In The Spotlight: Herman Koch’s The Dinner

>In The Spotlight: Martha Grimes' The Anodyne NecklaceHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The context of a story can play a crucial role in its atmosphere and in the way the plot plays out.  Let’s take a look at one particular story context today and turn the spotlight on Herman Koch’s The Dinner.

The context for this novel is a dinner at an exclusive Amsterdam restaurant – the kind where reservations have to be made months in advance. One night, two couples, Paul and Claire Lohman, and Paul’s older brother Serge and his wife Babette, meet there for dinner. On the surface, they seem like any other set of middle- to upper-middle-class people: Serge Lohman is a successful politician who seems poised for real achievement; his brother is a former teacher who’s retired for medical reasons. The couples greet each other and the dinner begins.

As the meal goes on, we learn that these people are not at all what they seem. Bit by bit, course by course, the backstories of the four diners are revealed. We find out some very uncomfortable truths about them and their relationships to one another. Also revealed is a terrible secret that they are keeping. Paul and Claire’s fifteen-year-old son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, also fifteen, are guilty of a terrible crime. The police are investigating, and now the families have to face the truth about what’s happened. In fact, that turns out to be the reason they’re dining at this restaurant in the first place. They’ve met to decide what to do about what’s happened. That discussion, and its result, has its own consequences.

The story unfolds as the meal does, and the different sections of the novel are named for the different courses (e.g. aperitif, main course, dessert). And if you think about it strictly chronologically, the novel begins as the meal does, and ends shortly after it does. That context gives the novel what you might call a sense of claustrophobia.

But this novel isn’t really chronological. The story is told from the point of view of Paul Lohman (more about his character shortly), and his way of telling it includes many flashbacks and streams of consciousness. Readers who prefer a strictly linear story, with a clear sequence of events, will notice this.

That approach to telling the story gives readers quite a lot of insight into what the characters are like. And it’s soon clear that they’re very dysfunctional. Each of them has serious flaws that play their part in what happens in the novel. For example, Serge is both pompous and a social climber. One of his main concerns is his image. Paul’s retirement from teaching wasn’t for a physical reason. Rather, it was ‘difficulty managing his anger.’ Other ugly things about each diner are also revealed. And all four of them are, in their way, complicit in what’s happened. Readers who prefer stories with at least one likeable character will notice this.

Since the story is told from Paul Lohman’s point of view, in first person, we get to know quite a bit about him. And it’s not long before we learn that he is probably not a reliable narrator. In fact, he indulges in his share of denial about his role in what led up to the awful crime that’s at the heart of the novel. Through Paul’s eyes, we see the superficiality and consumerism of upper middle class Dutch society. There’s also a critique of and a disturbing look at that group’s racism and ethnocentrism. Or is that critique really Paul’s view? Does he subscribe to these opinions? Readers who enjoy unreliable narrators, and trying to work out what is actually true and what isn’t, will appreciate this.

One of the questions the novel raises has to do with parents’ responsibility for their children. What the Lohman cousins have done is horrible. So on one level, most people would agree they should face justice immediately. But the boys are still their parents’ sons. To what extent should their parents protect them? Isn’t it natural for parents to want to keep their children out of legal trouble? But if they do, isn’t that tacit approval of what they boys have done? And where did the boys learn their attitudes, anyway? The issue of what parents should be expected to do when their children commit crimes is not an easy one.

This is a noir story, and that element is an important part of the novel. The main characters are not nice, or particularly trustworthy, people, and that includes the narrator. We learn what happened, so in that sense, the story has a kind of resolution. But it doesn’t have a very hopeful ending. And one more note is in order here. The crime that’s so important to this story is an ugly one, and Koch doesn’t mince words. Readers who prefer their crime-fictional violence to be ‘off stage’ will notice this. What’s even more unsettling is the reaction of the boys’ parents to everything. The result is a story that doesn’t offer an optimistic outlook on life.

There is, however, dark wit in the novel. In several places, Paul Lohman makes observations about the pretensions of very upmarket restaurants and the people who frequent them. There is also dark wit about the Dutch culture. It isn’t really upbeat, joking sort of wit, though, and is in keeping with the noir nature of the novel.

The Dinner is the noir story of two sets of parents forced to face the reality of what their sons have done. It reveals the dark and dysfunctional side of family relations, and offers a barbed look at life in modern-day upmarket Amsterdam. It’s also got a singular and somewhat claustrophobic context. But what’s your view? Have you read The Dinner? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 22 August/Tuesday, 23 August – Big Little Lies – Liane Moriarty 

Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart

Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton


Filed under Herman Koch, The Dinner

20 responses to “In The Spotlight: Herman Koch’s The Dinner

  1. Hurrah! One I don’t need to add to my TBR since I’ve already read it! I enjoyed this a lot – the humour meant it just avoided being too dark for me but only by a tiny margin. However I actually enjoyed his other book, Summer House with Swimming Pool, more, though I think that was quite probably simply because I read it first. They both ask roughly the same question – how far should a parent go in protecting their child – but somehow Summer House felt as if it had a little more morality hidden beneath the darkness than this one, and I enjoyed the humour in Summer House more – he seemed to make the reader guiltily complicit in his observations, more so than in The Dinner. But frankly, that’s all quibbling – I thought they were both excellent and will be grabbing his new one, Dear Mr M, as soon as it comes out, next month I believe…

    • Oh, I want to read that one, too, FictionFan. And you’re right, I think about the differences between The Dinner and Summer House…. Both address similar questions, but they do go about it differently, don’t they? And yes, the timing of when you read something can really make a difference, can’t it? I’m very glad you enjoyed The Dinner, even as dark as it is. It is a unique way of telling a story, in my opinion, and I do like some of the observations that Koch makes. And, hey, you survived a visit to my blog with your TBR intact… 😉

  2. Well this is a new book to me and now you have me wondering what in the world the boys did. It sounds like an intriguing story that would hold your attention. I also get the impression the parents might be more about protecting their own images than they really are about protecting their children.

    • Actually, Mason, that’s an important part of what motivates the parents here. How will it reflect on them if what happened becomes public. And it’s done in an interesting way, so that even the parents may not know that’s what they’re really doing.

  3. Col

    Already on the pile, I’ve just bumped it a bit closer to the top! Cheers

  4. It sounds intriguing, Margot – damn you! 😉

  5. I did think this book was very good (the word enjoy definitely doesn’t apply). It was one of those that really got under my skin – great choice of book to highlight Margot

  6. What a fascinating way to structure a novel. Love the chapter headings. How creative and fun. It could not have been easy to keep the story from getting boring while having the story revolve around that one meal. The author is clearly talented to use the closed room-type effect.

    • I think so, too, Sue. For people who are really accustomed to the linear sort of chronological structure, it takes a bit of adjustment. But it does serve the plot, in my opinion. And it does give the story a bit of claustrophobia that adds to the tension.

  7. I’ve heard of this book, it’s on my radar, and I can’t decide if it’s too dark and claustrophobic. I love your sentence: ‘Readers who prefer stories with at least one likeable character will notice this’. You are so fair-minded and informative…
    The premise reminds me a little of the play Gods of Carnage, which was then a Jodie Foster/Kate Winslet film called Carnage.

    • I must admit I’ve not seen the film or play, Moira, ‘though I’ve heard of the film. I’ll have to look it up. The Dinner really is a dark story, and you’ll want to be ready for that should you choose to read it.

      And thanks for the kind words; I really do try to be as objective as possible, since these spotlights are not reviews.

  8. I’m bummed that my book club read this novel before I joined! I remember learning in 6th grade that your parents own everything their children own. So, if my parents wanted to talk all of my babysitting money from me for whatever they want. Therefore, if parents can control kids, tell them what to do, and take their possessions, why wouldn’t parents be responsible for their children’s actions.

    • There’s certainly logic there, GtL. And in this case, I think Koch shows us very clearly how parents’ attitudes and views create a home environment. So in that sense, too, you can argue that parents have a responsibility for what their children do while they are young.

  9. This has long been on my wishlist. Thanks for the spotlight Margot, now I am all the more keen to read it.

  10. tracybham

    I do like novels with this kind of unusual structure, Margot. It might be too dark for me, but I will give it a try.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

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