Herman Koch writes characters who question society’s norms. Sometimes those people are called complimentary names. Mostly those people are called assholes.
In Summer House with Swimming Pool, he again brings us the latter. They make for great reading. Not because assholes are great people to spend time with but they will often say things that others won’t. They serve the same function court jesters did in medieval times. They say things to the king that others won’t, making him see the truth. This is often called being politically incorrect. Note, it’s not called lying because it’s not. It’s just impolite to speak the truth.
So when Koch’s physician lead character spends time laying out his role as a general practitioner in a socialized medical system which include humoring patients, delaying their treatment, and keeping them from expensive specialist, doing what he can to keep costs down or when he talks ad nauseum about how disgusting the human body is, readers get ruffled.
It’s a good novel for a group read, to talk about after you finish over some beers.
Don’t let it ruffle you. I’m sure there are plenty of examples in your own life of behavior you tolerate that is far worse. The friend who has kids he doesn’t see, that uncle who does that, the cousin you see who kids popping out kids she can’t pay for. Maybe reading about them will expand a bit of empathy.
Koch’s skill as a writer is stringing along events, acted out by these terribly human characters colored by his acute observations of humanity. He holds them in such glorious tension that you are compelled to keep reading, fearful of when that tension is going to snap. And when it does, it does so in a way that you will not foresee.
As with his other novels The Dinner and Dear Mr. M., the break in Summer House with Swimming Pool occurs when you’re not looking – or rather – where you’re not looking. He performs an authorial act of misdirection I found satisfying. He then does not treat his novel like a genre piece but lets his read use his own intelligence to reach some conclusions on the whys and the hows. You aren’t left dangling but you are left pondering.