Author Herman Koch delivers sinister 'Summer' plot in latest novel

Herman Koch.

Herman Koch.

Liz Braun, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:49 PM ET

Dutch author Herman Koch writes about amoral people.

Unprincipled characters populate his best-known novel, The Dinner, as well as Summer House with Swimming Pool, his newest work in English. The latter book is narrated by a family physician who can't stand his patients, and whose thoughts run on a regular basis to euthanasia, plain old murder and adultery.

He's a happily-married family man, this doctor – of course.

Says Koch, 60, "I think I write about people's secret thoughts," and he laughs.

The author, who was in Toronto recently to promote Summer House with Swimming Pool, says, "You can see these people are not so nice, to say the least, but there's something attractive about unsympathetic characters, something we all like. As for the thoughts of this doctor — although he may have a screw loose, as we say in Dutch — you might actually agree with him on some points.

"You think, 'That's a thing I've thought myself sometimes! But of course never acted on it.' You've even thought you weren't allowed to think it."

Koch has been a successful writer for many years. He published his first novel 25 years ago and has written for newspapers and magazines; he also wrote and produced for TV and was a well-known comic presence on a Dutch TV show for 15 years.

At one point a few years ago he decided to stop and focus on the book he was writing. And do nothing else at the same time.

The result was The Dinner (2009) a novel that changed Koch's career. It took him from local hero to global bestseller status. The book was his first ever translated into English; it has now been translated into 21 languages and has sold more than a million copies.

And it will be a film, directed by Cate Blanchett.

Koch won't be involved in that adaptation.

He says he was flattered that Blanchett bought the rights to the book, but the filmmakers, "Must have the freedom to create their own movie and not have to consult all the time with the writer," he says. "They can do what they want. Later, I'll go to the premiere." He smiles, adding, "Or to the Oscars."

A film version of Summer House with Swimming Pool seems inevitable.

The Arnhem-born Koch grew up in Amsterdam, the only child of his jeweller mother and publisher father. (He has older half-siblings from his father's previous marriage.) His father wrote a couple of children's books and one of Koch's sisters is a well-known children's author.

As Koch says, "It runs in the family a little bit."

His father worried about his future, says Koch. "I told him early I would like to become a writer. He said, 'Sure, okay, go to university, get a job. In your free time you can write.' My mother was more like, 'You're going to be okay. Just be yourself and you'll be okay.' She gave me all the self confidence."

They never saw his success. Koch was 17 when his mother died and 25 when his father died.

"They didn't see their grandson either," he says. Koch and his wife, Amalia Rodriguez, have a 19-year-old son named Pedro.

Koch says his newest book, just published in the Netherlands, is called Dear Mr. M, and it's dedicated to his late parents.

Despite the success of The Dinner, Koch felt no particular pressure over the reception of Summer House with Swimming Pool.

"If I had been 24 years old, I would have felt pressure. But The Dinner was my sixth novel. And I thought, well, my seventh can be not so good." He laughs again.

"Then I decided, 'Let's try to make it better,' and that's what I tried to do, just to see where it would end."

Asked who he thinks his typical reader might be — now that his books are in 25 countries — Koch admits that The Dinner prompted some very strong reactions in the U.S.

All those morally reprehensible characters meant some negative reviews, too.

Still, "There were also a lot of readers," he says. He met some at a recent book signing in Missouri. "And they all like to discuss these moral issues. But they're not horrified by them."

Recently, says Koch, he was at an event with Scandinavian writers. There were about 350 people in the audience, he estimates, "Mostly women, and mostly over 40. I read the first few pages of Summer House with Swimming Pool and they were laughing their heads off," he says, cheerfully.

"I think that's where my audience is."


Cover photo of Summer House With Swimming Pools

REVIEW: SUMMER HOUSE WITH SWIMMING POOL

If a pitch black sense of humour is your cup of tea, look no further than the work of Herman Koch.

In Summer House with Swimming Pool, Koch introduces Dr. Marc Schlosser, a charming (in his own mind), deluded, misanthropic physician who is genuinely repelled by the human body. Thanks to his free hand with certain prescriptions, the pompous Schlosser has built up a patient list that includes actors and artists and many famous faces. Alas, one such celebrity is dead, and Schlosser has been accused of malpractice. Or worse.

The actor Ralph Meier is dead. Schlosser carefully describes Meier, a larger-than-life character with a colossal ego and a personality distinguished by greed.

"His mouth was already anticipating the tasty morsel that he would, if given the chance, wolf down in a few bites," observes Schlosser, but he's not talking about Meier's dining habits — that's a description of Meier ogling Dr. Schlosser's wife, Caroline.

Schlosser's distaste for Meier begins to harden into hatred.

Summer House with Swimming Pool moves backward in time from Meier's death through the previous 18 months and a description of the holiday the Meiers and the Schlossers spend together. Schlosser works hard to avoid his patients outside of office time, but he makes an exception with Ralph Meier. The families — Schlosser has two young daughters and the Meiers have two sons — become fast friends, and Schlosser manipulates events to get everyone together at a summer rental.

He may be disgusted by Ralph Meier and furious at the way the actor looks at women, but Schlosser himself is hoping to have an affair with Meier's wife Judith. It's all middle-class fun and games and flirtation around the pool until something grave happens to one of the children.

It's uncertain who the villain is, but revenge beckons, and Schlosser sets his sights on Meier.

The events of Summer House with Swimming Pool are secondary to the experience of getting to know our unreliable narrator. Being exposed to his perverse and wildly nihilistic thoughts is unsettling, but often very funny; anyone who reads Schlosser's acerbic descriptions of examining his patients will never be comfortable at the doctor's office again. (Canadians will get extra laughs from the good doctor's descriptions of Holland's universal healthcare — all ignorance, arrogance and apathy.)

Politically incorrect and hugely self-satisfied, not to mention ageist, sexist, racist and everything else-ist, Schlosser is full of well-expressed contempt for the human race and utterly blind to his own faults. It's a trip to see the world through his eyes for 400 pages.

Well, a grim, grisly trip, to be sure — but a trip nonetheless.

Twitter: @LizBraunSun

liz.braun@sunmedia.ca

 


Photos