“At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

‘Tis the season of the works Christmas do, and this week I’ll be stuffing my face at not one but two dinners, as I’m going to both my old job and new job’s yuletide outing. I hate works outings, so I’d be tempted to proclaim that there is no God, but that’s not really in keeping with the season. So I’ll just say I’m not happy about the week’s forthcoming events.

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This week I’m looking at two stories that will help me stop being so ungrateful, as they feature horrific dinners with despicable people. Buon Natale!

Firstly, The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009, tr. 2012 Sam Garrett) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. Paul and his wife Claire are meeting his brother Serge and his wife Babette at a swish Amsterdam restaurant. Fairly quickly, it is apparent that Paul harbours a great deal of resentment towards his brother:

“Through and through, Serge remained a yokel, a boorish lout: the same boorish lout who used to get sent from the table for farting”

The dinner begins to unravel from the beginning. Babette arrives visibly upset:

 “Yet there was something else, something different about her this time, like a room where someone has thrown out all the flowers while you were gone: a change in the interior you don’t even notice at first, not until you see the stems sticking out of the garbage.”

As they work their way through the dinner (the different sections of the book are split into the consecutive sections of a menu), Paul reflects on why they are actually all meeting – to discuss a horrific crime which has taken place – and recent events in his life. The further we get into the novel, the more of Paul’s personality begins to emerge, from a slightly controversial take on memorial stones…

 “The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims. That their names are also chiselled onto the war memorials.”

…escalating to an increasingly apparent violent nature and fascistic attitude to people.  A worrying combination:

“The little hairs on the back of my neck and my tingling fingers had not betrayed me: when the lower intelligences are about to lose an argument, they grasp at other straws in order to justify themselves.”

I won’t say too much more for fear spoilers, but The Dinner is a quick read, its light touch belying its serious concerns: should personal interest ever outweigh societal responsibility and what are the ramifications if it does?

Safe to say you’ll finish the novel mightily relieved that you never have to sit down to a meal with a single character portrayed within. And this is Koch’s master stroke. I desperately wanted the whole family to implode, for justice to be done. In doing so, I realised I wasn’t so very different to these repugnant people and their feeling of moral superiority towards others. It was not a comfortable place to be. The Dinner leaves a bad taste in the mouth, exactly as its creator intended.

Secondly, Festen (2004), the stage play by David Eldridge of the 1998 film by Thomas Vinterberg (trigger warning: mentions incest). I was a huge fan of the Dogme 95 films and I saw the play in 2004 where it translated well to the stage. It’s a simple plot but powerful: Christian’s twin sister Linda has killed herself and as the family meet to celebrate their father’s 60th birthday, Christian makes a speech about why Linda would do such thing – the sexual abuse she and Christian endured as children at the hands of their father.

“Christian: I apologise for interrupting again.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten the most important thing. We’re here today because it is my father’s birthday. We’re not here for any other reason.

A slight pause.

I’m sorry if I led you all up the garden path before. I am sorry. I’d like to make it all up to you all now by asking you to charge your glasses. To my father.

Helmut: Well done Christian.

Poul: Yes, well done.

Christian: If you would all like to stand with me. And raise your glasses.

Everyone stands.

To the man who killed my sister. To a murderer.”

Unsurprisingly, all hell breaks loose. Unlike The Dinner, there are people to care about and root for. Despite the horrific subject matter, there are moments of levity and the play is warm towards the majority of the characters.  Reading plays can be an odd business, because it’s not the primary form for the story. I found the playtext of Festen very readable and affecting, but if you don’t fancy it, do give the film a go, as the story is a moving one and brilliantly directed (contains swearing):

What a depressing post this has turned into! ‘Tis the season of being grumpy about enforced joviality 😉 I promise I’ve a much lighter-hearted Crimbo post planned for next week. For this week, I wish you all a lovely load of Christmas parties, may they be as adorable as this dinner:

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27 thoughts on ““At a dinner party one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (W. Somerset Maugham)

  1. My goodness I’d forgotten about Dogme 95 – a jewel of cinematic magnificence – I loved those films, and still have internal bruising from all the cringeing watching Festen (but in a good way). ‘The Dinner’ sounds like perfect reading for the festive season – I must get hold of a copy pronto! I have an aversion to Christmas parties too (also social engagements of any description) and find myself having attended a party last weekend with another one this coming weekend. For party survival, maybe we should make like Pingu and blow bubbles into our drink loudly whenever there’s a pause in conversation. After all, penguins know how to party.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really loved Dogme 95 and tried to see all the films, it was a great initiative. We could do with something similar again I think – the cartoony mega budget films have taken over…

      I hope you enjoy The Dinner – it is quite fun to read something so horrible in this season of goodwill!

      It’s not a great season for those of us who don’t like parties, is it? Definitely making like Pingu is a good survival tactic – I shall employ it forthwith 😀

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  2. You couldn’t have picked two more perfectly matched books. I loved The Dinner (not a fan of his subsequent books – the tricks with suspense that he pulled off in The Dinner didn’t work so well in Swimming Pool) – I read it when it was first released but still recall how much my loyalties and opinions shifted dramatically as I read.

    In regards to work dinners – those things always end up being more fun than you anticipate. And if not…free wine?

    Love Pingu 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I didn’t feel the impulse towards bringing the family in The Dinner to any kind of justice; I read the whole book wanting to run away from them, far away! But I think your way of reading it may well be “what the author intended.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I loved The Dinner – Koch’s brilliant at somehow making me willing to spend time inside the head of someone I’d hate in real life, and enjoying my time there! Worrying! 😉 In truth, I enjoyed his second book slightly more – Summer House with Swimming Pool – though that may simply have been because I read it first. Reviews made me think that everyone seems to like their first Koch read best… maybe the unexpectedness of it…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One very good perk of my husband quitting his job and going out on his own has been the lack of Christmas parties that he used to drag me to (with a scowl on my face – at least until I got there). I am very grateful for no Christmas parties. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read The Dinner a couple of years ago and your apt comment about it leaving a nasty taste in your mouth is so true – I also like the sound of the other horrific dinner although apart from Shakespeare, I’ve never read a play. I have a works dinner tomorrow and I’m as equally underwhelmed as you – hey ho on with the Santa hat and forced jollity 😏

    Liked by 1 person

    • Reading plays can be an odd experience but I find once I get into them it stops feeling so stilted. Festen is very readable, so I hope you enjoy it if you give it a go!

      In a couple of days our work dos will be a memory and we can breathe easy until next year – good luck 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love several of the dogme 95 films but not seen festen. The play is now on my wishlist as it sounds like a fascinating read.
    It’s been a long long while since I last went to a work’s Christmas party – a group in my village tried to get one started for the local self-employed – I politely declined 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree about ‘Festen’, I usually avoid that kind of thing but I found it far more engaging and bearable than the others with the same subject matter.

    Stay strong with the parties, I also have two Christmas parties as I have two jobs, one is today, one is Wednesday, and on Thursday I’m working a 10 hour shift and taking my old washing machine to the tip in my lunch break and I’ve found myself looking forward to that as a great day and a marker of when all the pre-Christmas hell will be done with! I need 100cc of singing Muppets to get me in the mood, stat!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You have my sympathy- I have now made it out the other side of the parties and can tell you what you already know, that Thursday will be a great day in your life 😀

      If anything can stand up to the horror of work Christmas parties its the Muppets – definitely the only way to go! (Muppet Christmas Carol is on TV on Christmas Eve 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: “Here’s to alcohol, the cause of, and solution to, all life’s problems.” (Homer Simpson) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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