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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Goodbye, Twentieth Century’

- - Friday, August 24, 2012

GOODBYE, TWENTIETH CENTURY: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
By Dannie Abse
Library of Wales/IPG Books, $12.95, 578 pages, illustrated

He's not much known in this country, but across the Atlantic, Dannie Abse is a recognized and highly regarded poet, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and honored by Queen Elizabeth with the prestigious CBE. This decoration, just below knight in rank, is often an indication that a knighthood awaits down the road. Since Dr. Abse will turn 90 next year, let us hope that Her Majesty does not wait too long before bestowing this title. After reading this enormously engaging account of a long, active and creative life, not only as a poet but a physician who practiced full time for 30 years, I feel he deserves honoring.

It obviously has not been easy balancing two careers, each of them in their different ways demanding a great deal from him. Indeed, he tells us that when Princeton University offered him the position of writer-in-residence in the academic year 1973-74, he wondered whether "the admin people would allow me a sabbatical. ... Who would follow up my patients? What about the sarcoid survey I was engaged in?" In the end, "the sabbatical from the chest clinic was reluctantly granted to me -- leave without pay, but they generously offered to keep the post open for my return."

Writers who are also medical men are not an unknown phenomenon -- Anton Chekhov and W. Somerset Maugham spring to mind. American poet William Carlos Williams practiced medicine while writing a poem beginning: "By the road to the contagious hospital." But Dr. Abse emerges from these pages in countless episodes as an unusually committed and dedicated doctor. His older brother, distinguished psychiatrist Wilfred Abse, who was a professor at the University of Virginia for nearly 40 years, put Dannie's name down for medical school when he was only in his teens, and he seems to have happily fulfilled the destiny set him. His account of early on-the-job medical training as rocket bombs fell on wartime London makes for exciting reading.

Dr. Abse stresses twin identities as Jew and Welshman, a proud son of David and Dafydd (as the Welsh spell David, who is their patron saint). This dedicated supporter of the Welsh soccer and rugby teams win or lose notes that it is "when Israel is threatened I become a conscious Jew." But he is never strident, not speaking the Welsh language which is so central to the nationalist culture or the Jewish "Mama-loshen" Yiddish.

"My mother knew many things. She could speak Welsh as well as English, Yiddish as well as Welsh. Some of the 'wise' sayings from Welsh and Yiddish she loosely translated into English. I know them still -- but I am not quite sure, even now, which proverbs are Welsh, which Yiddish."

Her son remembers this remarkable amalgam of the Welsh and Jewish celebrating a wartime festival very different from their customary jolly family occasions:

"But April 1st 1942, only my father my mother and I sat down to the rationed evening meal. And instead of a Seder ceremony my mother lit two candles, put her hands over her face and mouthed a prayer silently. Then she said out loud, 'Next year may there be Peace in the world and all the family be together again.' That night no door was opened for the invisible angel and the flames on the two candles did not tremble but continued to stand up straight like two small, yellow, clown hats." You see the poet's knack for capturing imagery here, just as much as in the poem exploring his twin vocations, which begins:

"White coat and purple/a sleeve from both he sews.

That white is always stained with blood/that purple by the rose."

The great thing about Dr. Abse that emerges from "Goodbye Twentieth Century" is his uncommon gusto: for poetry, for doctoring, for being a husband and father, for playing -- and watching -- soccer. His biggest deprivation at Princeton was not being able to watch his home teams: Subscribing to the South Wales Football Echo couldn't substitute for the real thing. Now if Princeton were to have him back, satellite TV could assuage his longing, so let's hope that, like Queen Elizabeth, it doesn't wait too long.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.