31 January 2015

Why can't the translators get to work on Herman Koch?

I was going to write about Herman Koch in a Bits and Bobs post but as I started to write I realized I had more to say about his work than would fit either in a bit or in a bob. Koch is a Dutch writer and actor and so far only two his six novels have been translated into English. Hopefully his recent success and a possible Cate Blanchette adaptation of The Dinner will bring his back catalog into the English speaking world.

When Simon Savidge visited Washington back in August he put The Dinner in my hands while we were browsing a bookstore. I was slightly dubious about this since he had also given me a copy of Gone Girl which I was somewhat loathe to read and the cover blurb on The Dinner was by Gillian Flynn. But I did buy it and read it and it turns out I kind of loved it. So much so that soon after I read it I was in a bookshop and bought his latest Summer House with Swimming Pool in hardcover without hesitation. I ended up liking that one even more than The Dinner. Based on those two novels he has been added to my must buy list. Not many authors end up on that list.

The Dinner
One of the things that intrigued me about The Dinner is that the entirety of the novel takes place over a single meal. Turns out there are many flashbacks that take the reader away from the dinner table but the book does feel like it takes place over one long meal. There is something very interesting about the arc of the plot and the arc of emotion all happening over dinner.

In the book, Paul Lohman and his soon-to-be Prime Minister brother and their wives have dinner in a high-end restaurant in Amsterdam. It is almost impossible to say much about this book without giving too much away. In fact the only thing I can really say is that by the end of the book you will have had moments of hating almost every character that passes through the pages.

In my mind, the restaurant De Kas was the setting for The Dinner. Having eaten here for a special occasion a few years ago, it popped into my head and never popped out. According to at least one source, this was the basis for the setting of the novel.
Summer House with Swimming Pool
Since I am a Johnny-come-lately to Herman Koch I had a peek at some reviews of his work in the esteemed mainstream press. Among other things, this exercise reminded me why I don't read professional book reviews. Even when they are positive they always seem to me like they are written by authors bitter that they have to write reviews to help eke out a living writing. The benefit of reading these reviews was that they shook loose in my brain how I feel about Koch's writing. His books have commercial appeal (i.e., they are readable) but I think they provide deeper psychological insight and observations than most commercial fiction. I think Koch is clever without ever seeming like he is trying to be clever. His books don't feel like they have been workshopped to death in some MFA program. 

Like The Dinner, Summer House with Swimming Pool includes a medical premise that is factually incorrect. And it isn't some small technical detail, but a great big whopping medical impossibility that seemed immediately wrong. Although these instances of taking poetic license with medical science gave me a bit of cerebral indigestion (how's that for a medical mixed-metaphor?) they did not bother me. In fact, after some thought, I think they even added to my enjoyment of the books. Koch could have come up with a much more plausible way of making Dr. Marc Schlosser more maniacally unethical than he already was, but instead he chose to go for the impossible. Or was he sloppy? I don't think so. I think he knew he was making a mistake and just willed us all to go along with it. Doing so allowed me a freedom I don't normally experience. I have chronicled more than once how factual errors in fiction can make my head explode. (I'm looking at you Julia Glass.) But there is something so over the top about Koch's mistakes that I kind of enjoy how bold they are. Kind of like Peter Cameron's book Andorra which I loved. He put the real land-locked country of Andorra on the Mediterranean 200 km from where it actually exists.  I think the threshold for me is, get the small, mundane details correct and I will give you a wide berth if you want to twist reality. In the case of Koch's books I felt liberated to let fiction be fiction, and in the case of Dr. Schlosser I enjoyed how Koch played with that line between good and evil.  It isn't a fine line, its a bloody great thick line in most cases, but sometimes it gets crossed without notice. Not every evil menace is Adolf Hitler. Sometimes it is the trusted family doctor or the quiet cat owner next door.

Another reason I think Summer House with Swimming Pool and The Dinner work is that one can never trust Koch. Not his characters, not his plots, not his scenes, and not his "facts". They are like like Rorschach tests, the reader see what she wants to see. In my case I see how seemingly good people can cross that wide line between good and evil and am thankful that I never even get close to the line.


  1. As I clicked on your post and saw the photos, I thought "Oh, that's the restaurant from The Dinner!"
    Still need to read Summer House...

  2. Never before I've commented on your blog, but I love reading it every time. It has made be curious about a lot of books, and although I'm a big fan of real shops where I can hold books, I'm grateful for oline stores, because they made it possible to actually buy some of them.
    Having read a few more of Herman Kochs books (I'm Dutch!), I understand why you are eager to read more, but The Dinner and Summerhouse are definitely his best books.

  3. I'll probably get Summerhouse after The TBR Double Dare ends. I loved The Dinner. Much better than Gone Girl was in my view. That was a train-wreck of a story that I could not look away from until I finished it, around three in the morning if I remember correctly.


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