The Appeal of Bitterness in European Fiction

I’ve been thinking lately about HERMAN KOCH and HOUELLEBECQ — why do I love these smug, acid-tongued, bitter European old-man authors so much?


I think it’s because, as a younger American, my struggle is between idealism and sadness: I want to believe in something (the transcendent power of art, the presence of some eternal force beyond or within the apparently ephemeral world we live in), and yet I never fully do. I’m always afflicted by doubt, and feel sad at the possibility that the things I want to believe in don’t exist, or that if they do they aren’t accessible to me because I’m not good or strong enough to reach them.


And this sadness leads to shame, which is an entirely unproductive emotion.


Bitterness, on the other hand, as deployed in a novel like THE DINNER, has a grim but ultimately soothing appeal. Koch’s narrator is so sure that society is doomed and morality doesn’t matter, he’s so willing to give up on any search for meaning and any compulsion to treat others decently, that there’s a kind of cool, smooth power in his narration. It’s refined and sure of itself in a way that gives his voice secular authority, even if he’s clearly someone who’s lost at life, or someone who’s decided that there was never anything to win.


This kind of refined European bitterness is a relief from my rawer feelings of American sadness, though of course it’s a far cry from a solution.