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Saturday, September 5, 2015

Birthday Reviews - "The Dinner" and "Summer House with Swimming Pool" by Herman Koch


Today is Herman Koch’s 62nd birthday.  He is a wonderful Dutch writer who has written several books.  Below are my reviews of the two that have been translated into English.  Both are highly recommended.

Review of The Dinner      4 Stars
This contemporary family drama is set in a chic, upscale restaurant in Amsterdam. Paul and Claire Lohman meet Serge and Babette for dinner to discuss what to do about their 15-year-old sons, Michel and Rick, who were partners in a despicable crime.

Paul is the narrator. From the beginning he makes it clear that he is not looking forward to this dinner with his brother and sister-in-law and that they have something serious to discuss. Like the meal in a posh restaurant, things progress slowly. Just as the four skirt the issue they have come together to hash out (pardon the food metaphor), Paul initially avoids explaining the specifics of their reason for meeting and, instead, mocks the restaurant and its food and staff for their pretentiousness. He also spends an inordinate amount of time disparaging his brother whom he portrays as pompous, sexist, and hypocritical and possessing the smooth charm and insincere professional smile of the high-profile politician he is.

Gradually, however, the reader begins to suspect that Paul is not a reliable narrator. Flashbacks suggest that Paul is perhaps not as reasonable as he tries to appear. There may be more to the tension between the brothers than just sibling rivalry. The reader’s sympathies will tend to shift away, but none of the four proves to be a likeable character so the reader may face a dilemma in terms of finding someone towards whom to direct his/her sympathies.

Paul’s pre-occupation is the happiness of his family. At the beginning, he quotes the opening sentence of Anna Karenina: “’Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’” Above all else, he wants his family to continue to be happy. When footage of Michel’s crime shows up on the internet, Paul worries about the “connection between the images from the security camera and our own happy family.” When he fears that Michel’s involvement in the crime might become public knowledge, he worries, “Our life as a happy family would never be the same.” At the end, he speculates about whether “a happy family can survive a shipwreck.”

All of these references, of course, point to the novel’s major themes: What comprises a family? What constitutes a happy family? Can a family survive secrets? To what lengths should parents go to protect their children and preserve their happiness? Is nature or nurture more significant in determining the personality and behaviour of children?

I found the examination of the nature versus nature debate particularly interesting. At one Paul seems to be dismissive of both when he mentions Michel’s dislike of sweet desserts: “we would have let him have any dessert he liked, so you couldn’t blame it on his upbringing. It was hereditary. Yes, that was the only word for it. If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, then it had to be our shared aversion to sweet desserts.” Despite his disavowal of heredity, he does worry about his son inheriting a genetic disease. Paul also refers to heredity when discussing Beau, Serge’s adopted son: “What did my brother know about heredity? All right, maybe when it came to his own children: his own flesh and blood. But what about Beau? When did you simply have to admit that something had apparently been inherited from someone else? From the biological parents in Africa? To what extent could Serge, for his part,distance himself from the actions of his adopted son?” Tellingly, Paul himself never wonders whether he bears any blame for his biological son’s misdeeds; he doesn’t ever consider that Michel might have inherited or learned his father’s tendency to abdicate responsibility for his actions.

Another fixation of Paul’s is the need for normalcy. He sometimes mocks his brother’s need to be seen as normal by the voters: “He was normal, he was human: anyone who voted for Serge Lohman was voting for a normal and human prime minister.” Yet at the same time, he focuses on the importance of a semblance of normality; he thinks the scandal of his son’s crime will eventually be forgotten but “In the meantime, I would act as normally as possible. Do normal things.” When Claire was hospitalized, Paul set himself a goal: “I wanted to keep up the appearance of normalcy.” He wanted a “normal evening” with his son and even the night before she had surgery, he didn’t visit her because he wanted everything for his son “as normal as possible.” Babette says, “’We, of all people, know that you’re doing your very best to make things seem as normal as possible for Michel. But it’s not normal. The situation isn’t normal. . . . you can’t expect anyone to run a normal household.’” The novel’s 30+ repetitions of “normal” emphasize people’s need for a façade of decency and respectability; of course, the Lohmans’ façades are threatened and we see their inner characters as they struggle to prevent them from being shattered.

The book is not flawless. The meeting in a public place to have a meeting to discuss a private family matter seems staged only to allow for comparisons between the five courses of the meal (aperitif, appetizer, main course, dessert, and digestif) and the stages of the discussion that occur. For example, the main course is long in coming just as the real reason for the dinner meeting is not explained until midway through the evening. Is Serge’s way of tackling the entrée a metaphor for his way of tackling the problem? Could Babette’s reaction to the dessert be a metaphor for her attitude to dealing with the problem at hand?

The narrator’s way of withholding information is sometimes annoying. When discussing an illness Claire had years earlier, he says, “I’m not going to say what was wrong with Claire, not here. I consider that a private matter. It’s nobody’s business.” When referring to a medical condition with which he was once diagnosed, he is likewise unspecific: The doctor “had mentioned a name. A German-sounding name. It was the surname of a neurologist who’d had this particular disorder named after him.” Can anyone tell me if amniocentesis testing can detect mental illness?

There are several references to the small portions of food and the large portions of empty plates; that’s how this novel reads. There are portions of the story that are missing, and the reader keeps reading to fill his/her plate, to fill the “two full inches of empty plate away from the actual main course.” In the end, the meal is worthwhile. For some it will not be totally satisfying and others will find it too unsettling, but it does provide food for thought.

Review of Summer House with Swimming Pool            4 Stars
   Having read and enjoyed Koch’s The Dinner, I looked forward to reading his next work of fiction. Like The Dinner, it is an unsettling read but one which I found captivating.

The narrator is Dr. Marc Schlosser, a general practitioner. At the beginning, he is called before a Board of Medical Examiners because of a “medical error” which led to the death of Ralph Meier, a famous actor. Via flashbacks, Marc tells about his meeting Ralph who eventually invites Marc and his family to spend their summer vacation with them at a rented Mediterranean summer house. Marc is infatuated with Judith, Ralph’s wife, and manipulates Caroline, his wife, to accept the invitation. Marc and Caroline and their daughters, 13-year-old Julia and 11-year-old Lisa, stay with the Meiers and their other house guests, Stanley and Emmanuelle, until tragedy strikes.

Marc certainly ranks amongst the most vile of literary characters. He is a narcissist: “I’m more charming than most men (76). He is a misogynist who theorizes that only a “dirty, unwashed dick” with “filthy worthless sperm that smells like a half-finished bottle of fermented dairy drink stuck at the back of the fridge” (56) will have sex with an ugly woman and that “A half rape – women always like that. All women” (243). Though a physician, he does not “worry too much about medical standards. About what is, strictly speaking, medically responsible” (49). He gives his patients “the illusion of attention” (1). He has an aversion to the human body, asserting that “Human bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on” (3), so he avoids examining patients except as “you might look at a dead animal in the road” (45). He is a hypocrite who hates men thinking of his daughters in a sexual way, but who joins his male companions in more than admiring three young women, “in fact more girls than young women” (221) and agrees to have his daughter audition to be a teen model in the U.S. His friends are Ralph, a boor with rapacious appetites for food and women, and Stanley, a lecherous soft- core film director whose companion is forty years younger.

The novel addresses a number of issues: the objectification and sexualization of girls, the extent to which a person might go to protect him/herself or to exact revenge. Some of the content will certainly induce discomfort. And there are few answers; even the crime that is committed is left unsolved, so readers who dislike indeterminate endings should stay away.

Though the book is disquieting, I found it difficult to put down. The portrayal of Marc’s psyche is a masterpiece, though at the end the reader may want to take a cleansing dive in a swimming pool.