Friday, July 25, 2014

Not for the easily disturbed: Summer House With Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch

Hogarth, 2014
400 pp
originally published as Zomerhuis mit zwembad, 2011
translated by Sam Garrett


"Sometimes you run your life back to see at what point it could have taken a different turn. But sometimes there’s nothing at all to run back – you yourself don’t know it yet, but the only button that’s still working is forward.”

There are very few novels that have ever a) made me squirm while reading them and b) made me feel like I really ought to go and wash my hands each time I set the book down, but this one succeeded in doing both.  At the same time, the novel is compelling enough so that I couldn't not pick it up again -- the characters are so repulsive that I just had to keep reading.  

The story is told from the point of view of a general practitioner named Marc Schlosser, who begins his narrative describing his revulsion to human bodies, especially naked ones.  As part of his self-introduction, Schlosser reveals how he fantasizes about death at the same time his patients are pointing out their physical ailments during an examination:
"No, I don't want to see. I pretend to look, but I'm thinking about something else. About a roller coaster in an amusement park that has a green dragon's head mounted on it. The people throw their hands in the air and scream their lungs out. From the corner of my eye I see moist tufts of pubic hair, or red infected bald spots where no hair will ever grow again, and I think about a plane exploding in the air. The passengers still belted in their seats as they begin a mile-long tumble into eternity: It's cold, the air is thin, far below the ocean awaits. It burns when I pee, Doctor. Like there are needles coming out ... a train explodes just before it enters the station..."
and more.  While the reader understands that Schlosser is disturbed, from the outside, his patients don't have a clue. Not only is he a popular physician, an "ideal family doctor" whose "selling point" is that he gives  patients twenty minutes of his time so that they feel like they're "being taken seriously," since, as he notes,  patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention,” he's also known for being " fairly accommodating with prescriptions,” since "Medicines are what boost the quality of life."  His reputation for being easy about prescriptions first led him to cross paths with actor Ralph Meier, who'd heard about him from a colleague, and who, eighteen months later as the novel opens, has also just been buried. Schlosser is awaiting a hearing from the Board of Medical Examiners the next day for what he says is a "medical error," but obviously he has been summoned before them because of some sort of malpractice regarding Meier's death.  The rest of the novel follows as Schlosser recounts the events of the last eighteen months that have led up to this moment. It all begins with an invitation to Schlosser and his wife Caroline to attend Meier's performance in Richard II that ultimately leads the good doctor, his wife and two daughters to the titular summer house with swimming pool. They're there along with the Meiers, their two teen boys, Stanley Forbes (a somewhat sleazy photographer and film director), and Ralph's girlfriend Emmanuelle who seems much too young.  What seems at first like a comedic look into the hedonistic summer fun of  the upper middle class quickly turns serious when tragedy strikes.  But who is responsible -- and what should be done?  

 Summer House With Swimming Pool leaves the reader to examine the motivations of each and every character in this novel, especially those belonging to Schlosser, who as narrator is the only source for what actually happened.  The reader knows from the outset that there's something not quite right with him; as he goes about dispensing his own observations on his world, he interjects the teachings of one of his old university profs whose own bizarre beliefs got him tossed out of the academic world.  Parenthood, especially the raising of daughters is a huge theme -- here these young girls are thrust into a space of  irresponsible adult behavior that creates an obviously sexually-charged environment. How do parents protect their daughters in this situation?  The question of violence and what might set it off in otherwise outwardly "normal" seeming people is also examined.  And as noted above, the adults in this novel are pretty repellent -- and one would think that the good doctor would learn something from his experiences, but well, I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not this is the case. 

There's always more going on underneath the surface in this novel, and despite its repulsive characters and very difficult material (especially as the parent of a young daughter),  I couldn't help but remain mesmerized throughout.  It's twisted, disturbing, and definitely not for the squeamish -- and despite all of the uncomfortable squirming in my chair while reading it, it's even sometimes darkly funny. However, it was always compelling me forward.  My only criticisms of this novel are a) that the ending sort of faltered -- for one thing, the main character just sort of ran out of steam in comparison to the rest of the novel, and for another, considering the tone of the rest of the novel, it just didn't pack as big of a punch as I would have expected; b) the middle sort of sags a bit before things become lively once again.   Bottom line though, I liked it and would easily recommend it. I probably should have started with Mr. Koch's The Dinner; I'll be pulling that book out here very shortly.  And I'll also say that should another one of this author's books be translated and published here, I'll be one of the first people to buy it.  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.