Tag Archives: Amsterdam

The Dinner by Herman Koch

“When faced with lower intelligences, the most effective strategy in my opinion is tell a bare-faced lie: with a lie, you give the pinheads a chance to retreat without losing face.”

I’ve discovered that I share some reading tastes with Tom from A Common Reader , so when he read and reviewed Herman Koch’s book, The Dinner, I knew I’d enjoy it too. The narrative (which is hilariously funny, btw)  appeared to be taking me in one direction–something along the lines of a nasty interior dialogue which mostly consisted of an under-achieving brother bitching about the success of his sibling–in other words, something we can all relate too. In terms of the fussy sniping, the narrative style is reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard’s novels, and reminds me of the translator Richard Pevear’s term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.”  Just as I was laughing, and enjoying the ride, the book took an unexpected turn, and there I was in the middle of a bunch of nasty characters who had to make a serious, life-altering moral decision.  

the dinnerThe story is set around, as the title suggests, a dinner, at a swanky Amsterdam restaurant attended by two very different brothers and their wives. Serge Lohman, a politician, “leader of the largest opposition party,” the much more affluent and successful brother, is married to Babette. Paul Lohman, and the unreliable, unempoyed narrator of this story is married to Claire. There’s a lot of unresolved baggage between the brothers, and it’s one of those social situations in which every decision, every choice made is assumed to be making some sort of point or insult. Serge, for example, part of “that class of Dutch people who think everything French is ‘great’ ” selected the restaurant, and it’s impossible to get a table there unless you book months in advance. It’s not impossible for “nationally famous” Serge, of course, and so even the selection of the restaurant seems to be a dig at his brother’s lesser position in society.  At another point, Paul selects an appetizer he dislikes simply because he thinks “to have the same appetizer as my brother was out of the question,” as it would look as though he “wasn’t original enough to choose an appetizer of my own.” Yes the relationship between the brothers is that poisoned. And so you ask why on earth are they spending a tortured evening together? They are there to discuss an incident that involves their sons. That’s as much as I can say.

I knew I was going to thoroughly enjoy this book almost immediately, but by the time we got around to the toadying floor manager who describes every dish and its point of origin as if he personally trekked hundreds of miles to hunt down unique food items for his customers,  I was laughing out loud:

“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 chanterelles from the Vosges.” The pinky vaulted over the crayfish to point out two brown toadstools, cut lengthwise; the “chanterelles” looked as though they had been uprooted only a few minutes ago: what was sticking to the bottom, I figured, could only be dirt.

It was a well-groomed hand, as I’d established while the manager was uncorking the bottle of Chablis Serge had ordered. Despite my earlier suspicions, there was nothing about him to hide; neat cuticles without hangnails, the nail itself trimmed short, no rings–it looked freshly washed, no signs of anything chronic. For the hand of a stranger, though, I felt as though it was coming too close to our food–it hovered less than an inch above the crayfish; the pinky itself came even closer, almost brushing the chanterelles.

I wasn’t sure I would be able to sit still when that hand, with its pinky was floating over my own plate, but for the sake of a pleasant evening, I knew it would be better to restrain myself.

As the courses pile on, and the detailed origins of the food continue, tensions mount and old scores are revealed. There’s an argument over the merits of the “new Woody Allen,”  with Serge declaring the film a “masterpiece,” while confessing that he lusts after Scarlett Johansson (“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed for eating crackers,”). Paul is then boxed into taking an oppositional statement about Woody Allen, the film, and Serge’s lust object. Babette is already visibly upset when she arrives with Serge and as the evening wears on, much to Paul’s glee a number of embarrassing scenes take place and threaten total meltdown.

As the situation that created the need for a dinner engagement is gradually revealed, additional details of the private lives of these families surface. Paul and Claire have a teenage son, Michel. Serge and Babette have two children: Rick, who is the same age as Michel, and an autistic daughter, 13-year-old Valerie. They also have an adopted son, Beau from Burkina Faso, according to our narrator, as part of–Paul nastily suggests– a  “rent-to-own agreement.” Paul hints that the adoption was motivated by career concerns and notes that after Serge and Babette adopted Beau, the “ African son,” Serge “began to pose more frequently for family photos.”  Our unreliable narrator loathes his brother, and since Serge is an ambitious politician, someone who is obviously conscious of image, it’s difficult to pierce through Paul’s perceptions to find reality. Paul frequently predicts Serge’s attitudes and behavior. We know, for example, that Serge attended a “six week wine course” at night school, and thereafter with diploma in hand, became one of those annoying wine experts

I can’t remember exactly when he first presented himself as a connoisseur; in my memory it seems to have happened quite suddenly. From one day to the next he became the one who picked up the wine list and mumbled something about the “earthy aftertaste” of Portuguese wines from the Alentejo: it had been a sort of coup, really for from that day on, the wine list automatically ended up in Serge’s hands.

The menu courses keep rolling in, the floor manager and his intrusive pinky keep appearing, and between the four diners, layers of pathology are slowly revealed. The motivating factors behind the dinner are cleverly supported with memories of the past and through a series of revelations, a portrait of skewed morality, deeply troubling parenting, and mental illness emerge from the wreckage of the evening. In the final evaluation, however, the book is not what it initially appears to be, and the dynamics of the relationships between two brothers and their wives are subsumed into a statement about modern Dutch society. The Dinner is especially recommended to fans of Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks  and Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

Thanks for the suggestion, Tom.

Translated from Dutch by Sam Garrett. Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park

This year, I wanted to read something with a Christmas feel to it, and that brings me to The Light of Amsterdam by David Park–not quite a Xmas novel, but Xmas is mentioned, so as far as I am concerned it counts. Plus the novel depicts people on holiday, and regular readers of this blog know that I have a weakness for novels that take people on holiday.

The Light from AmsterdamDavid Park’s The Light of Amsterdam begins, quite beautifully, with the funeral procession for George Best. Watching the cars and remembering Best’s glorious career is Alan, a divorced, middle-aged, sad sack of an Art teacher who, after twenty-two years of marriage which culminated in a pathetic moment of listless infidelity, finds himself alone and living in a grotty flat. As Alan watches the procession, he experiences an “unsettling sensation” and connects with the life of the dead footballer through the memory of a lost autograph. It was something he should have treasured, but he can’t remember now how he even lost it. This thread of lost things–be they people, moments, feelings, or relationships, appears throughout the novel which finds three characters on the brink of some sort of change.

Alan, who’s facing crises in both his personal and professional lives, has arranged a nostalgic weekend trip to Amsterdam which includes a concert by Bob Dylan, and he’s guilted by his ex into dragging his disaffected teenage son along for the ride. Another main character is Marion, a 54-year-old who coowns a busy, successful garden centre with her husband, Richard. When Marion receives the gift of a gym membership from her husband, she’s convinced that it’s evidence of her husband’s dissatisfaction with her, and so she plans something significant for the weekend in Amsterdam.

And this present-and she can’t even begin to think of it as a present-of a year’s membership of this swanky fitness and leisure complex was filled with unanswered questions and once again it confused her that a man who could speak so directly in business continued to be someone unable to express himself openly in other matters.

The third main character is Karen, the single mother who pulls extra shifts at her two cleaning jobs in order to pay for the fancy bang-up wedding her selfish, vain daughter Shannon demands. Shannon has organised a hen party to Amsterdam, and her mother is included. This may sound like fun, but all the guests are required to dress as American Indians, and while that style may flatter Shannon and her youthful friends, it serves to make middle-aged Karen feel out of place and rather ridiculous.

We’re given some illuminating glimpses into the lives of these three main characters: Alan who experiences moments of disorientation in his new life, Marion who suspects her husband may be having an affair with a Polish employee, and Karen who’s accused of theft at the nursing home. So when these three people take a flight to Amsterdam in December 2005, they’re troubled and preoccupied by other concerns. 

Once the main characters and their personal lives were introduced, I had a feeling that I could predict the direction the plot would take. It’s unfortunate when that happens–especially when the predictions become true, and because some of the plot is predictable, the interest here isn’t so much what the characters do as much as what they think in private moments:

You come to a point in your life when you’re weary of thinking of others and when for the very first time you can’t think of anyone other than yourself and suddenly you want to refind who that self is, in the hope that it’s a better, happier self than the one you find yourself with now.

Another problem with the novel is that all three characters are downers. While Alan’s son is in the throes of teenage angst, the three main characters, Marion, Karen and Alan are definitely mired in painful, middle-aged angst. No fun-filled spontaneity here. Alan is obviously having a difficult time accepting the fact that it’s time to move on; Marion has a lot to be grateful for and doesn’t seem to realise that she’s haunted by her own aging rather than her spouse’s wandering eyes, and Karen, well Karen just needs the courage to tell her daughter to think about someone else for a change. She’s spent a lifetime indulging her only child, and that indulgence has fed Shannon’s selfish streak. Just as Alan wonders how he can reach and reconnect with his troubled teenage son, Karen realises, rather poignantly, that the selfishness built around Shannon’s preoccupation with appearances, is a monster of her own making.

Both Alan and Karen “feel” genuine; I wasn’t so convinced by Marion, but I liked the author’s writing style and the way in which we see glimpses of these characters’ private thoughts and doubts. The author conveys the sense that these characters–all from different walks of life–find themselves shipwrecked in lives they don’t want for a range of reasons–even though those lives are built on a series of choices. They all feel dismay, on one level or another, about how their lives reached this point. There’s one marvellous scene when Alan is called in to talk to the head of his department, Stan, a man who “once looked like a Belfast Ginsberg and who as a young man thought that the purpose of art was to shock and disturb” but who is now weighed down by department politics and complaints from students about Alan’s noticeable lack of focus. Told by Stan that he must “evolve or face extinction,” Alan has mixed feelings about hoping to publish a paper or whip up an art show, and yet what are his options? Will he be able to abandon his lethargy and become productive once again?

The novel ends on a note of optimism that’s shadowed by the idea that in order for life to change, it’s sometimes necessary to overcome ourselves, our weaknesses and our prejudices, and for some of us, that’s both a tall order and a stumbling block.

Review copy

 

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Filed under Fiction, Park David