Herman Koch hates a deadline. The Dutch author admits leaving everything to the last moment, a lifelong habit that got him kicked out of the Montessori Lyceum in Amsterdam when he was a schoolboy.
‘‘Expelled is a strong word,’’ Koch says, chuckling over his ‘‘tarnished’’ education. ‘‘But they did encourage me to leave. Their method was quite liberal. You have to be independent and organised through the school year with your work – your homework is your own responsibility – and I was completely incapable of doing that. I postponed everything until the end of year.’’
The Montessori method is supposed to develop inner discipline, but clearly doesn’t work for everyone, Koch jokes. ‘‘I am still like that,’’ he says. ‘‘If I have a deadline I leave it until the end. I postpone everything.’’
A former TV comedy writer and actor, Koch is not a man who allows himself to be taken too seriously. Now 60, he long ago had the last laugh on his former school. His first novel, Save Us, Maria Montanelli, published in 1989, was about a victim of Montessori schooling (the first name of the educator Montessori was Maria) and has been described as ‘‘a mixture of confession and tirade in the style of J.D. Salinger’’. It initiated the satirical humour that came to characterise Koch’s fiction, which is largely built on the foibles and obsessions of middle-class families.
His seventh novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool, has just been published in Australia. It follows the enormous success of his 2009 novel, The Dinner, in which the protagonist, whose brother is hoping to become prime minister, tries to protect their two teenage sons after they murder a homeless woman.
The Dinner was Koch’s first novel translated into English. It sold more than 1 million copies, won the prestigious Dutch literary prize, the NS Publieksprijs in 2009, and is now being adapted for a film to be directed by Cate Blanchett. Its story is structured around a meal in a restaurant and begins with a scathing portrayal of the snobbery of the food industry before taking on the more serious misadventures of its key characters. As a portrait of middle-class morality, it has been likened to Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.
Summer House with Swimming Pool begins with a humorous account of the medical world. The first-person voice of the narrator, a doctor jaded by years of grinding away at a boring general practice often attended by the rich and famous, has been subtly crafted by Koch. The doctor attracts our empathy while inviting us to share his prejudices. But we soon suspect not is all right with Dr Marc Schlosser, father of two girls with a loving wife, whose cynical attitude towards his patients is a constant source of humour but also explains the malpractice charge he faces after the death of a patient.
The title of the novel is taken from a property advertisement for the holiday house where Marc and his family stay as guests of a film star, Ralph Meier, one of the doctor’s patients, and his beautiful wife and their two young sons. Also holidaying with Ralph is a sleazy film director, Stanley Forbes, and his much-too-young girlfriend, Emmanuelle. When an incident occurs involving Marc’s teenage daughter, the story shifts into serious territory.
Koch says the premise for the novel came to him when he wondered what it must be like for a GP who has become fed up with treating his patients.
‘‘He is not like a surgeon repairing the engine of the car, but stuck with fixing the superficial things, the outside things he doesn’t like any more,’’ Koch says. ‘‘I was also thinking about how the prestige of the doctor has diminished in the past 50 or 100 years. All these artist-patients Marc has might even feel a little contempt for him. A doctor who might save lives is now held in lower esteem than would-be painters or actors.’’
Don’t be fooled, however, by the apparent flippancy behind the narrator’s voice. Koch weaves serious social issues into his story including the treatment of women, the role of family, the quandaries of parents with teenage children and the potential for extreme violence in people’s behaviour. Given the right circumstances, it suggests, people are capable of committing the most heinous acts.
‘‘I wonder just how thin the line is between using real violence or not,’’ Koch says. ‘‘But it fascinates me at what point you might start to use violence, although you don’t want to. If you or your family or children are threatened, you might go pretty far. You might even give your life. The instinct is there.’’
"If the voice is credible, the character can permit himself almost anything."Herman Koch
Just as The Dinner shows how far a father will go to protect his seemingly harmless teenage son from the penalty for murder, in Summer House with Swimming Pool the moral code steering a conventional middle-class family is thrown into disarray when a father realises his child has been harmed. In this context, even calculated murder finds justification.
But Marc is also hiding his real self. While accusing others of bad behaviour, we begin to doubt our empathy for his character. ‘‘Look at how he is treating women. Maybe he is accusing others of these acts because he doesn’t recognise he is like them.’’
Koch says he is drawn to the notion of moral codes breaking down. ‘‘Or maybe questioning whether political correctness is the right path to follow.’’ It is a theme that runs through much of his fiction, including his 2003 novel Odessa Star, which is also about moral breakdown within a family.
Born in Arnhem, Koch moved to Amsterdam with his family when he was two years old. Although he wanted to be a fiction writer from a young age and studied 19th-century Russian literature at university (until he got bored with being in a classroom), he was drawn into television as an actor and comedy writer. The success of a comedy sketch show, Jiskefet (Trash Can), which he co-created and performed in along with two friends, Kees Prins and Michiel Romeyn, made Koch a TV star in Holland. The absurdist series was a precursor to TV shows such as Little Britain.
Acting helped inform Koch’s fiction writing: ‘‘It taught me how to find a voice for a character, which is the most important thing. Once you know how someone speaks, the scene or novel is already 90 per cent done. I don’t miss acting though. We did Jiskefet for 15 years; it was really time to stop.’’
Koch never neglected his fiction writing while working in television. His first book, The Passerby, a collection of short stories, was published in 1985. It was followed by another collection, Hansaplast for a Rebel ("Hansaplast" is a European brand name for "Elastoplast"), which he wrote under the pseudonym Menno Voorhof. His other novels included War at Last (1996), Eating with Emma (2000) and Thinking about Bruce Kennedy (2009). He also wrote newspaper columns for the Dutch daily de Volkskrant.
During that time Koch lived in Finland for half a year, Morocco for another six months, and finally in Spain for seven years, mostly in Barcelona. His wife, Amalia Rodriguez, is Spanish and their son, Pablo, who was born in Amsterdam, where they now live, is 19.
‘‘I got the idea in my head that living in another country would stimulate my writing. It did,’’ he says. ‘‘I worked for radio as well during that period on another comic program, but the distance from my own country and, more importantly, the distance from myself, gave my writing a new impulse.’’
Failing to meet deadlines may be a thing of the past for Koch, who also speaks Spanish, German and English. On the heels of Summer House with Swimming Pool’s release in English he has just completed his eighth novel, Dear Mr M. It has only been published in Dutch but it has the same satirical quality of his previous books, he says.
‘‘It would be almost impossible for me to write a book without these humorous aspects. I don’t want to try to be funny all the time. Look how funny I am, that sort of thing, but I look at a character in the way he speaks. Both The Dinner and Summer House are sort of ‘voice books’, monologues of the narrator. If the voice is credible, the character can permit himself almost anything.’’
Summer House with Swimming Pool is published by Text at $29.99.