The Dinner

By Herman Koch

How beastly, D. H. Lawrence thought, is the bourgeois. He (Lawrence specifically addresses the bourgeois as “the male of the species”) is, of course, “presentable, eminently presentable,” “well off, and quite the thing.” However, faced with “a new emotion . . . another man’s need” or “a bit of moral difficulty” he goes soggy “like a wet meringue.”

Today, if you want to view the bourgeoisie in their natural habitat you might want to take a trip to the eminently bourgeois city of Amsterdam, and head to an upscale restaurant (you’d better have made a reservation weeks if not months in advance) where they serve such pretentious and overpriced starters as lamb’s-neck sweetbread marinated in first-pressing, extra-virgin Sardinian olive oil with rocket and Greek olives from the Peloponnese.

And you might sit at a table next to a pair of married couples confronted by “a bit of moral difficulty” and arguing over just what they’re going to do about their dangerously delinquent sons.

Such, anyway, is the set-up for Herman Koch’s 2009 bestseller The Dinner, a wickedly thorough evisceration of the beastly bourgeoisie that has now been translated into English.

The narrator, Paul Lohman, is a disgruntled ex-teacher with anger management issues that seem to have some genetic root. Joining Paul for dinner are his wife Claire, his brother Serge (a rising politician presumed to be the next prime minister), and Serge’s wife Babette.

As narrators go Paul is fairly reliable, but there are still a lot of things that, for various strategic reasons, he doesn’t want to get into specifics about. Along with his brother what he most wants is to be, or at least seem to be, ordinary. He knows Tolstoy’s dictum that happy families are all alike, and he wants to be just like them.

Unfortunately, there’s this problem with the kids. They’ve been acting up in violent ways and the evidence has found its way on to the nightly news and even YouTube. This is not quite “the thing” (especially for an aspiring politician), and some strategy has to be agreed upon for avoiding scandal and keeping up appearances.

It would be wrong to give away any more than this, as one of the pleasures of the novel is the way, right from the opening aperitifs, Koch plays with our sympathies and expectations only to keep pulling the rug out from under us, tricking us into making preliminary judgments that we are then forced to re-evaluate in the light of further evidence. Reminiscent of Ian McEwan, only with more bite, The Dinner presents itself both as a bourgeois horror story and a case study in moral psychology, asking pointed questions about moral responsibility, and how morality is influenced by family, heredity, race, social class, pride, and naked self-interest.

In other words, this is the kind of book you can expect to have some fun arguments over. Reading groups might want to book it in advance.

And what would Lawrence think? Just how beastly is today’s bourgeois? Obviously some things have changed in the last hundred years. Cell phones, for example, play a key role throughout the night’s entertainment. But the bourgeoisie themselves have also evolved, their psychology adapting in unpleasant ways to the threatening social and economic environment the besieged middle class now occupy. It seems a sense of entitlement breeds much bitterness.

But what has remained constant is the gap between presentable, public selves and private vice. Hypocrisy, it seems, is part of the bourgeois DNA.

That said, you have to give them credit for one thing. Today’s bourgeoisie may be snobs, but they are nothing if not liberal and egalitarian in their principles. Among other things, this means beastliness is no longer the preserve of the male of the species. Indeed, Koch suggests, compared to the female the male may be as soggy as meringue, or as melting as an exquisitely prepared dame blanche.

Review first published in the Toronto Star February 24, 2013.

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