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Posts Tagged ‘Extra Libris’

An Essay from Herman Koch, author of THE DINNER

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Koch_The Dinner If you have read The Dinner by Herman Koch, then you and your book club may be interested in this exclusive essay from the paperback edition of his latest novel.

An Essay from Herman Koch: The First Sentence

For me, a book is already finished once I’ve come up with the first sentence. Or rather: the first two sentences. Those first two sentences contain everything I need to know about the book. I sometimes call them the book’s “DNA.” As long as every sentence that comes afterward contains that same DNA, everything is fine.

When I start writing, I don’t have the entire book laid out in my mind. I never draw up outlines either. On the contrary: I sit down at my desk each morning, curious to see what’s going to happen next. Just like the reader. Without that feeling of curiosity, I wouldn’t be able to keep going. In the same way, readers often lose all desire to read on once they know how the book ends.

So for me, it’s all about those first two sentences. Twenty-five years ago I was traveling through Spain with a girlfriend. On a motorbike. That evening we had eaten somewhere and talked about old times, about our high school days. And that night in bed, those first two sentences were suddenly there. They were:

The story I want to tell is about the retarded boy. His name was Jan Wildschut, which is exactly the right name for someone who isn’t completely right in the head.

I didn’t have to write those sentences down. I lay awake all night. I’ve got a book, I thought. The next morning, I still remembered them. Two days later I wrote a note to my publisher, saying that I had a book and asking when I could turn it in. It took almost a year before that actually happened. I found myself forced to come up with all kinds of fibs. “I’m working on the second draft,” I lied. I was still writing the first draft. The book was eventually given the title Save Us, Maria Montanelli, and the first sentences are still precisely those two sentences that kept me awake all night.

On December 31, 2005, I was having dinner with a party of sixteen (family, friends, husbands, wives, children) at an outdoor restaurant in Barcelona (you can do that in Barcelona, have dinner outside on December 31). We were talking about all kinds of things: about jogging, health clubs; about adultery, Iraq, adoption; about eating too much, about drinking too much, etc. Everyone was chattering away at the same time, conversations split up into sub-conversations. I looked around, I was absolutely happy, the appetizer came, the main course came—and suddenly there came, as well, out of the blue, the first two sentences, this time along with the title. They were:

We were going out to dinner. I won’t say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who’ve come to see whether we’re there.

I’ve got a book! I whispered to myself as I started in on my dessert and coffee with cognac. I saw the entire book before me, at a single go. I saw that it would consist of five sections, each section with a title corresponding to the headings on a menu: Aperitif, Appetizer, Main Course, Dessert, Digestif. The book was going to be called The Dinner.

This all took no more than a minute. My heart was pounding, my face was flushed, my eyes began to glisten, someone in our party turned to me and asked whether I was all right. “Better than I could dare to hope,” I replied in my best Spanish, with a smile from ear to ear. It must have been the smile of a believer, someone who is being “reborn” and has just “seen the light.”

I didn’t have to write down the two sentences. For the rest of that evening and the rest of the night to come I repeated them to myself. They kept me awake. That they kept me awake was proof that they were the right sentences: that nothing about them needed to be changed. All I had to do was write the book.

Reader’s Guide: THE DINNER by Herman Koch

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Koch_The DinnerWe have the discussion questions for Herman Koch’s New York Times bestselling novel The Dinner, and believe us when we say that these will whet your literary appetite!

“The best part about The Dinner was this tension taking place above the plates. As the meal wore on, I realized I couldn’t get up from the table.” —Rosecrans Baldwin, NPR

Questions for Discussion
1. How did your opinion of Paul and Serge shift throughout the novel? How might the story line have unfolded if it had been told from a mother’s point of view?

2. In what way do the courses of a meal— from aperitif to digestif— echo the experience of savoring a suspenseful novel? As the waiter described each delicacy in The Dinner, did the food appeal to you, or did you share Paul’s belief that it was pretentious?

3. What do you think of the sympathy Paul and Claire feel for their son? As a parent, how far would you go to defend your child?

4. Do Michel and Rick represent the indifference of their generation, or are teenagers more socially conscious in the Information Age?

5. How much influence do Claire and Babette have over their husbands? How do they define good mothering?

6. The novel opens with Paul’s commentary on how much Serge irritates him. What accounts for their attitude toward each other? Does Paul’s animosity run deeper than typical sibling rivalry?

7. Discuss Paul’s and Serge’s career paths. What does it take to succeed in politics compared with succeeding in the classroom? What skills do the Lohman brothers share?

8. Ultimately, who is to blame for the homeless woman’s death? What does the novel indicate about the responsibilities (or irresponsibility) of the upper class? What separates sympathetic souls from heartless ones?

9. Discuss the portrait of a marriage that Paul paints as he recalls Claire’s illness and confronts the possibility of losing his family. Why is Claire so protective of Paul? What keeps their relationship going?

10. In chapter 30, we see the details of Paul’s approach to history and humanity. As you watched him lose his teaching job, did you perceive him as someone who is ill or simply selfish? Or rational?

11. What does the story of cousins Michel and Rick say about nature versus nurture? How do you think Beau/Faso sees his adoptive family? What have they taught him about getting ahead?

12. How did you react to Claire and Michel’s “solution”?

13. What commentary does the novel offer about the author’s homeland? What aspects of The Dinner would change if it were set in Washington, DC, rather than in the Netherlands?

Guide written by Amy Clements

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