The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch. (2009) French title: Le dîner. Translated from the Dutch by Isabelle Rosselin.

I didn’t know what to expect with The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I only knew that it had been on my virtual TBR for a while after reading Guy’s review. (See here)

The Dinner is like a tragedy in five acts, from Aperitif to Digestif and from funny to horrible. Paul is our narrator. He’s married to Claire and they have a diner party at a fancy restaurant with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. Claire and Paul have a 15 years old son, Michel. Serge and Babette have three children, Rick, Valérie and an adoptive son, Beau. Michel, Rick and Beau are around the same age.

Paul and Claire are not happy to spend their evening with Serge and Babette. Paul describes them as fake and boring and we soon discover that Serge is a famous and rising politician, that he’s going to run for prime minister in a few months.

Paul talks us through the evening. The Aperitif is hilarious with all the sarcastic comments he makes about the restaurant and Serge but there’s already something weird with Michel. With the Entrée come awkward and tense conversation between the two couples and more irritated remarks on the restaurant’s waiter. Memories of a weekend in Dordogne, France at Serge’s house pops up in Paul’s mind. He’s still funny, mocking and we know that Michel, Rick and Beau did something wrong.

The Main Course reveals more bits of Paul and Claire’s life and we start seeing the children under a new and terrifying light. It’s clear that Michel and Rick did something unforgivable. Dessert is when everything unravels and Digestif just pushes the story to an end.

I won’t tell more about the plot otherwise I’d ruin another reader’s fun. Paul is a very unreliable narrator. Someone we like at the beginning of the book before realizing how horrible he is. In a way, The Dinner reminded me of Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton.  (another recommendation from Guy, btw)

The reader starts rooting for Paul and Claire who sound like a happy and stable couple. Serge and Babette seem as ridiculous as Paul wants us to see them. And then our loyalty shifts. It’s a rollercoaster trip with lots of ups and downs, and the nausea at the end too.

Koch leads the show with maestro. Everything is perfectly orchestrated and I think it’d make a wonderful theatre play. Paul’s caustic tone and propensity to digress is funny and full of clues about who he is. It starts with good-hearted laugh and ends with a forced laugh but there’s a lot of humor in The Dinner.

I thought that Koch was quite hard on his fellow Dutch citizen. He openly makes fun of fancy Dutch restaurants. He also has hard words about Dutch people who bought a house in Dordogne (or in Ardèche) and destabilized the real estate market, resulting in a rise in prices that makes it expensive for the locals to settle down. (The same thing could be said about British people, btw) He also exposes how ambiguous the French locals may feel about the Dutch tourists invading campsites with their caravans full of Dutch food to avoid buying anything locally.

I also wondered about the characters’ names. They sound so French that I thought the translator changed them. But I downloaded a sample of the English edition and they are still named the same. So why? Claire is actually short for Marie-Claire. Babette is a nickname for Elisabeth. Serge and Paul are very common and could be Dutch too but Michel is clearly French. And all the French Michels I know or have heard of were born between 1920 and 1960. Think: Michel Berger, Michel Blanc, Michel Platini, Michel Houellebecq, Michel Foucault, Michel Legrand, Michel Rocard…So it was hard for me to picture an adolescent named Michel. Sorry. But that’s on me, it probably wouldn’t affect another reader.

Do I recommend The Dinner to other readers? Yes. It’s a good summer read. It’s also a good Book Club read because it provides a lot a material for plot discussion and also a debate about the moral dilemma imbedded in the story.

Other reviews: Lisa’s and Marina Sofia’s.

  1. August 8, 2018 at 9:06 am

    Thanks for the mention – yes I agree that it’s a good summer read, and I notice that Marina Sofia’s review raises the question of whether Koch is not always considered literary because he sails close to the genre wind…


    • August 8, 2018 at 10:20 am

      I’m not sure he’s very literary in the sense of artistic writing.

      This book is what I call “efficient”.
      Good structure, funny and easygoing language, gripping plot, savantly dropped clues… He builds the tension well, he takes the reader on a defined path. It’s a good read but for me it’s not extraordinary literature.

      I thought the ending was a bit blotched. He tried something à la Jim Thompson but well, the master remains Thompson.

      Liked by 2 people

      • August 8, 2018 at 10:26 am

        Agreed. Though I do think that his theme of parents not being honest with themselves about their children is a point very well made in modern society…


        • August 8, 2018 at 10:33 am

          Yes certainly. Something that teachers and all school staff are well aware of.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Vishy
    August 8, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! I have wanted to read this book for a while. Now after reading your review, I want to read it soon. Nice to know that it had an unreliable narrator. I didn’t know that Babette was another name for Elisabeth. From what you say, it looks like the author got the naming of characters wrong. I remember you writing a post once on how different French names belong to different decades and how it is possible to guess the decade a person is born by looking at their name. I remembered that when I read your observation on Michel. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • August 12, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks Vishy.
      It’s an entertaining book even if Paul is a rather despicable character.

      I know I’ve written about names before but that’s because some names really have a date stamp and Michel is one of them.

      I’d love to know why Koch gave French names to his characters. (except Rick & Beau, who’s the only one who could have a French name since he was adopted from Burkina Faso)


  3. August 8, 2018 at 11:44 pm

    I read Dear Mr M by the same author some months ago and really liked it. I may give this one a try as well. Great review!


    • August 12, 2018 at 2:10 pm

      I’ve seen several reviews of Dear Mr M recently. I must check this one out as well

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Col
    August 9, 2018 at 7:41 am

    I didn’t get on with this book at all when I read it – I didn’t actually finish it which is unusual for me. I just didn’t like any of the characters from the off – now you’ve made me think I didn’t give it enough of a chance!


    • August 9, 2018 at 12:23 pm

      I think you must be in the right state of mind when you read it to let yourself you enjoy the ride.
      Let’s face it, the characters are not likeable and without the dry humour, you wouldn’t want to spend a minute in Paul’s head.
      Same with Bunny Munro, the book by Nick Cave.


  5. August 9, 2018 at 11:58 am

    The synopsis of the Dinner sounded so familiar that I thought to check the audiobook pages in my diary, and there it is in the first week of January. Now I’m going to have to listen to it again to form an opinion about it.


    • August 9, 2018 at 12:20 pm

      Funny. I tought it would make a great audio book.
      I’m not surprised that you don’t remember it well. It’s enjoyable the moment you read it but not a book remarkable enough to linger in memory.


  6. August 18, 2018 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks for the mention. I recently watched the film version of this and it was a disappointment.


    • August 20, 2018 at 9:20 am

      It could make a good film but most of the fun is being in Paul’s mind. I don’t know how it can be successfully transferred on screen. (Unless Woody Allen is on it.)


  7. August 19, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    Curious about the names. Reading your review I found myself confused since I thought it was Dutch but all the characters sounded French, then you touched on that.

    Shame the ending’s botched, and it’s not at all a good sign that Wadhollawa doesn’t remember reading it. It does sound like it would make a very fun play though.


    • August 20, 2018 at 9:22 am

      I know, I wonder why they all have French names. (especially Michel, which can only be French)

      The ending is weird, at least for me. I wondered how he would get the characters out of the mess they were in.


  1. May 5, 2019 at 6:35 pm

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