by Herman Koch
2013 / 306 pages (Kindle)
(My review is here)
The Menu Deconstructed:
This was one of the more literary and or clever parts of the novel for me. It seems that in The Dinner the main characters are eating together in order to keep the peace while they discuss a really difficult situation. Even eating at McDonalds might prevent a true fight scene which could easily take place had the confrontation occurred in the home of either brother – with no food involved. But it didn’t stop the last cafe incident.
Conversely, when characters eat together in a novel they are usually becoming closer – rarely fighting. Sharing food is archetypal for becoming closer – a kind of communion in some cases. If the participant do get into a battle, someone usuallygets up and leaves the table – that’s more often in families. Eating with others occurs a fair amount in novels. Someone is always suggesting going to grab a bite to eat at a local place, inviting a new co-worker to dinner, meeting someone for lunch, going on a “date” (not so much of that because I don’t read romance), having the neighbor in for a cup of tea and biscuits if nothing else – even offering the cops a cup of coffee.
But that’s not what the eating is about in Koch’s novel – no-siree-bob! Not only does the major portion of this novel take place at a fancy restaurant, the title is the meal and the chapters are organized and titled by course! The whole structure of the book is arranged as an upscale dinner party to show sophistication and money and that this type of stuff happens across the status lines. That could not have happened by “accident” and it wasn’t just “convenient.”
This being the case, the menu aspect of the narrative is rather funny when we find the waiter regularly pointing out some food item with his pinkie – specifically drawing our attention to some little morsel. Okay – so I did a little “study” of it – heh –
** Aperitifs –
In the book this chapter is when the characters had those little drinks while getting ready, getting to the restaurant, finding Babette with red eyes. It includes the set up of who sits where (and it’s unusual for Paul to sit looking out a window). There are teapot cozies on the tables which tells us that the restaurant, for all its up-scale reputation, highlights the snug and cozy. The aperitif turns out to be “pink champagne” (???) – helping customers get ready for something “special” – romantic, expensive, maybe pretentious but still, rather common in some way – a “people’s” upscale place.
“The crayfish are dressed in a vinaigrette of tarragon and baby green onions… ” and “… chanterelles from the Vosges.”
The chanterelles are described as being two brown toadstools cut lengthwise and possibly had dirt sticking to the bottom. That’s what the waiter’s pinky points.And the characters – yup – they have dirt sticking to their bottoms. (LOL!)
The chablis would be kind of ordinary, I think, except the manager has this horrendous time opening it. That whole scene is almost a metaphor for the opening up of the secret they all know now to this point, but what comes next. (Do you really want pieces of cork in your life?)
The appetizers come and Claire’s plate is virtually empty what with two teeny pieces, “lamb’s-neck sweetbread” marinated in Sardinian olive oil served with
arugula with a couple of sun-dried tomatoes.” Imo, Claire’s life in the novel is pretty much chopped up as well as being small. So she gets a couple tiny pieces of meat but that’s it.
For Paul there is “warm goat’s cheese with pine nuts and walnut shavings.” Now tell me that doesn’t sound like a nut case. There’s a bit of curly lamb’s lettuce in there, too. (Lamb’s lettuce – it supposedly has a nutty flavor – curly fits – so does the hamster story on the next page!) . Again, an almost empty plate – yes, Paul’s pretty empty lately – he doesn’t work or do much at all. The hamster story says it all.
Babette has something called “vittello tonnato” – I had to look this up and found : “…an exceedingly elegant antipasto for an elaborate dinner.” Made of
veal, tuna and a complex sauce – takes a couple days to prepare. That sounds about like Babette. (heh)
Serge has oysters – that can describe about anything from high gourmet to quite simple. Ah – but so is Serge, really quite simple basically but able to
be as pretentious as anyone, whatever the occasion calls for.
The ordering sequence went from Claire to Babette to Serge and Paul was last and he wasn’t going to copy one of the others so he impulsively picked something he doesn’t even like.
“Serge looked at me, a morsel of appetizer still in his mouth. He was chewing on it, but that didn’t stop him,” (p. 51) GROSS! It was oysters – yuk, yuk, yuk! Serge’s eating habits come up anyway – he’s a pig – I think he’s got some kind of blood-sugar issue. – right? There are times when food is fuel – that’s all.
(During this Course of the book there’s a flashback to summers in France – it has plenty of local food, bread and cheese , bakery goods, escargots, and local wines – and Serge is over-charged. They pick berries and make jam. They entertain with a buffet consisting of some pretty standard “authentic French country” fare (to me) and Serge plays the snob.
Yukkie Boursin cheese spread – (LOL!) it’s probably available at your local market. It’s kind of fakey but that’s the point. Back home in Holland these folks are real people and eat fake French food. Here in France they eat real French food and are faking the French.
You’ll notice the families themselves are not all present at meals -not that we see. Michael is brought back to the buffet by the police, etc. Clare and Paul watch TV. There’s a lot of other stuff in these chapters – I’m only looking at food and eating.
** Main Course:
Paul: ” Grapes, lettuce, fillet of guinea fowl wrapped in paper-thin sliced German bacon.” – mmmmmm
Serge: Tournedos – plain I guess (as opposed to gussied up), made from organic meat but I doubt it matters to Serge – he’s ready to just gobble it down.
Their dinner is interrupted by wine spills, bathroom breaks, fans of Serge, Michael on the phone as well as outside. Sorting this whole thing out over dinner at a nice restaurant is not going to happen. There’s a lot of drinking by everyone – not to being a problem, I don’t think – but it’s there. There’s some eating in a backstory when Paul and Michael are left to their own devices due to Claire’s being in the hospital, but it’s not good – cafe fries with ribs or mac & cheese and done while watching TV or eating in bed.
The Main Course is, naturally, the main course of the novel, too – in terms of the plot-line about the boys and the homeless woman.
** Dessert –
“The blackberries are from our own garden,” said the manager. “The parfait is made from homemade chocolate, and these are shaved almonds, mixed with grated
walnuts.” (p. 217)
LOL! Cold chocolate with nuts and black-berries (not blue or straw or even raspberries) – sounds about right. It would be very dark – I can’t imagine it would be attractive. Babette doesn’t even want it. Serge has a dame blanche – like a hot fudge sundae (plain again) but he doesn’t finish it! . Paul has cheese and I can’t see what Claire has. But Paul and Clair both have espresso as well as grappa (very strong brandy?).
** And Digestif: (after-dinner drinks): What were they drinking at the cafe? More coffee I’m sure – they were getting down to the nitty gritty by then – (not that it matters) –