The Ditch by Herman Koch

I like Herman Koch’s writing. I liked the moral dilemma of The Dinner, and Summer House With Swimming Pool which told a different story of  misbehaving adults. The Ditch, however, meanders through several issues at once, meditatively enough to remind me of Javier Marias’ writing. One enjoys the book, while at the same time wondering if the plot will ever pull together.

Robert is the mayor of Amsterdam, married to a woman he calls Sylvia because he doesn’t want to disclose her true name, and thus her nationality, lest it prejudices our idea of who she is. He will only tell us she is from a country south and east of Holland, farther than France, and he leaves it at that. Spain? Could she be from Spain, or even farther, a place like Casablanca?

In what struck me as a rather paranoid perspective, he determines that his wife is having an affair after observing her at a party, across the room, throwing her head back in laughter as she converses with Alderman Maarten van Hoogstraten. There is nothing about her behavior which seems suspicious to me, but once the idea occurs to her husband, he can only embellish it in his mind.

Simultaneously, Robert has meetings with his ninety-five year old father who is planning his own death, feeling that he has lived all he wants to and anything more will be downhill.

“That’s the way things are in this country these days, son. When you want to die, they can’t wait to come help. But if you want to enjoy driving for another year, suddenly there are all kinds of ethical objections.”

Near the end of the novel, Robert and his twenty year old daughter discuss her boyfriend, whom she saw kissing another girl on the dance club floor. Diana tells her father that she wants to be the only one, no more looking at other girls, and if he can’t give that to her it’s over.

“Isn’t that sort of one-sided?” I began. “Aren’t you coming down on him a little too hard?”

This, from her father, a husband who has been suspicious of his wife since the novel began. Perhaps in the course of its 300-some pages he has come to see that relationships need flexibility and understanding.

It is never clear whether Sylvia was involved in an extramarital affair or not, nor, I suppose, does it matter very much. The point Koch is making, I think, is that when we love someone, we overcome any negative thoughts we may harbor concerning them. He concludes, “We don’t say much, more often we say nothing at all. We don’t talk as much as we used to. But we are together. We stand close together.”

That is all that really matters.

Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

Well, he’s done it again, Mr. Koch has. Written a novel which pinned me to my green wing back chair for the better part of the past two days. This time, the details are far more gruesome than in The Dinner. A general practitioner named Marc Schlosser is narrating the story, a story which begins and ends in nearly the same place: with a famous actor named Ralph Meier taking a lethal dose to incur his own death. In between him preparing to swallow it, and actually downing the shot glass, is the whole complicated story.
The story involves Marc’s family, and Marc himself, over the vacation they took one summer. Ralph and his wife Judith invited the Schlossers to their summer house with a swimming pool. And because Marc is infatuated with Judith, he accepts. It is the fatal flaw which brings irrevocable damage to the whole family. Both families, in fact. But, not because Marc and Judith are attracted to each other.
No. When something happens to Marc’s eldest daughter, while the fathers are drinking and carousing on the beach not a mile from where she has gone, the suspicions are heightened to an unbearable point. Who is to blame for the incident? How will it be resolved?
I found it fascinating that Herman Koch included a problem with Marc’s eye the very night of the tragedy. Something has landed in it, something that makes it impossible for him to open his eye fully, or keep it open for long. Soon his eye is swollen shut, red and lumpy. He must eventually lance it to release the pressure of infection. Could it possibly refer to the admonition in the New Testament to get the plank out of your own eye before trying to remove the speck in someone else’s? For me, this is exactly the case.
Because if anyone is innocent, it is not Marc himself.
(Find another review from Lizzy’s Literary Life here.)

The Dinner by Herman Koch


Herman Koch examines each detail of his diners as closely as the waiter articulates the origin of each course. Nothing is too minute to point out, but it isn’t boring. It’s a slow reveal with building tension much like a Hitchcock film; you’re actually poised in your chair for the conclusion, practically unable to wait for it any longer. As Alfred Hitchcock says, “There’s no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Four parents meet at an exclusive Dutch restaurant to hold an important discussion about their sons, and as we go through each course, from aperitif to dessert, we become increasingly aware that something terrible has occurred. Through veiled looks and subtle movements, to the point of shouting and crying, we are led through the dinner. Through the actions of their sons. Through the shocking conclusion.

Perhaps what is most shocking is the attitude of the parents, the way that one pair wants to reveal all that has happened, while the other pair not only wants to hide it but ignore it. I found myself wondering how it is that some people are able to focus more on image than on truth. Or, on getting by than being accountable for their actions. And throughout the novel are little lines which made me stop short.

One father tells us in his narration, “We never tried to influence him (his son); we would have let him have any dessert he liked, so you couldn’t blame it on his upbringing. It was hereditary. Yes, that was the only word for it. If heredity existed, if anything was hereditary, than it had to be our aversion to sweet desserts.” (p. 221)

Sweet desserts?! Sweet mother of God, desserts have nothing to do with the situation about which we are reading. I was mesmerized in my chair all day yesterday, unable to pull myself away from this novel which forced me to examine parenting. Responsibility. Heredity. The consequences of our free will.

The Dinner is an exceptionally exciting novel, with none of the conveniently contrived conclusions that I have found in so many “thrillers”. It would be perfect for a book club discussion, although it is perfectly suited to reading all in one day, by oneself, such as I did.