Herman Koch’s novel, The Dinner, ably translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, is set primarily in a fine dining establishment where two brothers and their wives discuss the aftermath of their respective sons’ complicity in a reckless act of violence. Much has been made of how the different courses of the evening’s meal frame the action in the present and serve to contain the increasingly frequent and more in-depth flashbacks that fill in the context for the frequent silences during the meal. However I would like to suggest here that it is the dessert ordered by Serge Lohman, one of the four central candidates, the dame blanche, that most clearly encapsulates the action that drives the plot during the course of the evening.
The much maligned dame blanche makes its appearance late in the novel, in the dessert course. However, it serves as an evocative symbol for much that occurs. The readers’ first exposure to it comes courtesy of the obsequious manager’s description:
‘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.’ (217)
This detailed narrative deconstruction of the dessert into its constituent parts is simultaneously an accurate representations of how restaurants try to increase the overall value of their meal offerings, but it also a perverse commentary on nativism. Neither the fruit nor the chocolate are imported, and their local origins rein scribe the importance of the domicile even though the dessert itself is being consumed at a commercial establishment away from home. This speaks to the not-so latent xenophobia that runs through the plot as a recurring motif, describing not just the Dutch, but extended to the French as well in our narrator’s estimation.
Whereas his affluent and influential brother, Serge, a successful politician with national ambitions considers dessert just the natural end of a meal, Paul distances himself from such rigid and conventional notions, not only claiming to disdain sweets in general but, then, going so far as to take the dessert’s plainness as a personal affront:
My brother always chose the mos ordinary desserts on the menu. Vanilla ice cream, crepes with syrup, an that was about it. I sometimes thought it had to do with his blood sugar level, the same blood sugar level that left him high and dry in the middle of nowhere at the most in opportune moments. But it also had to do with his lack of imagination (218)
For his part, Paul claims no special culinary sophistication himself; his air of superiority regarding his brother has to do with the fact that Serge eats very fast, barely tasting it, whereas he himself consumes his food at a more moderate pace. Throughout the dinner, Paul keeps eyeing the uneaten dessert ass it melts and becomes less appetizing; he equates its gradual loss of integrity with his brother’s moral failure as a husband, since Serge’s wife, Babette, defiantly refuses to eat what her husband ordered for her. Paul reads the ice cream for signs of the deterioration of their marriage, being utterly convinced that he is the only Lohman destined to know and enjoy “happiness.”
Therein lies the final aspect of the dame blanche‘s symbolic role within the narrative. Dessert by its very luxurious and indulgent nature is itself the promise of happiness and delight at the end of a grown-up meal. In fact, the blandness that so offends Paul is absolutely the common denominator of all childlike treats: vanilla ice cream with chocolate shavings. What could be more simple than that? However, the name of the treat suggests an association with the women at the table, not with the men. It’s intended recipient, Babbette, rejects it. However its appellation describes her aptly, at least in her role as mother. Babbette and Serge have two biological children, a boy and a girl, and an adopted son from Burkina Faso. Paul constantly makes snide remarks about their transracial adoption, calling the family’s motives into question by suggesting it was all politically motivated. To Beau, her son, then Babbette is indeed a “dame blanche” or a white lady.
Paul’s wife, Claire, can also be encompassed within the meaning of the confection since clarity is often associated with whiteness. For Paul, and for their son, Claire is a sweet but commanding presence within the household. Unlike Babbette, however, who cries all the way through dinner in the same way that the uneaten ice cream slowly weeps as the evening wears on, Claire is so cold she will not melt. When faced with adversity, she remains clear-headed and calm and thus emerges as the novel’s most surprising monster.
The Dinner is a delicious read, though it will definitely not suit all tastes. One must have a strong stomach to get through to the end, and the conclusion is satisfying, though bracing.
Herman Koch. The Dinner. Trans. Sam Garrett. Hogarth: New York, 2013.