23 April 2013

Our Strangest Novel?

Toronto Doctor
Sol Allen
Toronto: Rock, 1949

This could be the only Canadian novel to open with the description of a gynecological examination. If I appear unsure, it's because I haven't read the author's other titles: They Have Bodies, The Woman's Doctor and, lastly, The Gynecologist.

There are good many Toronto doctors in Toronto Doctor – most, but not all, are gynaecologists; most, but not all, exist only in the author's imagination. Anyone starting in on this novel is well-advised to keep pen and paper at the ready so as to record the names, relationships and occupations of the many dozens of characters, real and imagined, that populate its 390 pages. Note the title: Toronto Doctor, not The Toronto Doctor. The novel's greatest weakness is that it has no central figure; the second greatest is that it lacks a narrative arc. As in Doctor's Diary of old, patients come and go, never to be seen again. The same can be said of most of the gynecologists, but a few have real staying power:
  • Roger T. Walsh, the most respected gynecologist in Toronto. A cautious and honest individual, he's haunted by the realization that his wife is nearing "the unlovely age of hot flashes and cold perspiration".
  • Guy Fowley, Roger's best friend. An arrogant go-getter, he "knows everything about his profession except when not to operate."  
  • Paul Hutchison, a closet misogynist with a weak professional reputation. His industrialist father-in-law, A.J. Hollis, is working behind the scenes to place Paul as head of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Toronto's Metropolitan Hospital.
Doctor/patient relations are professional; talk of sterility, marital relations and female problems is couched in clinical terms. The rich
atmosphere outside the office is charged with sex. Thoughts of made-up married women drift toward the bedroom as they gaze upon others' husbands at dinner parties. When sitting alone before vanity mirrors, these same matrons fret over fading youth and desirability.

Mrs A.J. Hollis will flirt with any man who sits at her table, but it's Guy Fowley who holds the greatest attraction. I found it curious that she would make a point of consulting gynecologist Guy when confronted with her own female problem.

Meanwhile, Roger Walsh's wife fantasizes about both Guy and pitted-faced lawyer Sam Logan:
Unlike Roger, they both possessed reserves of character that made them exciting and hard to fathom. Poor Roger, on the other hand – she had often taken to thinking of him with the adjectival prefix – poor Roger was like an open book. When you read a few pages or chapter you knew exactly what was coming. Lying in bed with Roger, you knew exactly how things were going to begin and end, but with Guy she didn't know how she would react – or whether things would end at all. Once more she had a crawling sensation all the length of her spine.
The ladies of Toronto Doctor have much stronger libidos than the men, though it should be noted that when dining with Roger's wife Sam experiences the sensation of nettles in his nether regions. I should also mention that Paul makes out with Roger's daughter at an otherwise genteel gathering. The real focus of Paul's lust is his mother-in-law. While this has much to do with Mrs Hollis' looks – she's as beautiful as her daughter is plain – role play in his marital bedroom hints at an Oedipus Complex. It's all quite vague... intentionally so, I think.
Allen was no stranger to censorship. His first novel, They Have Bodies (New York: Macaulay, 1928), was seized by Toronto police for its depiction of depravity amongst the city's privileged. At first blush, he appears to have shown no greater caution with Toronto Doctor. While there are no affairs, and nothing more than a few kisses feature, Allen dares include several prominent figures as characters:

Former premiers Hepburn and Drew, justices of the Supreme Court and others move through imagined situations, carrying on conversations with people who simply never existed. I expect Allen's ability to dodge lawsuits had much to do with advice received from novelist Philip Child, politician Alex Ross, and lawyers Fred Catzman and John R. Cartwright (himself a future Supreme Court justice).

What physicist Leopold Infeld brought to the table is anyone's guess, but I'm thinking that it was Messrs Catzman and Cartwright who had something to do with the novel's numerous footnotes.

E.B. Joliffe's comment on the dust jacket's back cover shows that Allen displayed further caution in sending out proofs for comment:

Unlike Desmond F. MacAuliffe – who he? – this reader never once thought of Flaubert and Huysmans. What's more I just can't agree that Allen's phrases are unforgettable, or that they "sear [sic] the mind like a knife being drawn across the hesitating and reluctant flesh." I will say, however, that one week after finishing the novel disturbing images linger. Allen's description of operations are graphic, no doubt supported by colour provided by Dr "X".

A little over a year ago, I wrote that Ted Allan's original Love is a Long Shot featured one of the darkest, most horrific scenes in any Canadian novel. I stand by those words, adding that there is something in Toronto Doctor that made my hesitating and reluctant flesh crawl a far greater distance. This scene, taking place in the funeral home of a man named Murchison, involves an illegal autopsy in which Roger and Guy remove the ovaries from a cooling corpse. Those with weak stomachs will not want to click on the pages that follow.

Throughout the remaining two-thirds of the novel, I expected to see the gruesome, clandestine operation, so vividly described, come back to haunt Roger and Guy; I truly believed that the law would appear at some point. But no – minor deviations aside – things proceed just as before: patients come and go, dinner parties take place and businessmen pull strings. The novel's ending is a surprise in that it comes at the beginning of a scene. Walking into a consultation room, Mrs Hollis is just about to accuse Guy of misdiagnosis when:
The abrupt conclusion is followed by a page that had me wondering whether I hadn't been wrong in thinking that there was no central character:

There was no Toronto Surgeon. Whether the story of Guy and the others in the "set of characters" continues in The Gynecologist, Allen's next and last novel, I can't say.

I'm no more certain as to whether Toronto Doctor is our strangest novel. Could be. But then I haven't read any other Sol Allen titles.

Object: An expensively produced hardcover in black cloth. Just look at that blind stamping!

I expect there were savings to be had in recycling the uncredited cover image used on Allen's previous novel, The Woman's Doctor, published in 1933 by Macaulay.

The dust jacket on my copy is second issue. I have Patrick Campbell and bookseller Nelson Ball to thank for this photo of the first:

I'll bet very good money that Rock Publishing, the house behind Toronto Doctor, was the author's own. The only other book bearing the proud Rock imprint is The Gynecologist, which was published sixteen years later:

Yep, the very same cover image. Again, courtesy of Patrick Campbell and Nelson Ball.

Access: The Toronto Public Library has four copies, as do the University of Toronto's libraries. Eighteen more are held in libraries across the country, but not our cherished, dying Library and Archives Canada.

A dozen or so copies are being offered online, most lacking dust jackets. Expect to pay twenty dollars or so. One copy with the first issue dust jacket is listed: "VG+/VG+" at US$34.50. At more than three times the price, a New Jersey bookseller offers a Fine copy in Very Good second issue jacket. "A novel written in collaboration with one of Canada's leading gynecologists", he writes. "If you buy it we'll expect a full report."

Doesn't sound like much of a deal.

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