A writer should always lie,
Herman Koch’s novel should carry a health warning as its main character seeks revenge for a humiliation while its author searches for shameful questions. By Jackie McGlone
Before he began writing his seventh novel, Herman Koch made an appointment with his family doctor. “Happily, it’s not something I have to do too often,” says the tall, trim 60-year-old. In any case, the award-winning author of the international bestseller The Dinner was not consulting his general practitioner about a minor medical matter, it was far more serious.
“I told my doctor that I was about to write a new novel and that the narrator and protagonist of this book, Summer House With Swimming Pool, was a doctor, a popular doctor with many celebrity patients. My GP also has a list of patients who are rich and famous – filmmakers, actors, TV stars, playwrights, novelists. So he asked, ‘Oh, it’s not me, is it?’”
“‘No,’ I lied because a writer should always lie – oh yes, even to his wife, his family. ‘No, it’s not you,’ I said. But what I borrowed from him was his list of patients.” Among other things.
Summer House With Swimming Pool’s unreliable narrator, Dr Marc Schlosser, informs us within three pages of the novel, “Occasionally I’ll ask someone to undress behind the screen, but most of the time I don’t. Bodies are horrible enough as it is, even with their clothes on. I don’t want to see them...” There is much more in this sinister vein as the “good doctor” tells how much he despises his patients, how they repulse him.
When the book was published in Holland, Koch’s doctor told him. “These are all the things I’d never be able to say aloud.”
“Then he said, ‘Thank you,’ which pleased me because I want to write about what people are really thinking,” Koch reveals when we meet at a London hotel – he’s in town to meet a “big-name” film director keen to film the novel.
Perhaps Summer House With Swimming Pool – tipped as this year’s beach must-read – ought to come with a health warning? After reading it, I fear I may never visit a doctor again. When I say this, Arnhem-born Koch laughs, adding that some reviewers in the US, where the book came out last month, have warned that his novel should not be read within three weeks of any medical appointment.
Koch, a former actor, absurdist comedy scriptwriter and TV star in the Netherlands, says he knew instantly that his protagonist would be a doctor. “I always had my first sentence, ‘I am a doctor.’ The storyline came later. I also knew that he would have patients who are successful, particularly in the creative arts. The status of the doctor, indeed the prestige of the profession, has diminished a lot in the last 50 or 100 years, so I kept thinking how some of those in such circles might think they are better than a simple general practitioner.
“All these artists, who consult Marc, might even feel a little contempt for him. After all, he’s not a surgeon. So a doctor, who is not respected as he might once have been but who might save lives, is held in lower esteem than actors or painters or TV comics. So I was thinking about all of this, how a doctor might become fed up with his patients; then I thought these people will do something to him which humiliates him and he’ll seek revenge and show them he is the better man.”
“Do you know, I have only just thought of this,” says Koch after a moment’s pause. “But there is a story by Chekhov called, in English I think, Butterfly [The Grasshopper], about the wife of a doctor having an affair
Author Herman Koch, a veteran performer at literary festivals around the world, visited his own doctor before starting to write his seventh novel to gain some insight for his characters