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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Strange Case of
Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas

Dannie Abse

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Title: The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas
Author: Dannie Abse
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 194 pages
Availability: The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas - US
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas - UK
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid character study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
British Medical Journal . 31/8/2002 Claire McKenna
Independent on Sunday . 26/10/2003 Murrough O'Brien
Lancet . 24/8/2002 John Quin
The Spectator . 10/8/2002 Alan Wall
Sunday Telegraph . 14/7/2002 Anthony Daniels
The Times . 17/7/2002 .
TLS . 9/8/2002 Paddy Bullard

  Review Consensus:

  Impressed by aspects of it, fairly careful in their judgements

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel, which explores the themes of unrequited love, loneliness, unfulfilled potential, and the central tenets of the Hippocratic Oath, is based on an early 20th century Swedish classic, Dr Glas. (...) The novel, which is on the longlist for this year's Booker prize, is well written and is a powerful evocation of postwar London. However, I think its appeal might be limited to more mature doctors." - Claire McKenna, British Medical Journal

  • "There is much disarming humour amid the gothic shudders, but the book doesn't quite satisfy. For one, poets writing fiction are rarely that hot on psychological subtlety. (...) But it's salutary to be reminded, and in such beautiful prose too, of how buried prejudice can be struck alight by seemingly unrelated passions." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday

  • "Dannie Abse has written a splendid and timely meditation on a doctor who chooses evil intent over good. Timely, since much was made last month in the UK about the television dramatisation of the British serial killer and family doctor Harold Shipman. (...) Perhaps the best insights into the mind of such a man could come from fiction. That is the gist of Abse's new work." - John Quin, Lancet

  • "Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas is a case study, and what it studies is the murderousness inside the human heart, bred there through frustration and the factions of desire. (...) The full horror of his misconception and its results is only revealed to us at the very end. This short novel probably ranks as one of the subtlest studies of prejudice ever written." - Alan Wall, The Spectator

  • "Abse powerfully evokes that period in Hampstead, when the Finchley Road was still known as the Finchleystrasse (.....) But Dr Abse's novel, quite apart from being extremely readable, raises interesting questions beyond the one asked by Soderberg. (...) One senses that there is a disturbing true story behind this brief novel." - Anthony Daniels, Sunday Telegraph

  • "The style of Simmonds's diary entries is perfectly tuned: here is a doctor who theoretically knows right from wrong, but justifies his transgression of the boundary between the two with the demands of his increasingly disturbing fantasy life. A dark London in the shadow of postwar austerity is the well-realised background to this unnerving tale." - The Times

  • "Simmonds is driven to his crisis less by desire for the beautiful young wife, than by his compelling, unacknowledgeable need to destroy the Jewish husband. Abse has written feelingly on the topic of anti-Semitism before, but never with such satirical acuity." - Paddy Bullard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dannie Abse's The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas is closely based on Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg's 1905 novel, Doctor Glas (see our review). It does not merely borrow from or take off of Söderberg's novel: Dr Glas figures strongly in the text, as the central character, Dr Simmonds, receives it as a gift (twice !) and constantly refers to it.
       The novel is told in three parts -- the first and last a framing device for the main part in the middle. The first, introductory part is narrated by Peter Dawson, a now essentially retired literary agent, and takes place in the present. The book begins: "Failed at lunch" -- and the novel is filled with fundamental failures and misjudgements.
       A figure from Dawson's past reappears: an Yvonne Bloomberg (née Roberts), whom Dawson once went out with in his student days in the (largely Jewish) emigré neighbourhood of Swiss Cottage, London in the late 1940s. Yvonne has a journal, of a Dr. Robert Simmonds, which she would like him to find a publisher for. His brief visit to her house also provides him with a glimpse of her odd living circumstances.
       The second, and by far the longest section of the book is said journal, which Dr.Simmonds kept from 28 December 1949 through the summer of 1950. (The brief final section, again set in the present, then consists of an exchange of letters concerning the possible publication of the journal.)
       Dr.Simmonds lived in that same London community that Dawson strayed into; amusingly enough Dawson even briefly figures in the doctor's journal, as he enjoys his first success. Dr.Simmonds is a somewhat tortured man, devoted to his now dead mother, living alone in a house too big for him, fairly certain he'll never marry. He is also slightly disfigured, from a childhood Guy Fawkes Day accident, leaving him Janus-like two-faced -- or, as he prefers to think of it:

If it were not for that conspicuous blemish I think I would be almost good-looking. As it is, my visage to others must be displeasing. Yet if I turn my head to the left, I observe in the mirror Mr Hyde vanishing, replaced magically by Dr Jekyll.
       Yvonne Bloomberg comes to share some personal problems with him -- specifically regarding her difficult situation with her unpleasant older (and Jewish) husband, Anton. Simmonds is quickly smitten by Yvonne. He finds:
The child in me, I think, wants beautiful Mrs Bloomberg to be good; the ugly Mr Bloomberg to be bad.
       People don't always get what they wish for, but they can pretend to, and that's what Simmonds does. His fantasy is further fed when he is given the grossly inappropriate book-gift of Dr Glas from the conniving Yvonne. That tale is one of a wife forced to endure the intolerable sexual demands of a horrible husband and the eponymous doctor who she hopes can save her.
       The two stories follow nearly in lock step. There are many differences, but the major issues -- marital (in)fidelity and obligations, euthanasia, abortion -- are all covered. The book is totemic for Simmonds, as he writes:
     Hear me, Dr Glas. I, Dr Simmonds, acknowledge such an affinity with you. I understand your loneliness, your non-physical attachment to a woman, a woman who is innocent -- and your belief in purity of action, however risky.
     I live here in 1950, you in a novel published in 1905. And yet you think my thoughts, speak words that I could utter, accomplish deeds that I might yet emulate.
       As is the case with Dr Glas, however, action is not Simmonds' strength, and when he does take it, it is largely half-hearted. Simmonds' great deed ends in quite dismal failure (as the opening section, when Dawson visits Yvonne, suggested).
       The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas is not, however, just an echo of Dr Glas -- or rather, it is a carefully refracted one, and much of its success lies in Abse's expert recreation of that slice of 1950s London life.
       It is also an excellent character study: Simmonds' anti-Semitic feelings colour his actions and attitudes, while new sexual freedoms (and lingering mores) also confound him. He has friendships, but even they are not comfortable ones. And he is almost entirely incapable of a romantic or sexual relationship, with the one sexual experience with a woman he recounts both coming about and winding up in predictable fashion.
       None of the many characters are entirely sympathetic, but they are all convincingly real, their weaknesses and pettiness (and occasional surprising generosity) very human. Abse also gets the larger feel for that particular emigré community right (including a nice, subtle Erich Fried cameo (he's the Shakespeare translator)), and also presents the doctor's life very well.
       It's an odd novel, with a somewhat bitter aftertaste, but well worthwhile.

       (Note: Hjalmar Söderberg's Doctor Glas only appeared in English translation in 1963 -- a fact mentioned (if not quite directly) in the last section of the book. In this last section the Dawson-character also quotes William Sansom's introduction to that first translation, saying that in describing Doctor Glas Sansom "wrote in 1963, 'In most of the frankness of its thought, it might have been written tomorrow ...' " . There would appear to be a suggestion in this presentation of facts and this particular quote that the Simmonds-journal must be considered a fabrication -- "written tomorrow", rather than actually in 1950, adding another twist to the story and a different sort of retroactive explanation for events.)

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The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas: Reviews: Dannie Abse: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Welsh author Dannie Abse lived 1923 to 2014. Aside from his writing, he also worked as a medical doctor.

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