Over a million copies sold, multiple translations, a stage adaptation – does Herman Koch’s The Dinner show us a new way for Dutch literature? Michele Hutchison investigates for PEN Atlas
Not long after I’d moved to Amsterdam and become interested in Dutch literature, I was confronted with an exotic word: straatrumoer. Literally, ‘the sound from the street’. I learned that, in the 1980s, an academic called Ton Anbeek, who’d spent time in the States, had caused ripples in the literary world by suggesting that contemporary Dutch literature needed a lot more of it. Anbeek had compared recent American fiction with Dutch and came to the conclusion that Dutch fiction contained too little political engagement and too much navel-gazing. Novelists should work harder to reflect and comment on social reality, presumably as Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon did.
Anbeek was lucky, just then a new generation of young writers like Joost Zwagerman, Arnon Grunberg, Ronald Giphart, and Hafid Bouzza came along, and the problem ostensibly was addressed. Contemporary social reality and politics – matters outside the protagonist’s psyche – gained a larger role in fiction. Psychological fiction moved towards faction. Nevertheless, public complaints against Dutch literature rumbled on. In 2006, then Prime Minister, JP Balkenende, wrote to eminent novelist Harry Mulisch lamenting the lack of social engagement in the arts. Where was the Grand Design? Vision? Ideals? Anbeek’s criticism had resurfaced and had even been added to the country’s political agenda!
Last month, the quality broadsheet NRC Handelsblad published a polemical piece by novelist Marcel Möring. The headline ran, ‘the novel has been degraded to entertainment for the middle-classes’. Möring argued that too much attention had been paid to straatrumoer, ‘the novel has become the sewage works of journalism’. Too much topicality, too much trivial autobiography, too little experiment. No Beckett or Joyce would make it through the current climate; a criticism that would hold true in more countries than just the Netherlands.
But let’s return to that headline: ‘entertainment for the middle-classes’. Might one of the main targets just be the most successful literary novel of recent years: The Dinner by Herman Koch (2009). It has sold over a million copies here, has been adapted for theatre, and rights have been sold to twenty-five countries. The Dinner slowly reveals dramatic events which precede two middle-class couples having dinner in an expensive restaurant in Amsterdam. Their teenaged sons have committed a crime together and the couples need to talk about what to do next. The novel is a social satire, written in an appealingly light and amusing tone.
Rival publishers speculated that its extraordinary success was due to the timing of the book, the striking jacket featuring a lobster against a bright blue background, and the fact that the author is also a successful television comedian. The jacket design has mostly been used for translations, yet the content and style seem to have universal appeal – the book has sold fantastically well in Germany, France and Italy, for example. Just published in the UK by Atlantic Booksand translated by Sam Garrett, reviews have been very positive, comparing it to recent successes by Lionel Schriver (We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Christos Tsolkias (The Slap), fashionable novels which are also studies of the angst-ridden bourgeoisie.
Herman Koch kindly agreed to share his thoughts last week.
What do you think Dutch literature should set out to do? Should it contain a moral message or just entertain?
I think literature in general (not only Dutch) should try to be as immoral as possible, but never forget to be entertaining in doing so.
Are you more influenced by Dutch literature or foreign?
When I was in my teens I was more influenced by the 19th century Russians than by Dutch writers. Today interesting literature is coming to us from all over the world. I never feel like I should write some Dutch version of the Big American Novel: sometimes I don’t have the patience anymore to start reading a book of more than 500 pages (not the same patience I had when I was eighteen), let alone write it.
Were you thinking about reflecting contemporary political reality in Holland when you wrote the book?
Not really, only in so far as that I was thinking of the Dutch political correctness as far as our famous tolerance is concerned. This tolerance now seems to have come to an end, or at least it is showing it’s true face: the Dutch feeling of superiority over foreigners.
Thinking then about ‘straatrumoer’, it struck me that, at least to a Brit, street suggests the problematics of the poorer segments of society: drugs, violence, prostitution, immigration. But as Koch’s novel demonstrates, the middle classes are part of social reality and its problems too. His novel plays into the Zeitgeist, speaks to the majority of book readers and some of its success must surely be put down to this too.
About the Author
Michele Hutchison (Solihull, 1972) worked in publishing in the UK before moving to the Netherlands in 2004. She now works as an editor at a Dutch literary publishing house and as a freelance translator. Writers she has translated include Joris Luyendijk, Rob Riemen, Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer and Simone van der Vlugt.
Biography of Herman Koch
Herman Koch, born in 1953, is a Dutch actor and writer. He studied at the Montessori Lyceum before finishing his schooling in Russia. Koch is a renowned television actor on the series Jiskefet and a columnist for the newspaper Volkskrant. The Dinner is his sixth novel and has already won the prestigious Publieksprijs Prize in 2009. Herman Koch currently lives in Spain.