What made The Dinner, the first book of Herman Koch’s to be published in English, and the first I read, such an engaging read? Reminiscent of the work of Pascal Garnier, it opens on a fairly innocuous scene, two brothers and their wives eating at a fancy restaurant, and appears to be a withering critique of ‘fashionable, fancy, fussy’ food and middle class pretentions, but reveals itself slowly and cruelly to show the extent to which parents will go to protect their children. Whilst the gradually revealed horror at the heart of Summer House with Swimming Pool might appear predictable, Koch’s ability to ratchet up the tension is in no way undermined by this, as the book is driven more by character than by plot.
And that character is Marc Schlosser, GP to the rich and famous. Despite the money and glory this brings him, he obviously loathes his celebrity clients, and his disturbing musings as he examines his patients taps into the reassurances we give ourselves whilst visiting the doctor: ‘they’ve seen it all before, this is just routine…’ Schlosser fantasises gleefully about hurting his patients, and deliberately gives his patients advice he knows they want to hear, so that they continue to come to him. When his most famous patient, actor Ralph Meier invites him and his family on holiday, Marc finds – for his own reasons – that he cannot refuse, despite the fact that Meier is a lecherous chauvinist who makes his designs on Marc’s wife quite obvious. But the following year, Ralph is dead. Is Marc to blame? And was it a mistake? Or murder? The events of the holiday are revealed bit by bit, as we hurtle towards the inevitable crescendo of violence, which unlike The Dinner, doesn’t really lead to moral questions and shades of grey, but vengeance.
Despite Marc’s contempt for humanity in general – his misanthropic commentary does not stop at his patients – and his utter amorality, he gets emotional in front of animals, going to extraordinary lengths to care for a stray cat. He loves his family – yet is prepared to ignore, or tolerate their pain for his own ends. A disturbing yet dry narrator, he tells the story with a detached calm, even when his anger spills over. And yet he manages not to be the most objectionable character by quite a long shot.
I found the resolution a little disappointing, but Koch isn’t going for a realistic denouement here. Read this for the gripping pace, the scalpel-sharp writing (helpfully illustrated on the jacket) and the grim and warped humour, and like me, wait for more of his books to be brought over to the UK! A must read for fans of Pascal Garnier or Christos Tsiolkas.
Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch is out now, published by Atlantic Books.