Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
Translated by Sam Garrett
Text Publishing 2014
Large Format Paperback
Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who caters mostly to artists – writers, painters, comedians, actors – mostly because of his office hours. Unlike other GPs, he prides himself on the generous twenty minutes he gives each patient, even though he’s mentally diagnosed them within the first five. People just like to be able to talk it over and feel that their doctor is listening to them.
One of his patients is celebrity actor Ralph Meier. A large, charismatic man and a good actor, Ralph turned up suddenly in his office one day, needing pills – and having heard through the grapevine that Marc prescribes things without much fuss. Much later, he turns up again, this time with a lump on his thigh. Only months later, Ralph is dead and Marc is due to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners who will decide whether it was a tragic case of mismanagement or something more deliberate.
Between the time of first meeting the actor and his death the following year – which Ralph’s wife, Judith, is holding him personally accountable for – something happened. When Marc, his beautiful wife Caroline and their two young daughters, thirteen year old Julia and eleven year old Lisa, took their summer holiday on the Mediterranean, they ended up spending a week at the Meier’s summer house. How could the lazy days of barbecuing, swimming in the pool, playing table tennis with Ralph and Judith’s two boys, Alex and Thomas, and enjoying the beaches lead to an error that cost a man his life? And if it was deliberate, why would Marc do such a thing?
I haven’t yet read Koch’s previous book, The Dinner – it’s on my shelf, along with many other unread books that I’m just as enthusiastic about – so I can’t compare this or say, “If you liked that, you’ll like this.” But I’m thinking that’s probably the case anyway. This is one of those deliciously confronting, uncomfortable novels, the kind of story that manages to sound so reasonable and ordinary and yet flirts with all those human flaws we like to think we’ve risen above. Touching on issues around sexual attraction, morality, instincts and what it means to be a father, Summer House with Swimming Pool is a black comedy – at once funny and disturbing – featuring a protagonist whom you’re never entirely sure is sympathetic or even likeable. Similar things have been said about The Dinner, so that should tell you if you’d like this one or not.
From the moment I sat down in the bookshop and started reading the first chapter, I was drawn in by the incredible honesty and discomfiting observations of the narrator, Marc. This is one of those stories that reminds us of why we should be so grateful we can’t read other people’s minds: you just don’t want to know what other people are really thinking. But if you stop and listen to your own thoughts about others, and about certain topics, you’ll get an idea: our own thoughts are often best kept to ourselves. Hearing exactly what Marc thinks about things – often contradictory, complex and insightful – makes it hard to decide whether you, the reader, like him or not.
When we read we tend to look for patterns, signs, clues or motifs that tells us how we’re meant to read something – genre first, then a host of literary techniques and stylistic devices that influence how we understand things and connect to characters. Koch toys with such conventions, with the result that Marc Schlosser reminded me of a David Cronenberg film: a bit surreal, certainly disturbing, uncomfortably confronting, absolutely fascinating, definitely mesmerising. For as much as we might go “ewwww” at things, privately or publicly, deep down we love being exposed to what’s normally hidden. Freak shows may be a thing of the past, but between celebrity gossip magazines (our own version of the freak show, the way they write about people) and the internet (showing us pictures of deformity, excess etc.), we’re still drawn to it all.
We’re inside Marc’s head, but it’s easy to see that on the outside, he’s very normal. That’s perhaps the most disturbing part, because he reminds us that all the ordinary people in our society still think things or perceive things in ways we pretend to be oblivious to. He’s so frank, to us readers, and there’s no real duplicity or manipulation or cunning to him, he simply obeys the rules of our society, our culture. As he says in regards to pedophilia and being attracted to young girls, everyone experiences that attraction, but the difference is that most people don’t act on it. Marc is in control, yet because of that sense of being in his head in “real time”, we don’t know what he’s going to do next. That makes him unpredictable, which is where you get the sense that there’s something off about him, something almost sinister. The whole way through this book, you’re not sure just what kind of man he is or what he’ll do, but because you hear his thoughts, you realise he’s capable. As is everyone, really.
What’s exhilarating about Summer House and its narrator is how realistic it is. Never straight-forward, Marc is just like you and me: full of contradictions, a mix of morally good and reprehensibly, potentially bad. He’s the image in the mirror we’d rather not see, but Koch thrusts us into his head with no mercy. Marc is fiercely protective and loving towards his girls, yet freely admits he’d rather have had sons. As would everyone, he tells us – and its this propensity to dictate and lecture us readers that makes him unlikeable (that and, for me, his often negative and stereotypical views on women, including his wife). Marc is still heavily influenced by his professor of medical biology, Aaron Herzl, whose lectures he repeats for us, lectures on reproduction, homosexuality, women. Marc’s own feelings about women are often less than complimentary, and his behaviour makes him less than sympathetic, especially, I’m sure, to female readers. What it boils down to – what he never, ever, lets himself think – is that everything that happened that week at the summer house could be blamed entirely on him. But as the book shows, nothing is ever that simple.
It’s the psychological aspect to this novel that I really liked. Set in the Netherlands and somewhere around the Mediterranean, there’s little sense of place: this is a story that could have been set anywhere, really. The characters are familiar in the way Western white people are always familiar to Western, white readers. Koch provides no answers, nor does he overtly judge; through Marc’s eyes and thoughts we get Marc’s ideas, perceptions and values. The story reveals itself slowly, with well-placed foreshadowing, much like a lazy summer day. Its disturbing qualities are captured neatly in Marc’s penchant for dwelling on disgusting details, details about the human body – its appearance as well as what goes on beneath the skin – as well as a sharp, if biased and judgemental, insight into other people’s characters and personalities.
That’s how I looked at Ralph when he dived into the pool. Every time, I considered the possibility that he might not surface again. Or that he would bash his drunken skull against the bottom and be paralysed from head to toe. But each time he surfaced again, coughing and sneezing and hawking, and dragged himself up the ladder. Then he would spread a towel over a deckchair and lie down in the sun to dry. He never covered himself. He lay with his legs spread, his body too large for the deckchair, his feet hanging over the end: all loose and lazy, tanning in the sun. ‘Is this a holiday or is this a holiday?’ he said, burping and closing his eyes. A minute later his mouth had dropped open and he was snoring loudly. I looked at his stomach and legs. At his dick, hanging to one side and resting on his thigh. And then I looked at my two daughters. At Julia and Lisa. They didn’t seem offended at all. […] I wondered whether perhaps I was, indeed, narrow-minded. Whether it was my own fault that the sight of Ralph Meier’s naked dick so close to my young daughters seemed so filthy. [pp.159-160]
That should give you a taste, as well as a pretty good idea of what direction the story goes in. But I won’t say more than that.
Summer House with Swimming Pool is well crafted and deliberately confronting – in the best possible way. And being inside Marc’s head, you start to feel almost culpable, guilty of the same thoughts he has, which leaves you feeling even more repulsed. And indecisive. As it should be. We’re all flawed, complex and contradictory. We all have unpleasant thoughts, or thoughts that others would find unpleasant. At the heart of this story is the distinction between private and public, between what we must keep to ourselves and what we can share. You can’t really blame Marc for the way he thinks, for the hint of misogyny that taints his perception of women, because it’s the private sphere, a sphere we wouldn’t normally get to experience (nor would we want to); at the end of it all, there’s a part of you – the part that stops feeling so superior – that respects him for knowing the difference.
“As a study of human nature, it does not get much better than Summer House with Swimming Pool. His characters cross the spectrum of human behaviors and attitudes, with every thought and action a direct consequence of their reactions to each other. It spectacularly shows the intricate culpability an entire group can have on a series of events as well as the degrees of subtlety involved in manipulating others, something readers experience firsthand as their opinions of the happenings and of the characters change page by page. It is quite simply a brilliant piece of literary fiction.” That’s What She Read
“Unfortunately it seems that Koch has followed the formula he used in his best-seller, The Dinner: horrid characters, a terrible incident, moral judgements, an unreliable narrator and parents having to make decisions on behalf of their children. It worked so well in The Dinner, a book that I genuinely could not put down, however, in Summer House, the key plot point provides less room for nuance or moral debate.” Books Are My Favourite and Best
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