BOSTON — Chances are that right now thousands of people around the world are absorbed in an imaginary world created by a gentle, soft-spoken resident of a retirement community outside of Boston.
And chances are, if you live in the United States, you’ve never heard of him.
Yet when Noah Gordon visits Berlin or Barcelona, it’s not uncommon for someone on the street to stop the octogenarian and ask for his autograph.
Gordon’s American profile, though, is on the rise, thanks to e-books and a film based on a novel he wrote three decades ago.
“The Physician” – which chronicles an 11th-century English barber-surgeon as he makes a perilous journey to Persia to study at the greatest medical school of its day – has sold nearly 10 million copies in 35 countries. A 2013 German movie version, filmed in English, stars Ben Kingsley, Stellan Skarsgard and Tom Payne. After being screened from Madrid to Moscow, it drew 7 million viewers when aired on German TV last December.
“The Physician” is now available for streaming on NetFlix, after being released last spring on DVD in the United States.
At its peak in Germany, the novel was as popular as those by Stephen King, according to Ulrich Genzler of Random House Germany. But when “The Physician” was published in America in 1986, the book sold just 10,000 copies.
There are advantages, though, to offshore celebrity.
“I like to go back [to Europe] for a shot in the arm every once in a while. I think it has been very healthy for me,” Gordon said. “It allows me to have a regular life and still have the excitement of fame.”
Gordon did have a taste of that excitement half a century ago in America. His 1965 debut novel, “The Rabbi,” spent 26 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. The novel tackled the then controversial theme of intermarriage, its title character falling in love with a minister’s daughter.
“The Physician” might have enjoyed similar popularity in America had it not been for the quirks of the publishing business.
Just a few months before Simon & Schuster released the novel, Gordon’s editor left and his agent retired. That left no one to champion the novel.
“The most important thing with publishing books is having a sponsor; your editor is the supporter,” said Jane Friedman, who helmed HarperCollins for nearly a dozen years. Three years ago, Friedman co-founded Open Road Integrated Media, which is giving “The Physician” and seven other Gordon novels a new life in the e-book world.
Other Open Road authors include William Styron, Jack Higgins and Erica Jong.
“He’s clearly a born story teller,” Friedman said of Gordon. “He’s one of our most popular writers.”
‘He’s clearly a born story teller. He’s one of our most popular writers’
While “The Physician” caused barely a ripple in the United States, a blurb about it in the Simon & Schuster catalog caught the attention of a Munich publisher. After reading the novel, Karl H. Blessing invited Gordon and his wife, Lorraine, to meet him in New York. There, Blessing put the couple up in a fancy hotel; hired a limo take them to a Broadway show; and then treated them to dinner. He went home with the German rights.
Blessing had thousands of copies specially printed for distribution to just about every bookstore employee in West Germany and Berlin. Word of mouth paid off. Within the first year, sales hit a million – in hardcover.
Meanwhile, “The Physician” became a hit in Spain thanks in part to a sprained ankle.
Confined to his home for the weekend, the Spanish publisher’s sales manager “was bored out of his skull and picked up my book and loved it,” Gordon said. When the manager got back on his feet, he revved up the marketing campaign.
From Germany and Spain, the book spread across Europe and into Asia. Gordon learned of an unauthorized Chinese version when a translator had the chutzpah to contact him for a translation of a Jewish expression. “Not only were they were stealing my book, they were asking for help in stealing my book,” said Gordon, who didn’t provide it.
Gordon learned of an unauthorized Chinese version when a translator had the chutzpah to contact him for a translation of a Jewish expression
He’s received fan mail from surprising places for a Jewish author. An Egyptian lawyer wrote him during the Cairo uprising in 2011. Just recently an Iranian tour guide wrote that many foreign visitors ask to see sites mentioned.
“This has been a magic book for me,” said Gordon. “People have been buying it for 28 years in many parts of the world without any extra hullaballoo. … It’s brought people to many of the other books I’ve written, which have become best sellers in Europe.”
The world of Robert Cole – the English barber-surgeon at the center of “The Physician” – may seem far removed from that of the 20th-century son of an immigrant pawnbroker, but the novel weaves together many strands of Gordon’s life.
At the time he wrote the book, he was serving as a volunteer EMT. As a writer and editor, he had immersed himself in health issues, first on the science beat at The Boston Herald and then editing several medical journals. As a graduate student at Boston University, he came to love the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. And then there’s the emotional link between the author and his main character: Both know what it’s like to be an outsider.
“I grew up in a working class neighborhood of mostly Irish and Italian Catholics,” said Gordon, who was born in 1926 in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I think that I’ll always have a sense of being in the minority.”
Living on a block packed with his extended family, he was steeped in tales of life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side.
‘Those things in my background make me very sensitive to people who are newcomers, people who are struggling financially’
“Those things in my background make me very sensitive to people who are newcomers, people who are struggling financially, people who work hard, overcome adversity,” Gordon said.
As a child, he would escape his gritty surroundings by dreaming up fanciful adventures.
“I had a pony – in my mind – and I had an older companion on a horse, and we used to ride around Worcester doing all kinds of things in my imagination,” Gordon said.
As soon as he could read, the library became his home away from home. He was reading novels by Pearl S. Buck and Ernest Hemingway “way before I should have been allowed in the adult section,” he said.
Early on, Gordon knew he wanted to make a living as a writer. After reporting for the Worcester Telegram, he was hired by the Herald in 1959. At night, he would return home to Framingham, Massachusetts, where he and Lorraine raised three children. After dinner, he would sit at the kitchen table and write freelance stories for magazines. It was there, too, that he wrote “The Rabbi,” which enabled Gordon to leave the Herald and write full time.
Two novels – “The Death Committee” (1969) and “The Jerusalem Diamond” (1979) – followed, but neither matched his initial success. By now living in a farmhouse in Ashfield, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Hills, Gordon began to have doubts about whether he could sustain the writer’s life. “Give it another shot,” his wife told him, “and if it doesn’t work get the best newspaper job you can find.”
And that’s when “The Physician” came to him. He said the germ of the novel may have been an article he read about how the Mideast surpassed Western Europe in medicine during the Middle Ages.
“Islam had the only good medical schools,” Gordon said. “The ones in Europe were slaughterhouses.”
Gordon spun out the plot for the novel by playing a game of “let’s pretend.” He imagined a young Englishman in the Middle Ages who so wants to learn medicine that he travels to Persia to study under a renowned Muslim physician. At that time, Christians were forbidden to study at Islamic schools, so Gordon has his Englishman take on the guise of a Jew.
Gordon researched the novel for a year, much of the time ensconced in a room full of ancient maps at Clark University in Worcester. Then he spent two years writing in his office above the garage.
‘I would disappear into the 11th century. I really felt as though I was living in that time’
“I would disappear into the 11th century,” he said. “I really felt as though I was living in that time.”
As is his practice, he first wrote a complete outline of the novel – not that things turned out as he intended. “The characters took over. I just was the typist,” he said.
But that was just the first draft.
“I often feel I shouldn’t be called a writer; I should be called a re-writer,” he said. “You have to super concentrate, which takes so much energy. … When you stop work you’re like a dishrag.”
His 20th century life did overlap with his fiction. As he wrote about barber surgeons making the rounds of the English countryside, Gordon never knew when he would be called off to a medical emergency. It was an accident in his own driveway that prompted him to become an EMT. Shortly after they moved to Ashfield, Lorraine took a bad spill on the ice. With the town’s only ambulance tied up at a school bus accident, Gordon rushed her 20 miles to Greenfield.
“The Physician” turned out to be the first novel in the Cole trilogy. Cole descendents figure in the “Shaman” (1992), which is set in the Midwest during the Civil War; and “Matters of Choice” (1998), about a female doctor who hangs her shingle in a town much like present-day Ashfield.
The story of “The Physician” is far from over. A musical version is due to be staged next year in Germany, and there’s talk of a sequel to the movie.
“It is a long, long shot that an 89-year-old writer would, from a book that he wrote 28 years ago, suddenly have the possibility of two motion pictures and a musical,” Gordon said. “So I’m going to fantasize that maybe if I live long enough, we can get [a bus] and fill it with my friends and neighbors and go down to 42nd Street to see ‘The Physician.’”
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