Tirza by Arnon Grunberg
May 6, 2013 § 3 Comments
Having never read much (anything?) in the way of Dutch literature before, I was intrigued to read two very recently translated Dutch novels that seemed to have much in common in terms of mood and character. Both The Dinner by Herman Koch and Tirza by Arnon Grunberg were translated by Sam Garrett, the translator who answered my Three Rs questions last week, so I took the opportunity to ask him about this apparent coincidence.
To give a bit of background, The Dinner is narrated by Paul Lohman, a middle-aged, middle-class man, with a son in his late teens, and the entire novel takes place over a fancy dinner with his brother, would-be prime minister. Lohman behaves very reasonably at first, appealing to our supposed shared tastes and shared belief that the finer things in life should be tempered with reasonableness and moderation. Over the meal we gradually realise that the narrator’s hostility towards his brother is much more complicated than we at first thought, and the narrator himself becomes increasingly sinister. There’s also a very disturbing reason for the dinner in the first place, and as this is revealed our idea of which character is good and which is bad is constantly shocked into a new place.
My cagey summary stops there, despite the fact that the blurb reveals (as do most reviews) a lot more about the plot than I am setting out here. I rarely read blurbs before reading the novel, so I was possibly one of the few people in the world to read The Dinner without knowing what was coming. Sometimes advance knowledge heightens suspense, but in this case I think it would significantly weaken the novel’s power, which in my opinion is heavily dependent on the not-knowing. The voice would not have been so compelling and persuasive if I’d been expecting the events, having been tipped off by the blurb to interpret clues in just one way.
Tirza (published by Open Letter) is also narrated by a middle-aged, middle class man with a child in her late teens. The novel opens with Jörgen Hofmeester preparing sushi for his daughter Tirza’s high-school graduation party. His wife has recently returned to the house after an absence of three years, not because she wanted to mend the relationship with her husband or her daughters but because there was simply nowhere else to go. Tirza is essentially the story of a man whose life seems to be pretty much sorted, but who has in fact been unravelling quietly for some time. This unravelling gathers pace and intensity as the novel progresses, with Grunberg demonstrating quite masterful control of both characters and readers.
Both novels convey a very bleak view of humanity. While The Dinner shocks us with the adults’ apparent unconcern for rightness and honesty, and for the characters’ deliberate cruelties and sins of omission as well as their prizing of individual success over the common good, we can imagine a few people we know, or know of, having these discussions. Tirza’s dark events, on the other hand, seem to emerge from ongoing stress and pressure, individual and societal. Is this novel’s brutal twist more horrifying because it is so extreme and unbelievable, or is The Dinner more dreadful because we can actually believe that people behave like this?
An interesting question. In literary terms, I happen to think that Tirza is the more successful book, but together they are fascinating in the picture they paint of contemporary Holland. The two narrators desperately want, for their different reasons, to seem normal and reasonable, while being unable to stop dropping hints of a darker side that they are not able to entirely cover up. One difference between them is that Lohman in The Dinner seems to care little whether this dark side—in his own life and that of his child—causes damage, whereas Hofmeester is more troubled by changing moral standards and a perceived loss of certain values, yet feels partly compelled to pretend an acceptance of this new state of affairs. He makes much, for example, of not mentioning the teenage boys he encounters in the bathroom after his daughter’s one-night stands. This leads to Tirza feeling as though she can be very open with him about her life, but does not translate to the same level of comfort for Hofmeester.
Sam Garrett agrees that “the two novels share a view of human endeavor that is, well… not particularly optimistic. In fact, to say that Jorgen Hofmeester or Paul Lohman are flawed characters would be an almost hilarious understatement. It would be like calling Hitler an ‘influential German politician’.” He continues, “I’m not sure whether that shared world-view has anything to do with the ‘midlife crisis’ the Netherlands has been going through for the last decade or so. I think, however, that the Dutch wake up more often these days, look in the mirror, and aren’t sure they like what they see. Or at least they don’t like it as much as they used to. Both novels would seem to fit that ‘morning-after’ feel. Fiction, after all, isn’t Alka Seltzer. It’s more like the bathroom mirror and the merciless fluorescent lighting, isn’t it?”
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