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Herman Koch


Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “Summer House with Swimming Pool” a novel by Herman Koch

October 3, 2014

Marc Schlosser is a doctor, in general practice, with an office and a receptionist. He has a wife and two daughters, Lisa and Julia, aged 11 and 13 as the story opens. His wife, Caroline, is smart, earthy, and attractive with a good sense of humor. It should be a nice life, except that Marc is not entirely a devoted husband, or doctor. He has remained a general practitioner, rather than becoming a specialist. He prides himself on quick and infallible diagnoses from looking at his patients, and spends most of their 20 minute appointments thinking about other things. He has an eye for other women.

One of Marc’s patients is Ralph Meier, an actor. Atypically, Marc and Caroline go to see him in a play and meet Ralph’s wife, Judith. The couples and their children – the Meiers have two teenage sons – become friendly, though Marc is unhappy with the aggression with which Ralph stares at Caroline. After a party, the Meiers extend an invitation to visit them in the house they have rented for the summer vacation, in the south of France. Marc and Caroline agree not to go, but Marc ever so casually maneuvers his family to a campground nearby. Naturally, the families meet up, and the Schlossers end up camping in the Meiers’ yard.

Things do not go smoothly. There are other guests, a filmmaker and his young – very young – girlfriend, Emmanuelle. Ralph is aggressive, Marc rather passive-aggressive, and all three men are childishly competitive. And there are four teenagers (or perhaps five – Emmanuelle is of age, but barely). One night after dinner everyone except Caroline and Emmanuelle head down to the beach to set off fireworks. Most of them have had too much to drink. Two of the teenagers wander off, and there are disastrous consequences to Julia, the thirteen-year-old.

Julia survives, but the friendship doesn’t. In piecing together what happened Marc becomes more and more convinced he knows who is guilty. His general disdain for his patients, and for much of humanity, means it is easy for him to decide what to do. Much of the book, which Marc narrates in the first person, is his rationalization for doing so. Marc is, in his mind, not so much God as the instrument of someone’s fate.

Koch creates a plausible if rather unpleasant main character, living in a fully-realized world, except for some time sequences that remain ambiguous. Koch frequently slows the action down so that tension, and the reader’s blood pressure, rise as the story progresses. Surprisingly, Marc becomes a teeny bit sympathetic as he makes difficult decisions under unimaginable pressure. Watching a Nietszchean superhero play his beliefs out is not a pretty sight, and this book is a deeply disturbing one to read. It’s worth it all the same. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: “The Dinner,” by Herman Koch

April 12, 2013

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Do you think the Dutch have brought us only tulips, windmills and painters? (OK, and the tulip bubble.) I would have to add interesting modern novelists to that list, beginning with Harry Mulisch, whose novel “The Discovery of Heaven” is one of the most compelling books I’ve read. After reading “The Dinner” by Herman Koch I can conclude that Mulisch’s work is not a fluke.

As “The Dinner” opens, Paul and Claire are preparing for an evening out with Serge and Babette. It’s clear from the beginning that there is a history and a complex relationship between the two couples, as Paul has bridled at Serge’s initial suggestion that they meet for drinks nearby, rather than in the restaurant. Just what that history is, and how it bears on their past and present relationship, is slowly revealed during the course of the evening.

The restaurant’s dining room is the main stage, but the four central actors, depending on their states of mind, sometimes leave. We follow the rather unreliable narrator, Paul, into the men’s and women’s toilets (he’s in search of his wife) and then further, into the garden. In the course of the book Koch raises issues of loyalty and betrayal in the most challenging of circumstances: when is it right to protect a child from the consequences of his actions? All four of the main characters struggle with the choice, and their mental states fluctuate from calm to furious to distraught. Structuring such a story around an elaborate meal in a fashionable restaurant is an original choice. It works surprisingly well and the mysteries are unravelled and everyone’s true nature is revealed.

I read “The Dinner” in a hard copy and, unusually for a fiction book, one aspect of the volume’s design has stayed with me. The endpapers are a vivid red with just a hint of blue, and the pages are sized so that the endpapers outline the text. That red frame suffused my consciousness while I was reading and coming to grips with the story, underlining the eerie aspects. (I expect to come back to this theme as I continue to read books on an e-reader.) While “The Dinner” is an extremely well-written book and I definitely recommend reading it the issues Koch forces the reader to confront are visceral, and the book can be so painful to read that I could only do it in small bursts.

In her review of “The Dinner” in the New York Times Book Review, Claire Messud suggests that Americans won’t read a novel when they don’t like a character. I didn’t like Paul’s acts, and he’s increasingly revealed to be an unpleasant character. But even Paul had to face reality, and I found the way that Koch made him do so to be compelling. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments.

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