Magazine article The Spectator

Not Much Balm in Swiss Cottage

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Much Balm in Swiss Cottage

Article excerpt

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR SIMMONDS & DR GLAS by Dannie Abse Robson Books, 14.95, pp. 195, ISBN 1861055048

Dannie Abse has a number of identities, and he's never seemed in much of a hurry to amalgamate them. It's as though he instinctively realised that the conflicts and overlappings of his various selves would provide him with his sustenance as a writer. So the Welshman looks askance at the Londoner and receives a quizzical appraisal in return; the doctor examines his patients but is all too aware that they are examining him while he's about it; and the urbane medical man of letters never forgets that he's a Jew, whether he's in Cardiff or Finchley.

In the poetry and autobiographical writings this bumping up of one identity against another produces a spate of wry observation and also, notably, of humour. Abse is a writer of urbane humanity with a seeming interest in every aspect of life, and he is also very, very funny. The humour is a complement to his humanity, not a contradiction of it. So when he gives us his account of a meeting with an aged and cantankerous Robert Graves in Southwark Cathedral, we sense Abse's own meticulous observation of life's daily absurdities. He does not, like so many humorists, burlesque the proceedings, nor does he caricature the protagonists. The careful presentation of the events in their surroundings is sufficient. It supplies what Eliot called the objective correlative, and we smile with him. He could never be a satirist, for he lacks the savage and efficient unfairness needed for that genre. …

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