaria, walnut shavings, and so forth) lead us immediately to the same conclusion as he about the ridiculousness of such a dining "experience." But somewhere between the appetizer and the main course, we begin to suspect that Paul may be that most slippery of guides--an unreliable narrator. His dislike of his obviously more charming and successful brother is unnecessarily venomous, as is his disdain for Babette (who, it turns out, is hiding eyes swollen from crying behind her dark glasses). By the time we discover that the purpose of the dinner is to discuss what to do about the sons of the two couples, who are the as-yet-unidentified perpetrators in a heinous act of violence, our suspicions are confirmed and we've no choice but to stay inside Paul's disturbed and increasingly disturbing mind.

Paul reveals himself slowly over the course of the meal, alternating among the present, the immediate past and events that happened long ago. Through his keenly observed but elliptical descriptions of events, we learn that the reason for his extended leave from work is that he has a bit of an impulse control problem. At least this is how Paul frames the intermittent bursts of uncontrolled violence that have erupted from his ever-simmering internal rage. The cause, Paul explains, is biological (he won't disclose the exact disease, only that it is heritable) and he has been prescribed medication to treat it (whether or not he takes the medication is left for the reader to very quickly figure out). Unsurprisingly, Paul is emotionally disconnected from his own violent acts, describing them in gory detail but as if they were committed by another person. Yet he also manages to justify them in the same way he rationalizes his son's actions. In fact, the love for his son, who is shaping up to be quite the chip off the old block, is what underlies many of Paul's actions. It is no surprise then that Paul is willing to go to extremes to protect Michel. What is a surprise--in a novel that has many subtle, unnerving twists--is that he is not the only one.

The unreliable narrator is a sturdy literary device but it takes a skilled writer to make it feel as fresh as Koch does here. As creepy as he is, Paul's sardonic (and sometimes bitingly funny) voice is compelling, at times even charming. You may know someone very much like Paul, Koch suggests. In fact, you may even be like Paul. After all, what caring parent wouldn't want to protect his or her child? This, Koch posits, is a natural--even a civilized response. Part of what makes the novel so taut and sinister is that Paul, and indeed all the characters, maintain the façade of propriety throughout the stuffy dinner (a metaphor for all of their carefully constructed and privileged lives) even as grotesquerie warps them from within. It is a further testament to Koch's talent that he is able to make such unlikable characters so interesting and relatable.

Throughout The Dinner, Herman Koch raises many questions about the nature of our bonds and values, both on a personal and on a societal level; yet he wisely leaves what might serve as answers to the reader. What he does do, definitively, is provide an immensely entertaining and absorbing novel that lingers--as tantalizing as the memory of a particularly satisfying meal. --Debra Ginsberg, author

 

Hogarth, $24, hardcover, 9780770437855

Hogarth: The Dinner by Herman Koch


Herman Koch: Stepping into the Darker Side

Photo: Mark Kohn  

Herman Koch is the author of seven novels and three collections of short stories. The Dinner (Hogarth, February 12, 2013), his sixth novel, has been published in 25 countries, and was the winner of the Publieksprijs Prize in 2009. He lives in Amsterdam with his family.

Our guide through the novel is the increasingly unreliable and creepy Paul Lohman, who becomes progressively more sinister as the dinner progresses. Who or what was the inspiration for this character, and what was it like being inside his head for the course of this novel?

Instead of a character who reveals himself in the course of a narrative, I was thinking of Paul as a man who has something to hide. In the beginning we think that he is just protecting his privacy, and the privacy of his family, but in the end we find out that he has been hiding his "real self" from the reader--like most of us do, I think. In the beginning the inspiration for this character was myself: Paul's way of commenting on restaurants and organically sourced food, his dislike of having a fixed appointment at a certain hour with people he doesn't particularly love, the way in which he loves his wife and son, respecting their private lives, and so on. Later on I tried to take the darker side of his personality a little further, one step at a time, to find out if I could still identify with him--and in some ways I still could. The same thing will happen to the reader, I suspect. Actually, Paul reveals more about himself than he probably realizes. He isn't too aware of who he really is. That is the part of him I most enjoyed writing about. I liked being inside the head of someone who reveals himself unknowingly, while he still thinks most people find him sympathetic.

The Dinner shifts back and forth in time in a circle of carefully revealed events--all within the framework of a single meal. How did this structure evolve for you? Did the idea of building the novel around the meal occur to you first or did it come later, after you already had the story?

The idea of everything happening during the meal came first. After that I realized that the "main course" shouldn't necessarily be the actual main course that is served in the restaurant, but yes, the main course of the novel. And so on with the dessert, the digestive, etc. In fact, this was the only thing I structured a bit. Over the course of a dinner we can think a lot of things, go back in time, have flashbacks about previous meals and relevant events. Using this loose structure and a first-person narrator, I felt free to move back and forward at random, more or less as our thinking process goes in actual life, revealing and not revealing what seems important at this or that moment.

One of the underlying themes of The Dinner is the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children. Do you think that parenthood creates a sort of moral ambiguity within a parent?

Yes, I think so. Our son or daughter might become a criminal, or be a complete failure, or become a famous movie actor. In the end we have to decide to which parts of this development we actually contributed as parents: the parts we like as well as the parts we don't like. We can say of a child: "He has the same eyes as his mother and he smiles exactly like his father." It is a step further to admit that he is as short-tempered as you are, or as lazy, or as violent for that matter. Mostly we tend not to see the negative parts: in our children as well as in ourselves. The natural instinct of a parent is that he or she wants to protect his/her child at all costs. We would give him our kidney, and in the end we would probably be prepared to give our lives. Morally we might be blind to who our child really is, and it is the instinct of protection that causes this blindness, I think.

On a related note, the novel raises the nature vs. nurture debate as it pertains to human behavior. Which, in your opinion, is the more powerful force--or would you prefer that readers come to their own conclusions?

I think a novel has reached its ultimate goal when the writer doesn't impose any conclusion upon the reader. We shouldn't know what the writer thinks--only then can there be a real discussion about what the novel implies. Paul and Claire are the nature part of this discussion, while Serge and Babette are more on the nurture side. I have tried to give both points of view equally strong arguments, but of course, since the point of view in the novel is Paul's we hear a lot more of where he stands in this debate. But okay, I will admit I am more on the nature side myself, although not in the black-and-white way in which it is presented by Paul.

As someone who spent more than 20 years of her life working in restaurants, I can attest that you have gotten all the details--on both sides of the table--exactly and often hilariously right. How do you know so much about the behind-the-scenes machinations of fancy restaurants?

I didn't do any actual research, but one of my best friends did the same thing as you: he worked in all kinds of restaurants, fancy ones in France as well as more or less "normal" ones in the Netherlands. So for me, the behind the scenes part came naturally, in the form of the many stories my friend told me over the course of more than 30 years. And last but not least: like almost everybody else, I worked a dishwasher in a very fancy restaurant when I was 19. I was treated like a piece of dirt, so I decided to observe and think of this experience as material that might come in useful sometime later on. --Debra Ginsberg, author


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