In The Dinner, Herman Koch creates a masterpiece of tension and horror over a family dinner at an upscale restaurant. Paul and his wife Claire meet Paul’s brother Serge, a politician, and Serge’s wife Babette for one of those dining experiences where the wait staff looks down on the patrons for their failure to recognize the difference between nouveau riche and nouvelle cuisine. If such exists. From such a blank page of mundanity, Koch builds a pyramid of devastating revelations made by the increasingly unstable and unreliable narrator Paul Lohman leading to the pinnacle of the actions Paul and Serge’s children have undertaken in tandem.
Nature or nurture? Friend or foe? Genetic mutation or unrestrained ego? What is behind the psychosis of Paul and Serge’s children? Or is it just modern life that has driven them to the extremity of action? The questions are raised but not answered and the novel itself, like some modern Cassandra, calls for all of us to look discriminatingly at our attitudes, and actions.
Herman Koch frames the narrative in The Dinner in conjunction with the meal served. Paul’s contempt for his brother Serge appears frequently revealed in his criticism of the unctuous and prissy service. The novel is an ideal one for those wishing to pair a menu with a novel. Here is the menu, paired with some quotations from The Dinner.
Aperitif: Pink Champagne
The floor manager stuck out his little finger and pointed at something on our table. At the tealight, I thought at first — instead of a candle or two, all the tables here had a tealight — but, no, the little finger was pointing out the plate of olives he had apparently just put there.
“These are Greek olives from the Peloponnese, lightly doused in first-pressing, extra-virgin olive oil from Sardinia and polished off with rosemary from . . .”
Appetizer: A bottle of Chablis
“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions,” said the manager: he was at Serge’s plate now, pointing with his pinky. “And these are chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as thought they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago:
“Grapes,” said the manager. . . .
The grapes were lying beside a deep-purple piece of lettuce, a full two inches of empty plate away from the actual main course — filet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin sliced German bacon. Serge’s plate featured the tiny cluster and the shred of lettuce too, but my brother had ordered the tournedos. There’s not a whole lot you can say about a tournedos except that it’s a piece of meat, but because something had to be said, the manager provided a brief account of where the rounedos came from. Of the “organic farm” where the animlas “lived in freedom,” until they were butchered.
“The blackberries are from our own garden,” said the manager. “the parfait is made from homemade chocolate, and these are shaved almonds, mixed with grated walnuts.”
His little finger pointed to a few irregularities in the brown sauce, a sauce that in my opinion was much too thin — in any case thinner than what one toughtou of as a parfait” and had leaked down between the balckberries to the bottom of the bowl.
Serge himself had chosen the dame blanche. . . . My brother always chose the most ordinary desserts on the menu. Vanilla ice cream, crepes with syrup, and that was about it.
I looked at my plate: at the three wedges of cheese, to be exact, that were still ying there untouched. The manger’s pinky had hovered over each of the three pieces in turn; I had listened to the names that went with them without letting any of it register.”
The Dinner seems to be quite ideal for a Halloween book club, in the vein of Poe or Hitchcock. The longer you wait at the table, the worse the outcome becomes.
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