Well, Herman Koch was a revelation. One would think that the author of the dark and satirical, macabre, slightly evil novels The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool would look like the appalling characters in his books, with a menacing air about him. But no! He was delightful, light hearted, funny, self-effacing, insightful and very interesting.
Herman Koch was already a successful author in his native language, Dutch, before the publication of the English translation of The Dinner in 2012, now translated into 40 languages. The most interesting thing about Mr Koch was that at one stage, while working hard at becoming a writer, he was also an actor of sorts, part of a comedy revue team that bore a passing resemblance to Monty Python, which certainly explains the black comedy of his writings.
We also learned from Mr. Koch that foreign language books may be translated into English by an approved/official translator, but the version sold to the American reading public is usually quite different from that translated by the translator – words changed, sections deleted. So…word to the wise – read translations published by non-American publishers – they could be more authentic.
And all of this was before Mr Koch talked about the aforementioned two novels and his new book. Chair, Stephanie Johnson began by asking him about Paul, one of the two brothers in The Dinner who meet with their wives at a local restaurant to talk about the behavior of their sons. I never picked it up when reading the book, but apparently the character of Paul has Aspergers, as does the teenage son. Mr Koch came to write the story thanks to knowing a family where the father and son were diagnosed as Aspergers, and the father had the audacity to suggest that Mr Koch should also get tested. Very funny.
The other brother in The Dinner, Serge, was based on a local politician in looks and charisma, with a supposed good moral heart. His morals are of course, called into question, with the crime committed by the teenage son. On a lighter note, the Americans are making a movie of The Dinner, with none other than Richard Gere in the part of Serge. That should guarantee a good box office taking.
In talking about Summer House with Swimming Pool, Mr Koch also told us how his own doctor reacted to the character of Dr Schlosser, who is repulsed by bodies, sickness, and his patients. Apparently most general practitioners see lots of themselves in Dr Schlosser which is a little disconcerting for us as patients, and brought about some hysterical laughter. He said this book is black comedy, bleaker but with more black humour than The Dinner. He had more fun writing it, poking fun not only at the medical profession but also actors and Dutch holiday-makers.
Mr Koch read most engagingly from the first chapter of his new novel Dear Mr M, due for translated publication in August. It has the same trademark black humour, more misogynistic characters, and it is a thriller, of sorts. Should be a winner!
Mr Koch is a most happy man. He makes a living as a writer not only in his own country, but in a multitude of others. He enjoys seeing his books on display in airport bookshops around the world, knowing they are being read and enjoyed, and that the human condition is much the same anywhere in the world, in all societies and communities.
Hearts of Darkness: Herman Koch was attended and reviewed by Felicity Murray
Herman Koch will also appear at the free event Excavation, alongside Lynn Jenner, Julie Thomas and Cilla McQueen, at 4.30pm today, Saturday 14 May.
The Dinner, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561
Summer House with Swimming Pool, published by Text Publishing, ISBN 9781922147561