The Dinner by Herman Koch

thedinner

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth; Reprint edition (October 29, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385346856

 

“I was remarkably calm. Calm and fatigued. There would be no violence. It was like a storm coming up. The café chairs are carried inside, the awnings are rolled up, but nothing happens. The storm passes over. And, at the same time, that’s too bad. After all, we would all rather see the roofs ripped from the houses, the trees uprooted and tossed through the air.”

  • Herman Koch, The Dinner

 

Herman Koch’s The Dinner received much pre-pub attention via usual industry buzz upon its 2013 publication. It was a sleeper hit in the U.S., an international best seller, a book group darling proclaimed dark, chilling and beautifully written. The Dinner put Belgian-born Herman Koch on the American literary fiction map.

The premise is this: two couples – a man and his wife, his brother and sister-in-law – meet for dinner to discuss a looming disaster threatening to ruin the lives of each of their 15-year old sons. The man who narrates the story, Paul Lohman, is a sociopath with a track record of exhibiting uncontrolled rage, resulting in physical violence against multiple victims, his wife a willing, yielding enabler. The other man, the sociopath’s brother Serge Lohman, is heir-apparent to the office of prime minister of the Netherlands. As for his wife, she’s a necessary seat warmer for her politically ambitious husband. A public figure should reflect family values.

The sociopath is an unreliable narrator, disconnected from reality,. Unable to distinguish horrific, narcissistic and violent behavior from appropriately assertive action, he attacks anyone who opposes or irritates him. The man slaps, punches, beats and clobbers multiple other characters, nearly killing them, yet remains a free man. He loses his teaching job, but suffers no other consequences.

Koch’s plot doesn’t allow for the distraction of the legal ramifications of Paul Lohman’s crimes. He is hyper-focused on his themes:  how far would you go to save your child, no matter how heinous the crime, and is there a hierarchy of worth placed on the lives of human beings from different social classes.

The violent behavior of our narrator directly correlates to his son’s feeling of entitlement, his lack of compunction the reason the boy grows up to exhibit the same violent behavior. Paul Lohman’s child, as well as his nephew, the 15-year old child of the prime minister to be, have together perpetrated an act so horrific it has the potential to ruin both their futures, not to mention sealing the doom of the politician. And it’s at this dinner Serge and Paul have met to determine how they will proceed.

Paul Lohman, Koch reveals, was born with a gene causing his unbridled rage and tendency toward violence. The disorder isn’t expressly stated, but its heritability is made clear. A generation after Paul Lohman’s birth, a test exists to determine the presence of this gene. Should his wife have had the amniotic fluid tested, and did she without Paul’s knowledge? The question is left open. And, if she’d had the test, had she rejected the opportunity to abort her son? Whatever the truth, it has become moot.

The moment of truth comes to a head at the conclusion of the dinner, the two brothers facing off. There is much to lose no matter which course they choose. If the boys are turned in, the career of the prime minister, as well as their futures, are ruined. If the truth is covered up, it will loom large over all their heads, not to mention denying justice for the victim of the crime. There is no redemption here.

Koch is a brilliant writer. His prose is clear and beautifully written, the sense of menace if not quite chilling is a strong presence. These are morally bankrupt, repulsive characters. The darkness is unrelenting, which would explain why I was so drawn to the book. Indeed, why so many readers were.

I enjoyed how deeply Koch explored Paul Lohman’s twisted mind, following the man’s obsessive thinking, analyzing every action going on around him. From his complex personal history to the food as it arrived at the table, Paul Lohman’s internal monologue was a constant, occasionally comical and often unpredictable rant. Paul Lohman is a character I loved to hate.

I read his later novel, The Swimming Pool, in 2014 which I reviewed here. Though not quite as enthusiastically received by critics, I preferred it. It’s the same sort of book, exploring amoral characters who do bad things to each other.

Having read two works by Koch I’m a fan, though not without reservations. Unquestionably a writer of great skill, I’m not convinced the press he’s received is accurate. It’s overblown, typical marketing hype. But I wouldn’t let it stop me from reading his books, or recommending him to readers who enjoy exploring evil, amoral characters. His works are absorbing and, if not completely unpredictable, they offer enough twists to keep the reader guessing.

 

 

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

summerhouse

 

“Summer House With Swimming Pool” reveals at the start that Ralph is dead and that Marc’s medical techniques contributed to his send-off. Anyone looking for a comparison to “Gone Girl,” winner and still champion in the realm of books that begin with deceptive death reports, will find no stiff competition here. Yes, Ralph is dead. Yes, Marc is dangerous. And most of Mr. Koch’s male characters in this book, like most in his last one, genuinely deserve their doom.”

– Janet Maslin, The New York Times

 

Herman Koch possesses the superhuman ability to endear his highly flawed, often morally ambiguous characters to his readers. Like Vladimir Nabokov before him, Koch utilizes humor and some very deft writing to render sympathetic middle aged men with inappropriate feelings – and general disrespect – for both young girls and women in general. Likewise, he is able to pull off making a doctor’s decision to commit vigilante justice seem not just acceptable but morally necessary.

Summer House with Swimming Pool revolves around a  vacation home shared by three groups of friends. The first family, actor Ralph Meier, wife Judith and two sons are the wealthy family who rented the home. They invited their family physician, Dr. Mark Schlosser, his wife and two daughters, aged 12 and 14, as well as Hollywood director Stanley Forbes and his indecently young girlfriend to come along with them.

What follows is at first an odd and wacky trip, followed by increasingly disturbing sexual and sexually suggestive situations. All the characters, in turn, feel an attraction for someone else in the group, save perhaps Stanley’s young model girlfriend, who is instead an object of lust. What begins as a fun holiday with friends spins further and further out of control, until one of the Schlosser daughters is raped. By whom, is the question.

Dr. Schlosser chooses their host, Ralph Meier, as perpetrator without enough evidence to convict. Yet, when given the opportunity to diagnose Ralph with cancer he instead tells him there’s nothing to worry about, effectively handing down a death sentence.

But did Ralph do it? And what gives Schlosser the right to  condemn?

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a masterful novel, at once hilarious and highly charged with sexuality. It begs the question who is innocent and how is innocence defined?

I would highly recommend this book as fast-paced and at times keenly funny, noting it presents mature themes. I was so impressed I’ll now go back and read his first novel, The Dinner, which I’d been avoiding due to its incredible popularity. If there’s one thing that screams “Overrated!” it’s great press and holding the top spot on every imaginable list. However, Summer House with Swimming Pool has convinced me Herman Koch is a major talent to be reckoned with. I guess sometimes the masses are right, after all.

[Thank you to Edelweiss for a free e-ARC of this book]

 

Chicago Tribune:

“With a seasonally appealing title like “Summer House With Swimming Pool,” you would think this novel is a perfect fit for a day of reading on the beach. It’s very much that, but “Summer House With Swimming Pool” is no typical summer read. Balmy temperatures and sunny skies won’t stop the chill that runs up and down your spine as the story unfolds.”

– Carol Memmott

 

The Washington Post

“No matter how cheaply you travel, no hotel room will ever feel as cramped and sordid as the mind of this narrator, Dr. Marc Schlosser. He boasts, “I’m more charming than most men,” but that’s true only if most men are sociopaths, and Sam Garrett’s slightly stilted translation only adds to the reptilian tone of the doctor’s thoughts.”

– Ron Charles