>>Finally got around to it: August 2014
I thought again about Julia’s hands clutching at her bikini bottoms. No! she’d shouted. No! And after that I thought about the raptor look with which Ralph had undressed my wife that time in the lobby of the old municipal theater. How he had worked his jaws. How he had ground his teeth, as though he could already taste her on his tongue. Men look at women. Women look at men. But Ralph looked at women as though he were flipping through a copy of Playboy. He squeezed his dick as he looked. In his thoughts, or for real. He pulled down the pants of thirteen-year-old girls. Or did he? After all, I hadn’t seen him do that with my own eyes. It was always possible, of course, that my daughter only thought he was going to do that. Maybe the four of them, Julia along with Lisa and the boys, had been yanking on one another’s bathing suits in the pool earlier. As part of a game. An innocent game. Innocent among children between the ages of nine and fifteen, culpable for men in their late forties.
Herman Koch doesn’t know you, but he probably doesn’t like you very much. It’s totally okay, though—if the two books of his that I’ve read are anything to go by, there’s likely little in this world he deems worthy of his time.
I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but it’s difficult to read Koch’s latest work and not feel the voice of the author bleeding through the novel’s wholly unsympathetic protagonist. In his previous book, The Dinner, the distastefulness was spread democratically among the four main characters; in Summer House With Swimming Pool, however, as disgusting as several of the peripheral characters appear to be, it’s Marc, the main character, who is far and away the most despicable. In this self-described “charming” general practitioner, Koch has crafted a man who even in the wake of his teenage daughter’s potential sexual assault is still largely concerned with making sure she didn’t happen to see anything of his burgeoning infidelity.
Pardon me—I’m getting ahead of myself. Summer House With Swimming Pool tells the story of Marc, a general practitioner with a cozy private practice in the Netherlands, and a man’s death he may or may not be responsible for. Many of Marc’s clients are creative sorts to varying degrees of fame and success. One day, a famous actor named Ralph Meier shows up in his office and the two embark on an unlikely acquaintanceship—well, Ralph attempts to befriend the doctor, but Marc is more or less uninterested. You see Marc, despite many of his regular clientele being in similar lines of work, has an extreme dislike of the creative world and its denizens. He invites them into his office, gives them the time to tell him what their problems are, and accepts their invitations to whatever launches or openings or premieres are coming up, all while gritting his teeth at their very nature. It’s good, reliable work, though, and it affords Marc, his wife Caroline, and their two daughters Lisa and Julia a life of some comfort.
From their first meeting, Ralph shows an insatiable interest in Caroline. Marc, not to be outdone, finds himself growing more and more interested in Ralph’s wife Judith. As you can imagine, this isn’t going anywhere pleasant. Eventually the doctor and his family wind up as guests of the Meiers at the titular summer home with a swimming pool. Once there, a host of insidious events occur, culminating eventually with Marc choosing to misdiagnose a fatal illness in Ralph as reciprocity for an especially vulgar crime Marc suspects the actor to be guilty of having committed.
The novel opens the day before Mark is set to appear before the Board of Medical Examiners, where a jury of peers is preparing to weigh his guilt or innocence in the matter of Ralph Meier’s death. Much of the narrative occurs in the past, covering the eighteen months from Ralph and Marc’s first meeting up to the point of Ralph’s death, and is merely bookended by the present as Marc reflects upon what led to the uncomfortable position he now finds himself in.
From the very beginning, it’s clear that for Marc, humanity is an obstacle that’s been inflicted upon him. Though a physician, he is disgusted by the human body; his ego has elevated him above all that step inside his office. Nowhere is this more evident than when the author takes several paragraphs to discuss, in florid detail, all the ways that fat people disgust and annoy Marc. Women are also harshly objectified, as the doctor appears to judge all male/female interactions on a level of fuckability (even women he finds ugly he still seeks to dominate in this regard). This callousness and aversion to people beyond simple physical transactions sets Marc up as an interesting though altogether unlikable marriage of an intellectual who also happens to represent the very worst of male stereotypes. I won’t even touch upon the interaction he has at the end with a gay patient who comes to Marc because he knows Marc is uncomfortable, even unforgiving toward his way of life, and prefers that to a doctor who acts like being gay is normal when the patient feels it’s not—it’s as if the author is commenting on the idea of the self-hating homosexual being preferable to one wholly confident in their own skin. It’s unsettling to say the least.
This distaste for humanity is the grounding for much of the narrative conflict that follows, as Marc not so subtly pursues a physical relationship with Judith while staying at the Meiers’ summer home. It doesn’t matter that there’s little chemistry between them (despite what Marc openly claims about his own irresistible charms); what matters is that Marc has set his sights on another woman and he intends to go for it with everything he’s got. The two don’t get very far as their initial steps toward infidelity are potentially glimpsed by another—more than likely Julia. And when Julia is later found assaulted and possibly raped, the greater narrative turns to who could have done such a thing, though Marc is also wondering whether or not her assault has possibly wiped whatever she’d witnessed between him and Judith from her memory.
So yeah, he’s pretty terrible. Irredeemable, actually. And because of this, he’s never once trustworthy. That’s not to say he’s an unreliable narrator so much as it is to say that when he does eventually start showing more emotion, especially toward Julia, it’s not believable in the least.
All the backstory between Marc and Ralph and whether or not Ralph is responsible for what happened to Julia serves a specific moment in the narrative: when Ralph goes to see Marc and expresses concern for his health, enough suspicion has built up in Marc’s mind as to “justify” his not sending a tissue sample taken from Ralph in to be analysed, thus knowingly condemning the actor to an early demise. It’s effective, and if not sympathy one does feel some degree of understanding for Marc’s actions. His actions are still not justified, nor could they ever be (especially for someone who’s taken the Hippocratic Oath), but one is able to see how he justified it.
But whatever justification the author is able to create is undone by a weak ending in which no consequences are experienced, and no remorse is shown despite the growing slope of evidence that, as much of a degenerate asshole as he was, it’s possible—if not likely—that Ralph had nothing to do with Julia’s assault. Knowing this and still finding comfort in his actions, Koch cements Marc as a sociopath, void of decency or regret. I wanted to shower after being subjected to such a vinegary stain of a human.
Koch’s writing is simple and straightforward, with the bulk of its artistry and imagery reserved for that which he finds most abhorrent. Additionally, the book’s mystery is revealed effectively and deliberately—the narrative never slumps, never becomes boring. In the end, Summer House With Swimming Pool is an odd mix—I was compelled to push through because of its narrative, but I desperately wanted to walk away from its characters. For fans of The Dinner I’d suggest giving this a look, though this title is decidedly less rooted in some form of morality (in the aforementioned title, the four main characters acted horribly out of a desire to protect their children; in this book, Marc acts primarily out of self-interest, even after his child has been harmed). Not a poor read by any stretch, but neither am I comfortable recommending it. After both this and Gone Girl, I feel like I’ve had my fill this year of books with terrible people in every corner.