I tell my students that my favorite characters are the messy, complicated ones – the ones who do horrible things and are mean and rude and unlikeable, but still tug at our heart and push us to question our own values and choices. They are completely unsympathetic…yet at the same time completely sympathetic, too. Take King Lear – the man who disowns his youngest daughter because she won’t suck up to him and stroke his ego but who spends the rest of the play in a fog of pain and dementia and ends up dying from grief right after reconciling with her. Or Sula in Toni Morrison’s Sula – a vindictive, heartless woman who dies alone after running out anyone who disagrees with her and ruining things with her only true friend. A recent addition to my World Literature class, the 2011 Iranian film A Separation, also features such a character, a father and son named Nader who makes unethical and ultimately unsuccessful choices in the name of protecting his father and daughter and the life he once knew.
My latest additions to this list – and perhaps the ones that leave me the most unsettled – are Claire and Paul, the husband and wife main characters in the Herman Koch’s recent novel The Dinner. The book was recommended to me by a couple of fellow readers, including a Dutch friend who read it in the original language back when it came out in 2009. I consumed this book quickly on a rainy Saturday, and I realized not even halfway through that I’d need to keep reading and reading until I found out more family secrets and searched for a resolution to all the chaos. (Thankfully, my family appeased me and let me spend hours on end on the couch under a blanket, stopping only to eat.)
Paul is the narrator of The Dinner, and he quickly fell into a blurriness of sympathy and “un-sympathy”; we see him as an endearing husband and father but also, as the novel progresses, as an admittedly angry and violent man who justifies his reprehensible actions. Claire intrigued me even more, partially because she was presented only through her obviously biased (and unstable?) husband; it’s her voice and her missing rationale for her actions that I am left wondering about hours after finishing the novel. A March 8, 2013 review of The Dinner in The New York Times notes that the novel “will not please those who seek the cozy, the redemptive or the uplifting.” “If you are such a reader,” the reviewer continues, “you may stop right here.”
I’m certainly NOT such a reader (often, my World Literature students beg me for “something that ends happy”…to which I reply sarcastically, “Is the world happy?”). But, I still do try to find something “redemptive” in all texts and all characters.
I find redemption for Sula and King Lear and Nader. And I’m still trying really hard to find some in Claire and Paul…