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  • Written by Don Coles
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  • Doctor Bloom's Story
  • Written by Don Coles
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On Sale: October 22, 2010
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-36880-5
Published by : Vintage Canada Knopf Canadian Publishing
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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 Führ.

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 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.”

Sophie’s 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 Maggione’s 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 novel’s central moral question gains shape: given all he knows about Sophie’s 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? Bloom’s dilemma, carefully examined and disentangled, will haunt readers of this supple and moving novel long after its resolution.


There’s an image I often have of myself, my ur-self before I began to elaborate and embellish it, an image I retain from the last seconds of sleep or recover in a reliable daydream. I’m sitting in a corner of a remote upper room, casting brief glances about me and then tilting my face downwards as though to meditate on what I’ve just seen. In fact I have seen nothing because no one else is in the room and there is no furniture. It may be, it can hardly be anywhere else, the unused attic room of my childhood home in Amsterdam, that tall narrow Leidsegracht house -- the attic room where I would go in late March when the weather turned a little warmer, to check on the dead flies at the window ledges. They meant, that random spatter, another winter gone, and in my rudimentary way I was taking note of this sort of thing even then.

If this is interesting at all it’s because the passage of time is by far the deepest thing I know about life, and, in an inverse way, about art. Also because everything’s connecting. I am a doctor who is abandoning medicine for literature, fitfully convinced that I have access to enough interesting words to justify this abandonment. (Doctors do this, I don’t know if you’ve noticed. Maybe they do it because time keeps on defeating life: no matter how diligent or technically cunning they are -- the impossibly delicate filaments, tiny cameras travelling bloodstreams -- their defence of life is brief, is never enough. So they’re tempted towards something with more stamina. Ars longa, etc. Though maybe not.) In my own case the “abandoning” could involve a thought confided to me a long while ago, almost certainly by my mother, who died when I was too young to benefit from such confidences -- confidences which are only now (and only imperfectly, haltingly, her voice after so long silence is windblown, is guesswork, Delphic) revealing themselves. Be that as it may, any physician or ex-physician who presumes to stray close to the making of literature has special ghosts to do battle with, in this respect I don’t feel even marginally original. The roster of ex-doctors who have brought their stethoscopes, as some of them with such risible satisfaction have told us, to that larger study of humanity which prose fiction proposes! Maugham, A. J. Cronin, “that charlatan” Axel Munthe. And many more. All vastly over-rewarded in their second careers.

So I thank the Fates for Chekhov, the one gifted exception to this inventory of physicians-as-kitsch-authors. And I take to myself his advice to his brother, who had scratched out a single short story and thought he too would now be on the same high road that Anton had travelled to fame, fortune and, of course, actresses: “You must drop your fucking conceit.”

OK, Anton. I’ve made a note.

Remains only to tell you that in what follows here, my “story,” less of me will come forward to be identified (applauded or excoriated) than some might wish. Others will be sorry that this modesty was not carried a lot further. In any case, things are missing, you’ll find -- some of these due to a spasmodic tact, others simply because they’ve sunk too far down in the historical oubliette to be retrieved. There are many consequences of this, all of them good. At one stroke you are relieved of the self-serving spectre of the Bildungsroman. Hurray! This does not mean that I’m a completely inert observer, nose pressed to window pane, passing intimate newsflashes like bouquets behind my back into the gloved anticipatory hand of some uniformed messenger-boy while the front of me goes on goggling and eavesdropping. I do have a role here. I speak, I move about, towards the end I engage in a significant “act.” But that is, as they say, it.

Time to start.

I am Nicolaas Bloom. Dutch by birth (my mother, mentioned above as a secret-bestower, was a Scot, ours was a bilingual family), surname until I left Holland, Blom. Born 1944 in Amsterdam, an only child. Local schools until eighteen; accepted in 1962 by the School of Medicine at the university in Leiden. Left medicine halfway through my studies to re-enroll as a Comp. Lit. major (I had unexpectedly fallen in love with poetry and drama and above all with short stories and supremely with Anton Chekhov, and have never regretted a day or a word of all that) but my parents, by this time father-plus-stepmother, were so distraught that after the three best years of my life (such word-vistas!) I re-entered Medicine, my place in the program having been kept for me. Graduated doctorandus. med. University of Leiden 1973. One year before that I had married (for the solemn quiet look she accorded me in the general office of the hospital in her hometown of Breda, where I was doing my internship, also for the whispery times we soon began having in my intern’s cubicle there) Saskia van der Velde, a nurse-in-training at the time of that look, born 1952, of Breda, in the province of Brabant. Began a general practice in Amsterdam but developed an interest in the heart shortly thereafter and went back to med school until 1979 when I was anointed cardioloog. Emigrated to the U. K. in 1984 (my wife, a small-town girl as I have mentioned, never felt at home in Amsterdam, which I loved, but at the time I loved my wife more, so off we went as though we were of one mind). Tried, for that small-town girl’s sake, the Border Country for just over a year, a village on the Northumberland/Yorkshire county line, but the moors’ unresting winds blew us south (a frivolous remark, obviously: what really happened was that there was very little welcome up there for yet another cardiologist), so we settled in Cambridge, choosing Cambridge because, as a direct result of two papers I had published on paroxysmal tachycardia during my involuntary leisure time on the moors, Queens’ College offered me a fellowship, thank God. We were together there for nine years, living on one of the world’s privileged streets, Barrow Road of that town -- it had almond trees lining both sides and its semicircular private drives were surfaced in rust-coloured gravel, the little stones of which uttered small crackling sounds as your car pulled up to your front door. How we both loved that town! and that road! And then that ended too. Halfway through those Cambridge years there was a stillborn child, a daughter she would have been. Not “would have been,” we both rejected that formulation. She was, we did have a daughter -- although one who, no reason for it, decided against light, air, even her own uncried cries, before we could steady ourselves. Three years after that, Saskia died. She had developed breast cancer, although according to her doctors at Addenbrooke’s the odds on her surviving this were good to excellent, she being both young and fit. But she defeated them. She did finally permit the mastectomy, but the subsequent and expected weight loss just went on and on, I think she ate nothing when I was not at home and I could not always be at home. When it was over I found a letter in which she explained why she wanted to die.

From the Hardcover edition.
Don Coles|Author Q&A

About Don Coles

Don Coles - Doctor Bloom's Story
Don Coles is one of Canada’s 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 University’s 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 General’s Award, a Trillium Award and the John Glassco Prize for Translation.

He lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

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.



“Part crisp thriller, part meditation on writing, Doctor Bloom’s Story is wholly marvellous.”

“A straight-ahead, spryly imagined, tightly written tale of suspense. . . This is fabulous stuff. Doctor Bloom’s Story has countless. . .moments that, in their combination of gaiety and sadness, fix themselves in your imagination. . . . Doctor Bloom is surely one of the most memorable and triumphantly conceived characters in recent Canadian fiction.”
The Globe and Mail

“Coles writes so elegantly and so convincingly that we would follow him anywhere.”
The Literary Review of Canada

“Coles, who has won many awards for collections of poetry, tells Dr. Bloom’s story with an ear attuned to the rhythms of speech and an admirable eye for detail.”
Quill & Quire

Doctor Bloom’s Story is, by turns, witty, contemplative, and spirited story telling. One of our finest poets now proves himself to be an accomplished novelist.”
—Guy Vanderhaeghe

“Any fan of Coles’ poetry will instantly recognize the distinctive, casually sophisticated voice of this novel, the almost off-hand way it gathers a whole range of interests into a compelling whole. Doctor Bloom’s Story is at once a medical mystery tale, an exploration of the limits of love and friendship, and a tribute to the art of writing — all rolled into an effortlessly seductive narrative. I couldn’t put it down.”
—John Bemrose, author of The Island Walkers

Doctor Bloom’s Story is utterly compelling, a novel both wise and wonderful.”
—Richard B. Wright, author of Clara Callan

“How wonderful to find this trusted voice again, the poet transformed into the worldly late-bloomer Bloom! Reading Don Coles is like listening to an erudite, judicious friend tell the story of a life of the mind that doesn’t for a moment neglect the delights of the flesh.”
—Katherine Govier

Doctor Bloom’s Story is a complex, mellifluous novel that, while not tediously or pretentiously poetic, certainly puts language foremost — with commanding surefootedness and subtlety.”
New Brunswick Reader

“A masterful, taut and unusual book.”
Calgary Herald

“Coles has devised something odd, lovely and exceptional: a plot-driven novel of ideas in which ideas are integral to characterization. He captures Bloom’s intelligence as it listens to itself unfolding, and it’s both fascinating and entertaining to listen with him…. A book that buries a thought-poem on every page.”
The Vancouver Sun
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Consider the narrative voice in which Doctor Bloom’s 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 Bloom’s 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 one’s approach to writing a novel?)

9. What are your criticisms of Doctor Bloom’s 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?

  • Doctor Bloom's Story by Don Coles
  • December 28, 2004
  • Fiction
  • Vintage Canada
  • $13.95
  • 9780676976038

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