The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas by Dannie Abse

Abse has a hard act to follow here. Doctor Glas, which I’ve discussed elsewhere, is a superb existential story of alienation, told from the point of view of a doctor who by virtue of his position in society is both especially connected to people – he is privy to their secrets – and especially disconnected – he is privy to secrets. The very fact that his job is to be privy to their most private thoughts means that the nature of his social relationships is compromised and ambiguous. He finds it hard to understand what his relationship is to individuals and that is connected up, of course, to his relationship to society.

Abse continues on this theme with the profound understanding that comes of being both a doctor and a poet. He is at the time of penning this, furthermore, an eighty year old Jewish doctor and poet. So the fact that this is set in Swiss Cottage and thereabouts parts of London straight after WWII, means he is writing with the most intimate knowledge of his subject. One wonders if he personally has been tortured by the questions raised in these books – when and how and why is it ethical for a doctor to kill?

Not that this is the truly important theme of either book, it is merely the backdrop. Both novels are about the angst of loneliness and of not fitting in. Of not being able to stand what is normal, what the people the protagonist has to call his friends and companions (such as he could use these terms) see as a desirable way in which to while away the gift of life we have randomly received. This happens to be a subset of twentieth century literature which has greatly attracted me over the years and I’m not sure if Abse has got it quite right.

For a start, the journal isn’t properly written as a journal. It is a novel written in the form of a journal, which isn’t the same thing at all. I think the technique of how Dr. Glas is written – without quotation marks, for example, to distinguish speech, because it isn’t being written as speech, it is being written in different way altogether – is important. Perhaps because of this – and odd when it is Abse that is the poet – Dr Glas, even in translation, has a rhythm that demands being read out loud. Not once did I feel so inclined to thus read The Strange Case.

But the trouble with writing criticisms like this, is that I don’t find it possible to judge if they merely come from the prejudice of having read Dr. Glas. On the other hand, I don’t see it is possible to read Abse without having read the book with which his is so closely connected.

If I may abandon attempts to be critical, I think the misgivings I have about this book are at least in part deliberately constructed by the author. Kudos if I am right in this. There is no reason why the reader should have it all spelled out to him. Anti-semiticism is important to the book. But IS Dr Simmonds anti-Semitic? The reader’s gut feeling, and the reader’s voice in the book (there is one) both say yes. But, without wanting to spoil this review with too much information, Abse clearly didn’t want the reader to be sure. Gut feelings aren’t always right. Isn’t that part of Dr Simmonds’ terrible dilemma?

I don’t really understand why this book is so neglected. Is it a curse, perhaps, to be on the Booker long list? goodreads has exactly 3 lines of review of this book. A modern book by such a prominent UK writer? So you can’t read everything and yeah, there are a lot of books out there in the world, but there is a lot of fashion. One of the things that seems a pity to me is that goodreads is season driven. This year the big names are all reading blah blah blah. Blah blah blah is the new black this year. I hope I don’t associate too much with the sad cases like Simmonds and Glas, but if you stand apart from the crowd, you get the chance to read all sorts of things that the cognoscenti isn’t into right now. All in all I’m happy to be in that isolated, alienated lot.

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