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

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

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

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