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Into the depths – ‘Summer House with Swimming Pool’

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Novel offers compelling narrative, unsympathetic characters

There are a lot of things that can sometimes be taken for granted when reading a book. There’s often an expectation that stories need to have heroes and villains – good guys and bad guys. But just as the real world is made up of various permutations of gray, so too can literature offer up circumstances in which the answer to the question “Who is the good guy?” can be “Nobody.”

Herman Koch’s “Summer Home with Swimming Pool” (Crown, $24) is just such a story.

It’s the tale of Dr. Marc Schlosser, a general practitioner whose devotion to the Hippocratic Oath is a bit less devout than is probably appropriate. He has a dismissive, superior attitude toward his clientele – an attitude that one would think might have some negative impact on his practice. In fact, it’s quite the contrary – by simply pretending to listen and giving his patients a little more time in his office, he has cultivated quite a devoted client base. His reputation is one of welcome convenience – a doctor who will offer up prescriptions and platitudes without demanding much (if any) personal responsibility from his patients.

But when noted actor Ralph Meier comes to his office seeking his services, Dr. Schlosser finds himself getting drawn into an actual humane relationship with a patient. The development of that relationship – both with Ralph and with his family (Ralph’s wife Judith in particular) leads him down a road that he never thought he might travel.

And when Ralph winds up dead, Dr. Schlosser is the man who must come up with answers – answers whose beginnings stem from the previous summer. Schlosser, his wife and his two daughters spend some time with the Meiers – Ralph, Judith and their two sons – and their guests at a beach house rented for the season. The stay carries with it some dark underpinnings, including one horrible event that changes forever the lives of both families - an event for which Dr. Schlosser seeks justice.

Koch has constructed a compelling narrative that is colored by the inherent unpleasantness of its utterly unreliable narrator. Marc Schlosser is the man who tells us this story. He’s the one who relates the events leading up to and following Ralph Meier’s demise. With every choice he makes (and every rationalization of those choices), we see more and more the unpleasantness that lurks beneath the good doctor’s placid exterior. Even the choices he makes that seem to spring from a noble place are poor ones; he is a man whose inner ambiguity can (and does) turn ugly.

The only thing that makes Schlosser’s character even remotely defensible is the even greater repugnance that is Ralph Meier. A man whose appetites loom large, Meier is the worst kind of force of nature – an overly gregarious show-off whose desperation for attention oozes from every pore. Meier’s actions and attitudes almost – almost – make Schlosser sympathetic. But while some of the events of the story do elicit some sympathy for the doctor, in the end, he simply doesn’t warrant our pity.

And yet, despite the unpleasant men at its core – or perhaps because of them – “Summer House with Swimming Pool” is a fascinating read. Koch’s prose gifts are exquisite; even in translation, phrases are turned with aplomb. The reader feels a compulsion to both speed up (to continue the story) and slow down (to savor the language); it’s a rare combination, to say the least.

Koch’s work seems to reflect an understanding of the true nature of morality. His characters exist in the same world that we do – a world where bad things happen to people good and bad alike, a world where choices are made for bad reasons … or no reason at all. 

“Summer House with Swimming Pool” is populated with people with whom you wouldn’t want to be friends. They are, however, people that you will greatly enjoy reading about.


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