Doctor’s ill will a bitter tonic
Summer House with Swimming Pool By Herman Koch Translated by Sam Garrett Text Publishing, 256pp, $29.99 ‘‘I AM a doctor,’’ is how Marc, the narrator of Summer House with Swimming Pool, opens his story, before revealing the boredom, rage and disgust beneath the white coat and relaying the circumstances that led to the death of an actor, Ralph Meier, and his forthcoming appearance in front of the board of medical examiners.
Like Herman Koch’s previous novel The Dinner, an international bestseller also translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, Summer House contains elements of the psychological thriller. Meier’s death is presented in the first few pages, before the narrative travels backwards and forwards in time, eventually landing on the events of a summer holiday shared by the Meiers and Marc’s family: his wife Caroline and two daughters.
Here, another event takes place (for which the reader has been disturbingly primed), to do with Marc’s teenage daughter, and the plot fans out, introducing a range of suspects and unveiling the narrator’s motivations and his fallibility.
Despite an ability to be coldly precise in his disgust, Marc is imprecise, inattentive and careless in his work. He appears to be a good doctor and to him that’s all that matters. ‘‘Patients can’t tell the difference between time and attention,’’ he tells us. And when they’re running the gamut of their symptoms, he says, ‘‘I don’t really listen. Or at least I try not to.’’ His contempt is hungry and corpulent through the course of the novel; the only figures to escape it are his daughters and a few sad animals.
On the surface Marc is charming and there’s a yawning gap between his dialogue and the thoughts the reader is privy to. In conversation, he chooses various reassuring cliches; under- neath he is contemptuous of the actors, writers and artists who frequent his practice (though, masochistically, he fills his practice with them), of the plays and openings he feels compelled to attend, of people who overindulge, of people he sees as deviant, and of women.
To distract himself from the disgusting bodies of his patients he thinks about people screaming on a roller-coaster, or a plane exploding midair. But the bodies encroach; in everyday life as well, he imagines bodies having sex. The descriptions are gleefully sadistic: people crushing each other, skin flaking, diseases being exchanged.
Marc shares long tracts of medical school lectures on evolutionary theory and men and women. His thoughts about women are cold and objectifying, and at times incredibly misogynistic. He sides with the other men, to a degree, in matters of masculine violence: letting off fireworks, ramming a car, protecting your children: ‘‘From time immemorial, the man has guarded the entrance to the cave. Intruders are sent packing. People. Animals. A persistent intruder can’t say later that he hasn’t been warned.’’ But he thinks of himself as morally superior to the other men because he believes he is aware of the correct biological order. He tells himself, for example, that he would never behave inappropriately towards a girl who wasn’t yet sexually mature. His reassurance of this fact, combined with observations and events throughout the novel, including the traumatic maturation of his teenage daughter, lead to a powerful and quietly sickening finish.
Summer House also exposes illusions and undercurrents of supposedly progressive societies. Incisions are made into tourism, euthanasia and sexual excess. There’s an emphasis on humans as animals. The doctor always sees people without their clothes. And at a campsite he is overwhelmed by a ‘‘sick-animal smell’’, which he recognises from his own office: ‘‘Patients who refused to have body hair removed … who preferred to wash themselves with water from a well or a ditch …’’ His disgust for contemporary living extends far and wide.
Summer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more cohesive than The Dinner, with a more complex unreliable narrator, a compelling structure, and a sutured but festering wound of themes. Marc’s descriptions of bodies, such as the draining of his own infected eyeball, turn the stomach almost as much as his attitude and the actions of various male characters. As with The Dinner, the narrator draws us into his world view so successfully that occasionally we may be surprised to find his unflinching observations a salve. One reason to read a book (when well-executed) that may challenge, horrify and even offend is because of the way it can help us dissect our own flaws and prejudices, our moral compass, and our actions. Summer House can certainly be engaged with on this level, leaving us alert and unsettled.