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Man Booker Prize 2002

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The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas
Dannie Abse


Austin Williams

Doctor Glas, written by Hjalmar Söderberg in 1905, was described by Margaret Atwood as a 'short, astonishing novel', and it provides the basis for Dannie Abse's book The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas. Abse's book, unfortunately, is far from 'astonishing'. It is something of a laboured contrivance.

Abse's book follows the Söderberg novel extremely closely; a paean to the original, relying on the central theme and the twists of characterisation from Söderberg as a direct reference for his own work. The plot starts with Peter Dawson, a failed literary agent, meeting up with a mysterious woman that he remembers having an unrequited date with in 1949. She has sought him out to present him with the diary of Dr Simmonds for publication. We proceed to read over the shoulder of both Dawson and Simmonds as the book recites verbatim the diary, interspersed with scene setting and descriptive passages in Simmonds' voice.

This is where things get complicated. The diary concerns Simmonds' encounter with a beautiful young woman, who happens to be the same woman that presented the diary to Dawson in the first place; Yvonne Bloomberg. As the diary relates, fifty years earlier, she had presented Simmonds with a copy of Doctor Glas (which is a fictional account of the diary of the eponymous Dr Glas) and the real plot sets off on a convoluted mirroring of Söderberg's story. Simmonds, like Glas, is a sad character; earnest, sallow, unlucky in love - almost repulsed by sexual contact. Both are lonely and both have a peculiar sense of duty.

Whereas Söderberg's novel created a storm of interest because it explicitly dealt with the material and moral attitudes to love and death; most notably in his explicit examination of abortion and euthanasia (supportive of both), here Abse has slightly baulked at such overt controversy. Undoubtedly this is still a morality play which attempts to explore whether there is such a thing as ethical killing, but Abse has coloured his characters with tangential frailties, convoluted the story to the detriment of clarity and introduced other ethical dilemmas which confuse rather than illuminate.

Here, alongside the straightforward 'boy-meets-girl, boy-plots-to-kill-girl's-lover' storyline, Simmonds is a tacit anti-semite. Or is he? Sometimes he thinks he is; sometimes liberal friends accuse him of it. Is he transferring his sense of victimhood at being disfigured in a childhood accident onto others. We don't really find out.

The beauty of Glas' dilemma in Söderberg's novel, is that he is drawn to murder on the basis of his lust and duty - or tremulous love - for a (manipulative) younger woman. Glas is a pathetic character driven to desperate action by his understanding that by so doing he will be protecting the woman form an abusive relationship. The lesser of two evils. Abse follows the same plot, but his morality gets caught up in apparently contemporary concerns.

Admittedly characterisation is something for the author to determine, but there seems to have been no real 'reason' for Simmonds to be an anti-semite other than as a retreat from the simple exploration of the dangerous potential of raw emotion covered in Söderberg's book. To a certain extent Abse has capitulated to the reader by trying to factor in social and political context and, so direct is the comparison between the two books, that it suffers because of it; it is an extra dimension that waters down the original idea rather than adding to it.

Abse is a well respected Welsh poet, but Dylan Thomas he ain't. Inter alia, after Thomas' classic 'sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack' streets of Llareggub, Abse tries 'panther black', but it's all a bit tired. His particular brand of Welsh poetic referencing sets a peculiarly parochial tone to the prose and the opening of the book is difficult to engage with: but fortunately the style loosens up the further one reads. There are, it has to be said some wonderful lines such as. 'eyes glinting like scalpels dangerously' or describing one of his Yuletide patients as having, 'rust in his pelvis, the Christmas alcohol in his liver, the Scrooge in his soul'; but they are few and far between and there are gratuitous lines such as describing a dog that had been sniffing his leg ('his dog, thank heavens, had finished his olfactory pursuits'); and some downright Pseuds' Corner lines like, 'the birds are fluting thrednodies from the high treetops in their springtime sexual agony'.

Occasionally, Abse seems strangely abashed by the diary as a literary device and seeks to justify it. As the writing becomes more novelistic he interjects, 'Why am I writing all this? Who am I addressing?' and although Glas asked similar questions, his questions seemed more rooted in the believable introspective characterisation of Glas; here it seems just a means to convince Abse that he is doing the right thing. Unfortunately, it clumsily reinforces doubt in the premise of the book; and begins to betray the polemical voice of the author above the clamour of the fictional tale.

 

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