Interviewed by Deborah Brooks
‘What a tremendous book. I loved ever single gripping and strange thing about it,’ commented M.J. Hyland on a novel about middle-class manners and parenting which has swept a tide of opinion before it.
Dutch actor and writer Herman Koch’s The Dinner is one of those zeitgeist-tapping book which has won both critical acclaim and prizes but also sold in stupendous quantities – over a million copies in Europe to date. The author, who will be appearing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, was recently in London where Deborah Brooks interviewed him on behalf of bookoxygen.
It’s sadly the case that authors who sparkle in prose can sometimes be exceptionally dour in life. Herman Koch’s publicist had already emailed me to tell me: ‘Herman is great fun – you’ll like him,’ but I suspect that these words might have made me worry that he was anything but, had I not enjoyed the book so very much. The Dinner is certainly not light-hearted and only in a few places could it be described as ‘fun’, but it is darkly funny and extremely well observed, clearly the work of a writer who delights in detail and bringing to life characters who both amuse and appal. My interview with Herman Koch was perforce done via phone during his brief UK visit and five minutes into the call I found myself not only enjoying our conversation immensely but also deciding that Herman Koch is indeed a man you would like to have dinner with, just not the dinner described in the book.
The idea for the novel’s structure came one evening when Koch was dining with friends. Why not, he thought, write a book that is set entirely during the course of one dinner. Each course would form an ‘act’ in the story, with the main course serving up the meat of the story. At the time he was living in Spain and a news story about a homeless woman who was attacked by two youths as she slept rough was grabbing headlines. What shocked Spain, and draw Koch’s attention, was that the two boys who attacked her were not skinheads, drunks or dropouts but ‘nice’ middle class boys. He tells me they ‘looked like the boy next door’ and that from this he went on to think that, ‘it could be my son; it could be anyone’s son.’ He therefore decided that the story he would write would be the story of the parents of these two boys sitting down to a dinner in which they would start by discussing niceties and eventually move on to confront how they were going to handle the fallout of the attack. To further complicate matters, one of the men is in line to be the next Prime Minister and the other (the narrator) is his jealous brother.
The book was published in Holland in 2009 and was widely acclaimed, so I am interested to hear how it feels to be speaking about a book that he wrote some time ago, and also how it feels to have his work translated into English for the first time, with all the wider recognition that comes with this. He starts off by telling me that he never re-reads his own work and so there are times when promoting the book now that he has to think carefully about what he wrote and what he meant when he wrote it. As the book is published in more languages, he has become more used to this though and I get the sense that he can step into the minds of his characters with ease, so well does he know them. He paints a nice image of flying off the preceding day from Amsterdam airport and seeing the English edition of The Dinnerin quite big amounts in the airport bookshop, nestled between Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides. He says that this allows him to feel that, ‘this is the first time I am really there because English somehow matters more in a way than other languages do.’ This, he tells me, feels ‘quite nice’ – an understatement, I am sure.
A quick read of his biography has told me that Koch is also an actor who has performed in a very-long-running comedy series in Holland. From what he tells me it sounds like a sketch show of the Mary Whitehouse Experience or Fast Show ilk – a fast-moving, topical sketch show where he and his colleagues both write and act the sketches. The Dinner is so closely observed that at times it can feel like a script complete with stage directions. Any actor picking it up would know exactly what gestures to make and when, a director would know at exactly what point an annoying waiter should enter and disrupt the flow of conversation or spill wine ineptly on the table. I therefore ask to what extent the acting and the writing inform one another and am not surprised to hear him say this is always the case. For the comedy show, he describes himself as perpetually thinking about what the character’s voices are like and how they expressed themselves and says that the same thing is true of the books in the way that he visualizes the characters before putting them on paper.
Interestingly, he describes his characters almost as if they come to him whole. Paul, the narrator of The Dinner is an unreliable pair of hands to place the reader in and the extent to which this is true emerges as the novel (and the dinner) progresses. He tells me in fact that, ‘with this man I was thinking from the first sentence that he is hiding something – some facts. How he is or what he is. He wants to present himself as an ideal family and defender of ideal family. Then he gives us more and more glimpses of how he defends his family and we feel how this is different from what we would do.’ I tell him how the end surprised me and how up until that point I had been duped by Paul and made to see the world through his eyes, and he says enlighteningly that, ‘I also trusted him. It might sound strange. Then suddenly I realized he was completely different from what I thought as well.’ It strikes me that this is probably why the device works so well, because the writer is going on the same journey as the reader, together we slowly tear away the wool that has covered our eyes.
The book has a lot to say about middle-class Dutch culture. In fact I felt it had a lot to say about middle-class culture in general – I found far more that I recognized than I found things that seemed especially Dutch or foreign to me. High-end restaurant culture is particularly held up to ridicule with its overblown prices, fussy service and superfluous rituals. I felt that the portrayal was both fond and also satirical and ask whether it was indeed true, as it seemed to me that he both cherishes and dislikes this way of living. He agrees that this is probably fair – the portrait is of the circles that he moves in and he feels that some of this has become ridiculous. He cites an example of people who feel good about themselves for only eating biologically-raised pigs when of course in the end they are also animals slaughtered in the same way to the same ends. He is keen to stress that with Serge, the politician character, he didn’t want to make him a Berlusconi or Sarkozy type but to explore someone who was basically a good person, who believes in equal rights and in helping those less fortunate but is nonetheless tangled up in this situation which forces his certainties to unravel.
In its exploration of parents facing difficult situations, the book has some parallels with other works such as We Need to Talk about Kevin and Christos Tsolkias’s The Slap, both of which have been read and admired widely, if not necessarily enjoyed. It is clear that the parent and child relationship is an integral part of this book and yet, without spoiling the ending for those who haven’t read it, Koch gives this tale a twist in that he offers a way out that could possibly alleviate some, if not all, of the parents of any blame for their child’s actions. We discuss this briefly and he admits that he had a lot of doubts about this both before and after writing the book and worried, ‘did I do the right thing here?’ This ambiguity is perhaps the weakest thing about the book, but I felt that it was still well done, not coming down too heavily on either side of the nature/nurture debate but allowing the reader to make their own mind up about where culpability lies, if indeed it can even be apportioned.
In light of this I ask him a bit about his own family and whether he comes from a family of writers or creatives who have shaped him. This is not the case it seems, although his father was in publishing and his mother a jeweller and so creative to some extent. In fact his father advised him to get a paid job rather than become a writer, worried that he would starve otherwise. Sadly neither his mother nor father has lived to see his success. There were lots of books in his house but he says that he believes that it is in your nature whether you love to read or not. Although he and his wife are voracious readers, his son only reads books when he has to for school and would otherwise rather do something ‘more exciting’. It’s clear from what he says that he believes strongly in nature as being as important, if not more so, than nurture and this therefore makes the ending of the book less surprising. His own relationship with his son is something he reflects on fondly throughout our discussion. He pauses to relate a conversation they had when they were together in London some years ago and says how he would rather live abroad were it not for the fact that his son is settled in Amsterdam. With his son now seventeen, the book would have been written when he was at the beginning of his adolescent years and so it is easy to see why the issues in the novel – especially around privacy and father and son relationships – would have fascinated him at this time.
Given my lack of familiarity with Dutch literature, I ask Koch to recommend to bookoxygen readers what other authors we should look out for in translation. He advises we seek out Arnon Grunberg, a prolific Dutch writer with many books translated into English. Happily, after the success of The Dinner, Koch’s follow-up novel with the deliciously intriguing title, Summerhouse with Swimming Pool will also be published in English.
As we say our goodbyes I’m left wishing we’d managed to meet in person. I’d like to have probed more into how much of Koch there is in Paul. He hints at it slightly by telling me that he is ‘not that violent – well only in my imagination.’ He is joking I think, but sometimes it’s hard to tell on the telephone. Perhaps next time he’s touring we’ll get to meet face to face in a café or restaurant – just as long as it’s not for dinner.