Herman Koch explores the human psyche the way a tongue pokes at a canker sore: with probing, masochistic curiosity. In his breakout book The Dinner, the Dutch author examined the limits of European social niceties, chipping away at the veneer of a bourgeois respectability that hides something more atavistic. You can almost hear the snarls beneath the clinking cutlery. His latest translated work, Summer House With Swimming Pool, also aims to pull back the curtain of civilized society and reveal the carnage behind it.
As in Koch’s previous novel, Summer House’s narrator is a middle-aged family man as unreliable as he is affectless. Dr. Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner invited, along with his wife and two daughters, to spend the season at the Mediterranean beach home of one of his patients, a famous actor. The celebrity is a man of rapacious appetites and little self-control who regards Marc’s wife with gluttonous delight (she’s a ”tasty morsel”), and their vacation is quickly enmeshed in a web of sexual power plays and predations, all leading to an unforgivable act of violence.
For some readers, the flavor of The Dinner was brightened by its acidity. For others, myself included, the overwhelming aftertaste was bitter. There’s little humanity in Koch’s characters — indeed, for them, being humane isn’t even an objective — and the resulting narrative feels curdled. Koch’s mixture of flat, distanced social observation and congealed cynicism puts his writing in a category with the works of fellow misanthropes such as director Michael Haneke (Funny Games) and author Michel Houellebecq (The Elementary Particles). The tone gives one the sense that Koch has his nose wrinkled in mild disgust the entire time he’s writing. Summer House With Swimming Pool is a gripping read, an assault of unexpected twists and thumbscrew-turning tension, but there’s also an unshakable unpleasantness squirming inside it, like a worm burrowed deep into a crisp red apple. B