Summer House with Swimming Pool is the second book by Dutch author, Herman Koch (translated by Sam Garrett) and it is as wickedly audacious as his first novel, The Dinner and every bit as contemporary. This time we are introduced to the cynical Doctor Marc Schossler, who came by some of that cynicism through the lectures delivered by his controversial professor of medical biology, Professor Aaron Herzl. Herzl got himself in some trouble at times in his career with some of his perhaps less-than-factually-based research opinions. Marc may have been too strongly affected by some of the points Herzl set forth for this students. You will have to make that judgment for yourself.
“Any father would rather have a son, any mother would too,” Herzl said. “’An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ is in fact much closer to human nature than we dare to publicaly admit. You kill your brother’s murderer, castrate with a butcher’s knife the man who raped your wife, chop off the hands of the burglar who invades your home.” And one more piece of his wisdom, “In a concentration camp, sweet gentlemen are no good to anyone.”
Nothing, our author Koch seems to believe, is as it appears on the surface. Under the polite interactions going on around us, the nature of humans, especially men, is as primitive and unknowable as it has ever been. Fortunately for us we cannot read people’s minds and we don’t have to face, during every moment of our lives, the split between what goes on inside of people’s heads and what we outwardly experience as their behavior. We meet Dr. Schlosser from the inside out. As he shares his interior dialogue with us we recognize that he embodies our doctor nightmare. He thinks the very things that we think our doctors may be thinking but hope they aren’t.
“Patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention”, Dr. Schlosser says. “They think I give them more attention than other doctors. But all I give them is more time. By the end of the first sixty seconds I’ve seen all I need to know. The remaining nineteen minutes I fill with attention. Or, I should say, with the illusion of attention.”
Later he informs us, “[h]uman bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them, those parts where the sun never shines. Not the folds of fat in which it is always too warm and the bacteria have free rein, not the fungal growths and infections between the toes, beneath the nails, not the fingers that scratch here, the fingers that rub there, until it starts to bleed…Here, Doctor, here’s where it itches really badly…No, I don’t want to see. I pretend to look, but I’m thinking about something else.”
The novel begins at the end, but when we get to the end for the second time, we have a whole different understanding of what is going on between Marc and his patient, Ralph Meier and Ralph Meier’s wife, Judith. Marc is apparently able to keep his innermost thoughts secret because he is well-liked by his wife, his children and apparently by his patients who are mostly in the entertainment business or, as Marc describes it “the creative professions”. The patient at the center of this particular book, Ralph Meier, is an actor and he has been hired to play Augustus Caesar in a miniseries about Rome. Ralph and his wife Judith have two teen-aged sons, Tom and Alex. Marc has a wife Caroline and two teen-aged daughters, Lisa and Julie. Marc, who usually stays separate from the private lives of his patients, for some mysterious reason gets very involved with the Meier family; very involved indeed.
Marc notices that Ralph has a way of looking at women as if he wants to “eat” them up, like they are a tasty pastry and Marc, while fascinated that Ralph is so obvious about this, is repelled that Ralph reacts to women (and even girls) as if he were a raptor and they were his prey. Herman Koch really loves to focus on men – fathers and husbands, thus all the attention paid to Ralph and Marc. How civilized are they? What would it take to bring out the worst in them; their primitive protective urges? He gives us his hero/antihero Marc who has an overactive imagination that runs to disaster movies written and directed by his own brain. Marc imagines catastrophes occurring in the lives of his family with astonishing regularity and detail. We can’t help but wonder how much his violent fantasies contribute to later events and outcomes.
Never fear – Herman Koch knows where he wants to take us and it is a wild ride, but also a very modern destination – smack in the center of a 21st century dilemma that is a worst nightmare for a modern family. That’s exactly what happened in The Dinner also; the reader must decide how they would handle a situation if it cropped up within their family. Would we handle the situation the way we felt we would before we actually found that we were in the situation? What if you were wrong? What if you choose the wrong perpetrator? Does it matter since this person was still imperfect and he possibly had a flaw that the estimable Professor Herzl would have believed would have made it impossible to rehabilitate him? Do we have to kill all perverts to get rid of perversion? Who decides who is classified as a pervert? Do we have the right to do this? Will it even work to eradicate perversion?
Herman Koch is an exciting new author who does that thing that the movies said Goeffry Chaucer did (and that Chaucer actually did); he “eviscerates people in fiction.” He is cynical, Darwinian, and philosophically interesting and he is shocking in exactly the way that readers love best. He is writing truly unique and polished fiction, but I warn you, it is not pretty.
By Nancy Brisson
<a href=https://plus.google.com/10640005355488737390?=author>Nancy Brisson</a>