“There’s no dream of happiness that in the end doesn’t bite its own tail.”
One of the positives of blogging is connecting with people who share similar tastes, and that brings me to one of my internet finds: Doctor Glas, a Swedish novel from Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) published in 1905. I had to go back and double-check that date because Doctor Glas is a remarkably modern novel for its discussion of a number of taboo subjects: abortion, euthanasia, adultery, marital rape, prostitution and repressed sexual passion, and yet, at the same time, this is an archetypal story of an older husband who stands in the way of a couple of lusty young lovers. Shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice lurked in the corners of my mind as I read this, but there are, of course, numerous differences between James Cain’s story and this Swedish novel, but one of the most glaring differences has to be the approach to morality, for Doctor Glas is a inner contemplation of the ‘right’ to murder someone who is causing misery for others.
It’s turn-of-the-century Stockholm and Doctor Glas is much-respected professional, a bachelor, and a virgin. A quiet introspective man, he epitomizes the sort of figure patients trust, but almost immediately, Söderberg challenges the doctor’s professionalism by allowing us a glimpse into his mind. A doctor can’t pick his patients and Glas has a patient he loathes, Pastor Gregorius, a man “whose dreadful physiognomy stick[s] up from the pulpit like a poisonous mushroom.” Gregorius has a succulent young wife, and, he believes, an “irregular heartbeat.” Glas would be delighted if this patient died as he’d “be rid of the sight” of him. It’s a clever scene as we can both identify with, and be troubled by the doctor’s attitude. Gregorius is an unpleasant person, so we can join in with Glas’s thoughts, and yet it’s disconcerting to imagine a doctor wishing his patients dead.
Of course, there’s a little bit more behind the doctor’s dislike for his patient. Mrs Gregorius is also a patient, and later it develops that she wants Glas to cook up a medical reason which will ‘excuse’ her from her marital obligations. Glas makes a point of not interfering in the lives of various female patients who arrive “weeping, begging, and pleading,” for abortions. He has a “prepared speech” which he “always recites on occasions like this,” and that speech includes words regarding his “regard for human life, even the frailest.” Glas believes that these things have a way of sorting themselves out, but this isn’t based on any moral decision–he thinks “respect of human life,” is “base hypocrisy,” and that “Duty” is a “splendid smokescreen.” His decision to refuse to perform abortions rests solidly with the Law as he knows it “would be foolish to risk everything,” for a desperate woman who would no doubt spread the word to her friends. Yet in spite of his policy of non-involvement, he becomes embroiled in the personal life of Pastor and Mrs Gregorius. Glas feels a great deal of disgust with the human condition which allows him to distance himself from the herd, and it’s very easy for him to sympathise with Mrs Gregorius’s desire to be excused from sex with her husband. They’ve been married for six years, but according to Mrs Gregorius, her husband’s demands have always been “difficult,” but “recently it’s become unbearable.”
“I don’t know how it put it,” she said. “What I wanted to ask if you is rather strange, and it may be completely against your principles. I have no way of knowing how you feel about matters like this. But there’s something about you that inspires trust, and I don’t know anyone else to confide in, no one else in the world who could help me. Doctor, couldn’t you talk to my husband? Tell him I’m suffering from some illness, something gynecological, and that he has to give up his rights, at least for a while?”
Doctor Glas immediately decides to help but he still has a question:
“But,” I interrupted, “the pastor isn’t young any longer. It surprises me that at his age he can cause you so much … distress. How old is he, anyway.”
“Fifty-six, I think. No, perhaps he’s fifty-seven. Though he looks older, of course.”
A few more questions later, and Mrs Gregorius confesses to Glas that the real reason she can no longer abide her husband’s touch is because she has a lover. So she’s given Glas a reason to refuse, but no, he jumps in with both feet and in this fashion becomes complicit in the affair….
The story is written in the form of a journal kept by Doctor Glas, so there’s many introspective, philosophical moments, many memories. There’s a memory of a girl he loved and lost and at another point, he discovers the identity of Mrs Gregorious’s lover. He begins to question his actions, and wonders if he’s become a pimp, and he decides that no, he’s “saved her from something terrible” but that “beyond that, what she does with herself is her own business.” But of course, once having broken his own rule against personal involvement, Glas finds himself in freefall on a very slippery slope.
Doctor Glas has been compared to Crime and Punishment and Thérèse Raquin, and both books are mentioned by Doctor Glas, and those allusions, of course, set the tone for the mental atmosphere surrounding the taking of a human life. I was reminded of my favourite Woody Allen film: Crimes and Misdemeanours–a film that deals with the subject of the guilt and how, in the absence of law or consequences, a person can become their own judge and jury in the aftermath of a murder. Doctor Glas argues that the weight of moral decisions rests on the individual–not fate and not god. This is a psychologically complex novel in which motivation and manipulation fester beneath surface. So thanks to both Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal) for pointing me towards this wonderful novel.
Life, I don’t understand you. Sometimes I feel a spiritual vertigo, a whispering and murmuring that warns me I’ve gone astray
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Translated by Rochelle Wright