Synopses & Reviews
Doctor Blooms Story
, a wry and subtle novel, is a Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction selection for 2004 and already a popular and critical favourite. What starts off sounding like a charming, bittersweet memoir develops rapidly into a complex and moving book centred on a pressing moral dilemma.
In the first few pages, Dr. Nicolaas Bloom, cardiologist and would-be writer, describes his lifes trajectory: from medical and literary studies in Leiden, Holland, through practice and research in Cambridge to, following the death of his wife, a new life in uptown Toronto. Dr. Blooms story proper begins in a writing workshop, taught by his tough-talking neighbour Larry Logan: Bloom finds himself entranced by one of his young classmates, a quiet, self-possessed young woman named Sophie Führ.
The novel quickly establishes the rhythm it will pursue throughout, its present-day action in counterpoint with Blooms memories and reflections. Bloom works in a downtown medical clinic; he remembers his late wife and stillborn daughter; he considers his literary masters, most of all Chekhov; importantly, he meets Larry Logans estranged wife Marianne. Then, out for a run in a local ravine, he sees a woman being beaten up; he has reason to believe it is his classmate, Sophie.
As Bloom and Marianne Logan fall for one another, and Bloom tentatively pursues his long postponed writing, Sophies situation becomes more and more of a concern; soon it has drawn in Larry, Marianne and others, none of whom are able to step in and help her. This is in part because, complicating matters, Sophie does not appear to want to be “rescued.” As she puts it, speaking of herself in a coded, charged conversation in the writing workshop:
“She has a belief. She believes that there are circumstances which, although they may not appear happy, are part of a the deeper life…. it would be a mistake, she thinks, to leave these circumstances.”
Sophies husband, Walter Rollo Maggione, comes to Bloom for cardiac treatment. Abrasive and arrogant, some twenty-five years older than Sophie, he is a Swiss psychologist pursuing a doctorate at the University of Toronto, specializing in Jung. Meanwhile Marianne, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, has come to care about Sophie as deeply as Bloom has.
Bloom and Marianne return from a brief Caribbean vacation to discover Sophie in the emergency room of Sunnybrook hospital, bruised and battered, claiming to have fallen down the stairs. Her husband has also been admitted, after an attack of angina. Attempts to intervene prove fruitless, but Bloom sees a way he could help Sophie: as Maggiones physician, he is aware of the subtleties of his condition, aware that were Maggione to not have the right medication to hand at the right moment, his life could be in danger.
The novels central moral question gains shape: given all he knows about Sophies situation — about the violence and suffering she experiences, and her view of it as a kind of religious task — can Bloom justify “altering the odds”? Can he make it less likely that Maggione will pull through his next cardiac malfunction? Blooms dilemma, carefully examined and disentangled, will haunt readers of this supple and moving novel long after its resolution.
Doctor Bloom's Story, a wry and subtle novel, is a Knopf Canada New Face of Fiction selection for 2004 and already a popular and critical favourite. What starts off sounding like a charming, bittersweet memoir develops rapidly into a complex and moving book centred on a pressing moral dilemma.
In the first few pages, Dr. Nicolaas Bloom, cardiologist and would-be writer, describes his life's trajectory: from medical and literary studies in Leiden, Holland, through practice and research in Cambridge to, following the death of his wife, a new life in uptown Toronto. Dr. Bloom's story proper begins in a writing workshop, taught by his tough-talking neighbour Larry Logan: Bloom finds himself entranced by one of his young classmates, a quiet, self-possessed young woman named Sophie Fuhr.
The novel quickly establishes the rhythm it will pursue throughout, its present-day action in counterpoint with Bloom's memories and reflections. Bloom works in a downtown medical clinic; he remembers his late wife and stillborn daughter; he considers his literary masters, most of all Chekhov; importantly, he meets Larry Logan's estranged wife Marianne. Then, out for a run in a local ravine, he sees a woman being beaten up; he has reason to believe it is his classmate, Sophie.
As Bloom and Marianne Logan fall for one another, and Bloom tentatively pursues his long postponed writing, Sophie's situation becomes more and more of a concern; soon it has drawn in Larry, Marianne and others, none of whom are able to step in and help her. This is in part because, complicating matters, Sophie does not appear to want to be "rescued." As she puts it, speaking of herself in a coded, charged conversation inthe writing workshop:
""She has a belief. She believes that there are circumstances which, although they may not appear happy, are part of a the deeper life.... it would be a mistake, she thinks, to leave these circumstances."
Sophie's husband, Walter Rollo Maggione,
About the Author
Don Coles is one of Canadas most successful and respected poets. He studied history at the University of Toronto and took a second degree at Cambridge University, then spent more than a decade on the continent in France, Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. Coles and his wife, Heidi, returned to Canada after the birth of his first child, and he was invited to join the faculty of York Universitys humanities department.
“It turned out, after a worrisome few days, that I liked it very much, and I was there for more than thirty years,” he told the Globe and Mail in an interview. He was also, for ten years, Senior Poetry Editor at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
Coles recently turned to fiction, in part out of a desire to work “in a more generous and pliant space than my usual genre,” he told the National Post. He described the process of writing Doctor Bloom's Story as: “A sheer joy. . . . And I lived in it for eight or nine hours a day for at least four of the seven days in every week for three years. Not bad for a person generally considered to be, as I'm belatedly realizing, past it.”
Don Coles has published ten books of poetry. He is the recipient of a Governor Generals Award, a Trillium Award and the John Glassco Prize for Translation.
He lives in Toronto.
Reading Group Guide
1. Consider the narrative voice in which Doctor Blooms Story
is told. Do you find Dr. Bloom charming, pretentious, wise or…? Why?
2. Which of the main characters do you find most, or least, appealing? And which is most, or least, convincing? Why?
3. What is the significance of the various nicknames Bloom gives himself in the novel? How important is it to the book that he is trying to be a writer?
4. What do you think of the ending of the novel?
5. Choose one of these themes and discuss how the novel explores it: religion, violence, religion, emigration, responsibility, masochism, writing, love.
6. Does Bloom do the right thing? What would you do in his situation?
7. Dr. Coomaraswamy is describing the wounds Maggione inflicts on Sophie — concealed, hard-to-detect bruising:
She said, steadily, “I picture him labouring over her.”
Neither Marianne nor I said a word.
“A kind of artist,” Celia said.
What do you think of this passage? What insights does it give into Maggione, or the other characters perception of him?
8. Have you read any other novels by writers who are also poets? How does Doctor Blooms Story compare with their efforts? You could consider Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Al Purdy, etc. (And: how do you think being a poet could affect ones approach to writing a novel?)
9. What are your criticisms of Doctor Blooms Story?
10. Dr. Bloom regularly talks about his love of Chekhov, and many other writers make appearances in his thoughts, from Joyce to Musil to Böll to Orwell. What do you think is the most important literary influence on this novel — and which writers does it most remind you of?
1. You are one of Canada’s most respected poets, but you’ve never published a novel before. Why now? In what ways does being a poet colour your approach to writing fiction?
I wrote two novels in my twenties (living in Italy for the first and Sweden the second), neither of them published (although John Robert Colombo, an editor with Ryerson Press at the time, wanted Ryerson to do it). I think neither of them were much good, although the second one was (in my unbiased, of course, opinion) better than some that did get into book-form in Canada that year. I didn’t try again for many years because I was teaching at York University. and at the Banff Fine Arts Centre, so great expanses of free time were not at my disposal; and because discovering the nuances and pleasures of writing poetry satisfied the creative urge completely. I’m now retired from both York and Banff and those “expanses,” which had become available upon my retirement, invited me towards a lengthier, more free-ranging genre.
As for the effect of poem-composing on the writing of fiction, I think it has (and in my case surely had) a profound influence on the care and attention one brings to every page, every sentence. Matters such as rhythm and assonance, etc., have, I’d like to think (and do think), had ample time to become second nature. And since I was in no hurry, I could redraft Doctor Bloom’s Story as often as I wanted, which meant that this redrafting took place seven or eight times, so the whole of it improved, slack pages became tighter, pages lacking anything interesting in the way of a metaphor or simile got to have some of those things, dialogue sharpened and even acquired a touch of wit here and there, etc.
2. Dr. Bloom frequently and charmingly cites his heroes, from Chekhov to Goncharov. Did you have any particular single influence writing this novel, or were you thinking of the same names your protagonist cites?
No “particular” influence that I’m aware of. But I’ve read and re-read my favourite authors (Musil, George Eliot, Mann, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and yes, way back there, F. Scott Fitzgerald; and poets such as Edward Thomas and Hardy and Housman and Frost and Larkin) so there must be contributions from all of them in one debased form or another.
3. Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
Favourite character, hmm. Haven’t thought about this. I like Marianne pretty well; I’m amused by Larry, glad he’s there to lighten things up now and then in his frequently coarse fashion; and since Nicolaas holds the floor most of the time, I must find him pretty tolerable. He has a lot of my tastes but he’s more reliable and consistent in those tastes than I am, and I like that about him. I wouldn’t mind bringing myself closer to him in that regard.
4. Although Doctor Bloom’s Story might appear to be a conventional first person narrative, it displays several inventive touches: a tentative, self-conscious narrator who frequently quotes other writers; the presence of documents, such as Sophie’s journal, that edge this narrator out; a character named Moosbrugger (without reference to Musil) and another named Giorgio (a glance at James Joyce’s son?); and, occasionally, conversations that the narrator was not present for. Are these satirical bites at what Larry calls “feckless, postmodern arseing-around”?
Not really (i.e. not really “satirical bites”). I pay so little heed to postmodernism etc. that if I’m edging into that territory I probably don’t notice it. I enjoyed using a bunch of proper names from Musil (there are at least a half-dozen in addition to Moosbrugger), not picked up on by too many readers and not expected to be picked up on — a kind of homage, that: I think Musil’s better than Thomas Mann, and I think Mann’s pretty splendid. The conversations “that the narrator was not present for,” those are simply matters that the reader needed to be informed of, and my role and problem was to disguise the improbability of that eavesdropping as best I could.
5. If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
What would I want to be doing for a living if I weren’t writing? I’d LOVE to have been a director; not of film, but of live theatre. I’d have been a terrible actor but I’ve many times come away from a play full of admiration for a director’s subtle and creative touches; and even more times full of thoughts of what I would have done if I’d had the chance to direct those actors, that production. Brilliant thoughts relating to Hamlet or the melancholy Jacques and to the intonation he could have brought to bear just here, or just there; or an idea regarding the unwritten extra character who could have been standing off there a bit and turned wordlessly away out of uncontainable laughter or grief.
Other passions: my family; walking along the old streets of Europe; reading, of course, half my life must have been spent with a book; tennis on a grass court, or anywhere else if grass isn’t available, and following my once — pretty heavy serve into the net. One or two other things best left unnoted.
6. Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Don’t be intimidated by the fact that here’s a story that’s been published, when maybe your own attempt hasn’t been. The story, like everything else that’s available in the shops and libraries, is set in type but not in stone, by which I mean that it was once malleable and underwent many changes en route to its submission to a publisher, and just as many further changes might well have been made and might well have improved it. This applies to everything ever written except maybe Keats’ odes, where I doubt if you could change even a preposition or a comma without damaging things. This kind of freedom in responding to a story would (I hope) please the author and she or he would learn from hearing about it, from listening to it. Or else would argue with you about it. Amiably, of course.