Summer House with a Swimming Pool | Herman Koch

Herman Koch is a master story teller, a man who dives straight into the psyche of his own created characters. I have a copy of THE DINNER at home to read but have seen the European version of the movie. It’s magnificent, so good Hollywood is (of course) re-making it in English (or would it be American?). SUMMER HOUSE WITH A SWIMMING POOL is his next book, one that Kernel Fiona awards a very rare perfect score. However be warned, this is written from European eccentricities and viewpoints that differ at times largely from our own. Critics either love it or hate it and I am glad we are in the LOVE camp because I love this man’s work and can’t wait to read this one myself (after the 100+ in my pile). SUMMER HOUSE WITH A SWIMMING POOL is out now from the fantastic peeps at Text Publishing, you can find the book in most bookstores or you can obtain it HERE. Enjoy Fi’s review…………..all the best……………..JK.

BY FIONA FYFE

Occasionally a book comes along that knocks your socks off. Once in a while a story so captivates your imagination that you are loathe to finish it as if by doing so, you will be saying goodbye to an old friend. For me, that book is SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL. A veritable masterpiece of modern manners, suspense, satire, social taboos and the bonds of parental love. Dutch writer Herman Koch had a best seller with THE DINNER published in 2009, which tells the story of two couples dining in a fashionable restaurant in Amsterdam. What starts out as a civilised meal in an upmarket part of town turns to sheer malice when it’s discovered that each of the couple’s 15 year old sons have committed a horrifying act. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed THE DINNER but truly Koch has outdone himself with SUMMER HOUSE AND SWIMMING POOL.

Unquestionably, Koch is a superb writer. His turns of phrase, his perfectively descriptive sentences are almost all charged with meaning and elucidation. More than this, however, is his consummate insightfulness when it comes to human nature and matters of the heart. The characters he has created in SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL are not only multi-faceted and complex, they are startlingly realistic. By Chapter 4 I felt so well-acquainted with Marc Schlosser that I could almost convince myself we had met face to face.

The story is narrated by Dr Schlosser who prides himself on his virtual fan base of patients. While he isn’t in the slightest bit interested in their health or prognoses, he is so amazingly charming and schooled in effecting an air of empathy and concern, that they all leave his surgery feeling so much better than when they walked in. He’s like a  3D example of that saying “diplomacy – the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way they look forward to the trip.”

 

Summer House with Swimming Pool Author image

 

His opinions alone are often confronting and unsettling. He recalls a lecture about natural selection from his University days by his favourite Professor of Biology, Aaron Herzl who claimed that “ a homosexual is nothing more than a walking contraceptive.” He also  firmly agrees with the Professor’s premise that “a woman who is past her best-before date is no longer desirable to us, because there is no reason for her to be. She does nothing to promote the continuation of the species..” and “women are the football stars of creation.  At 35, they’re ready for retirement.”

Despite some of his personal values, Schlosser suddenly surprises the reader by rallying for his family when they surely need his help the most. On the one hand he eyes another man’s wife and thinks to himself; “I fought back the urge to grab her right then and there and toss her onto the sand without further ado. A half-rape, women always like that. All women.” Shortly after this episode he displays a touching ability to be vehemently protective of his teenage daughter. He is a man of many faces but Koch’s decision to allow us into the mind of his protagonist is a shrewd device.

When the famous actor, Ralph Meier ends up dead after a consultation and subsequent medical examination with Schlosser, the doctor has some serious music to face. Their friendship started just the summer before at Ralph and Judith Meier’s opulent holiday house on the Mediterranean. Also staying at the house was Hollywood director, Stanley Forbes and his teenage lover and model, Emmanuelle. It was to be a dream holiday at the Summer House of the title with its luxurious pool, trips to the beach, sunshine and wine. As SUMMER HOUSE WITH POOL weaves its story, we come to see how such a magical location amidst new friends can descend into terrible violence.

 

Summer House with Swimming Pool Book Cover image

 

It occurred to me that with Schlosser, Koch has created a man with sociopathic tendencies and that perhaps, like most sociopaths, this is the major part of his appeal. He’s good at appearing concerned. He’s intelligent and engaging even though he wouldn’t hesitate to throw you under the train if the situation called for it. Whatever his pathology, he easily seduces the reader. Koch has been careful here to avoid creating a leading character who is too callous, too much on the Patrick Bateman end of the scale. Instead he attributes Schlosser with a penchant for helping sick animals and a tendency to feel the tears welling when he is moved by the emotion of a situation.

I am aware that SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL has generated a number of different reactions depending on the country or age group of its readership. I’m also dismayed that apart from Jennifer Byrne, the ABC Book Club participants gave it a panning. This book needs to be regarded as Koch intended and that’s as a satire. It is also a decidedly European book with all the relevant cultural nuances including attitudes towards sex and infidelity. I think it’s a mistake to read this book from a culturally myopic or prudish perspective and allow one’s self to be offended by the subjects that are explored.

Koch has said that he is able to identify well with adolescents, especially those within the 15-19 year old bracket. In SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL he clearly demonstrates his understanding of what it feels like to be a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and all the choices that offers. Schlosser’s two beautiful teenage daughters, Julia and Lisa are both authentic characters, as are Ralph Meier’s two boys. Emmanuelle, the teenage girlfriend of the Hollywood director is suitably depicted as naïve and shallow although no less deserving of respect. A young woman in a Roman Polanski type relationship whose beauty causes Schlosser to think that “it was like having someone reach out to you from the cover of Vogue.”

SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL is largely concerned with the ugly elements of masculinity, the vulgarity associated with excess and indulgence and the vileness of feeling entitled. Over-lapping these components is the concept of disgust which in fact permeates much of the book. Schlosser’s disgust with his patients, his wife Caroline’s disgust at the boorish Ralph Meier, the combined disgust of Julia’s parents at the antics of other males. Significantly, I don’t think Koch is in any way siding with those who behave in a grubby and disgusting manner, I think he is effectively turning the spotlight on the ugliness of modern culture and our lack of progression in terms of the treatment of girls and women within our society. It is a witty commentary on the flimsy division between civility and depravity. The fact that he has chosen to tell this story in a satirical manner through the eyes of a rampant misogynist is exceedingly clever. This book is a triumph.

 

5 Pops

 

YOUR REVIEWER:

Kernel Fiona was a criminal defence lawyer in a former life and now critiques books and writes short stories. She can’t resist spending large tracts of time in libraries, book shops and at writer’s festivals. Hopelessly in love with the written word, she told JK when applying for a writing position that “I would rather read then breathe” – I knew I had my next reviewer right then. You can catch her and her tweets at @FionaJayneFyfe1

** All images courtesy of various sources on Google or direct from the publisher – credit has been given to photographers where known – images will be removed on request.