‘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.
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.
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: