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The Dinner

November 30, 2016

Okay, horrible, nasty people. Grouchy convalescents. Thieves and murderers. Third-party voters. Have I got a book for you!

My imaginary friend Nancy sent me The Dinner by Herman Koch (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) as a present after reading about how horrible I was feeling during my protracted convalescence after knee surgery, and how surly reading about too-nice-to-be-true characters like the ones in A Man Called Ove was making me feel. This book calmed me right down, much the way my best friend in high school used to do it (“Jeanne,” she would say, pulling me down to her eye level and looking intensely into my eyes for a minute before intoning, “God hates you.” This used to kind of, you know, um, put things into better perspective). This book came with a handwritten note warning me that “the people in this book are all awful.”

The Dinner takes place during the course (and courses) of a fancy restaurant dinner for four. It is narrated by a man named Paul who is having dinner with his wife, Claire, his sister-in-law, Babette, and his brother, Serge, who is a famous politician. The narrator himself, we find out, was formerly employed as a teacher but let go because of a psychiatric condition, one that turns out to be inheritable (at least according to the narrator, who we cannot trust at all).

At first we think the narrator’s resentment of his brother’s fame might be warranted, especially because we recognize the type:
“You have big politicos who like to work in the kitchen, who collect old comic books or have a wooden boat they’ve fixed up all by themselves. The hobby they choose usually clashes entirely with the face that goes with it, going completely against the grain of what everyone has made of them till then. The worst stick-in-the-mud, someone with all the charisma of a sheet of cardboard, suddenly turns out to cook splendid French meals at home in his free time; the next weekend supplement of the national newspaper features him in full color on the cover, his knitted oven mitts holding up a casserole filled with Provencal meatloaf. The most striking thing about the stick-in-the-mud, besides his apron with a reproduction of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, is his completely implausible smile, meant to convey the joy of cooking to his constituency.”

Soon, though, we begin to suspect that something is not quite right. Maybe it’s the convoluted thought process the narrator reveals in telling us why he ordered the “warm goat’s cheese with lamb’s lettuce” as an appetizer, even though he reveals that he doesn’t like goat’s cheese. Maybe it’s his reaction to being invited to his brother’s summer home in the Dordogne, where, he says:
“I thought about Straw Dogs and Deliverance, films that come to mind whenever I am out in the sticks, but never more than here, in the Dordogne, on the hilltop where my brother and his wife had created what they called ‘their little French paradise.’ In Straw Dogs, the local population—after limiting themselves at first to a little badgering—take horrible revenge on the newcomers who think they’ve bought a cute little house in the English countryside. In Deliverance, it’s the American hillbillies who rudely interrupt a group of city slickers on a canoeing trip. Rape and murder feature prominently in both films.”

Definitely we know something is off when we get the narrator’s—and his wife’s—lack of reaction to recognizing their son Michel as one of the boys caught on a video that is being shown on the news; the boys are setting a homeless woman on fire.

We begin to learn how Paul has taught his son that it’s perfectly all right to indulge in what any sane person would call unwarranted and over-the-top displays of homicidal rage. We get more details about the horrific crime Michel has committed, along with his cousin, Serge’s son. And then we start to realize that another crime is occurring while the desserts are being served, and that no one around this table deserves any of our sympathy.

As readers, we almost start to see the narrator’s point, the point he was trying to make in the rant that results in him being let go from his job as a history teacher:
“In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the nonexistent injustices they’ve had to suffer? Look around you, I said. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be—and not only you, but virtually the entire family—if that uncle or cousin would step on a land mine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude.”

But because the narrator of this book is so awful, readers learn to resist his point of view. And that’s a good thing, especially in this post-election world. So try reading The Dinner when you are feeling misanthropic, mean, and miserable. I did, and it was a transformative experience–who can feel all that terrible in the middle of realizing that the person through whose eyes she is seeing is truly quite terrible? Not me! Thanks, Nancy!

24 Comments leave one →
  1. November 30, 2016 6:46 am

    Hahaha, glad you got a kick out of Paul and crew…my book club was stunned with horror. It is actually everything I hate in a novel, but I still found it enjoyable – possibly for the reason you cite!

    • November 30, 2016 8:41 am

      Stunned with horror is another possible response, of course. Sometimes I get in a mood to enjoy some meanness, kind of like how I enjoy snark. But this book did snap me right out of that mood.

  2. November 30, 2016 8:24 am

    I was just looking at your blog when you commented on mine. I haven’t read this book but have heard so much about it. I will have to do the rounds of the blogs if I ever do read it, but I did enjoy your first paragraph and your friend’s pulling you back into line! Love it.

    • November 30, 2016 8:40 am

      I started writing this review yesterday during the class I teach–I’d given the students a list of exercises for writers to try getting started with something, so while they were writing I also picked one called “vary the audience” and tried it. I thought it worked pretty well for this.

  3. November 30, 2016 9:18 am

    This book was everything I have trouble in with books that I find too horrid but everyone else seems to really like.
    I do always appreciate your viewpoints. Thank you.

    • November 30, 2016 9:28 am

      Sometimes I like horrid things. There’s a fascination, like looking at a spider.

  4. K D permalink
    November 30, 2016 9:30 am

    I…don’t think I’d want (right now) to spend my fiction time with a crew of people I’d hate to know in real life, but I can see why this was a good book for you in that moment! I don’t have to want to read it, to be glad a book is out there for someone else.

    As usual, I got a kick out of your review.
    Maybe I should tell students to write a blog entry, rather than reaction papers…

    • November 30, 2016 9:41 am

      Well, the exercises were from Peter Elbow’s book Writing With Power, which has a chapter about writing for (rather than “to”) teachers. I think he’d say a blog entry from someone who isn’t interested in addressing the world at large won’t be any better than a reaction paper from someone who didn’t have much of a reaction.
      The trick to writing such a paper when you’re not interested in the class or have gotten lost, I think (ooh, I’ll have to put this on my clickbait list of writing tips!) is to decide who you’re writing it for and ferret out the details that person would like. Maybe you could give your students a description–kind of a caricature portrait–based on a colleague from another college and ask them to write to that person.

      • K D permalink
        November 30, 2016 3:21 pm

        Ah, I didn’t give context in my comment. I occasionally lead a 1-credit welcome to college at OURSCHOOL. As part of that, students are required to write 5 response/reaction papers to events (of several different types–academic, social, athletic, etc) that they choose to attend over the course of their first semester. I don’t get to pick their topics.

        • November 30, 2016 3:54 pm

          In that case, all you can do is give them a definite (and maybe outsize) picture of you as their reader.

  5. November 30, 2016 12:10 pm

    Oh this made me laugh — reading about terrible people as a transformative experience! I’m not sure I would feel the same way but I am glad you enjoyed it!

    • November 30, 2016 3:55 pm

      I’m glad it made you laugh. That was, of course, partly my intent. Restoring what I think of as my usual good humor always involves being able to laugh.

  6. November 30, 2016 1:34 pm

    A timely review for me – I’m reading this novel at the moment. I hadn’t thought of it as a way to cope with horrors but you’re right – thanks!

  7. November 30, 2016 4:57 pm

    Terrific review, Jeanne. My book group read this last year sometime and it made for a great discussion. Slightly horrified/fascinated was the popular response. I initially hate-read this, but after our group’s discussion I came away with a more nuanced and appreciative response to it. Still, I’m not exactly jumping to read any more of this author’s novels! 🙂

    • November 30, 2016 5:03 pm

      Me either–one novel like this goes a long way. Maybe the next time I have knee surgery. My hope is that won’t have to happen for another 5 years.

  8. December 4, 2016 5:20 pm

    Glad you enjoyed! Mumsy told me that she liked this book better than she expected to, and even though I believe I’d also like it more than I’d expect to like it, I don’t know anyway that I’d love it. So many terrible characters!

    • December 4, 2016 5:28 pm

      I’m not sure I know anyone who would love it, but I do know a few who like something to sharpen their claws on from time to time, and this book is good for calming such impulses.

  9. December 5, 2016 10:07 am

    I know a lot of people who’ve loved this book so I need to try it. It sounds good to me.

    • December 5, 2016 10:09 am

      Just be sure you’re in the mood for meanness. Maybe not during the Christmas season?

  10. freshhell permalink
    December 5, 2016 11:25 am

    Yikes. Perhaps my wish is that the narrator steps on a land mine.

    • December 5, 2016 11:29 am

      I’d be afraid he’d come back with more heads, or something!


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