Doctor Glas: Hjalmar Söderberg

“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.

Doctor GlasIt’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

Caroline’s review

Max’s review

Review copy/own a copy

Translated by Rochelle Wright

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12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Söderberg Hjalmar

12 responses to “Doctor Glas: Hjalmar Söderberg

  1. I’m so glad you liked this too. Its’ feels so modern, doesn’t it? But maybe we’re gojng backwards in some ways. Those were the early days of psychoanalysis. I saw similarities to Schnitzler. I really liked the introspective parts and the story is fantastic. I find it more subtle even thanThérèse Raquin. I always meant to read more of him. Plus Lizzy made me aware of the novel “Gregorius”, which I got and which sounds very good. There’s more than one novel, I believe, inspired by this one.

  2. This does indeed sound more contemporary then it is. With that, this was written at a time when the nature of the novel was changing in a revolutionary way. Tackling issues like this was part of the revolution.

  3. I think I may have seen a film adaptation of this many years ago as the set-up is ringing bells with me. It sounds like a very nuanced story in light of the complexity of the moral issues at play. You reference to Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors has piqued my interest – a great film.

    • Woody Allen has a new one coming out btw: The Irrelevant Man. Looking forward to that one as it stars Parker Posey.

      Max was lucky enough to see a stage version of this. Looked up Doctor Glas on IMDB and it looks as though there are a few film versions.

      • Ooh, I just looked up The Irrelevant Man: Parker Posey, Joachim Phoenix and Emma Stone, that sounds very promising indeed. (Slight aside, but have you seen Birdman? I thought Emma Stone was excellent there.)

        I must have seen the 1968 film of Dr Glas. It was ages ago, but the story definitely sounds familiar. Max may have seen the production at the Wyndham’s a few years ago. I love that theatre – it’s probably my favourite venue in London.

  4. I first heard of this years ago in a collection of essays about underrated works of literature, but have yet to get around to it. I must, at some point. Plus, nearly everything I’ve read from Sweden (not much, admittedly) has been unusual, with attitudes and openness about gender and sexuality that make the rest of Europe seem almost retrograde.

  5. What an extraordinary book for its time I couldn’t help for some reason thinking of Ibsen too.

  6. I loved this as you know, so I’m glad you liked it too. Caroline’s comparison to Schnitzler is an interesting one. There’s such psychological depth here, it is as you say a remarkably modern novel.

    The production I saw was I think at the Wyndham. It was a one-man show with Krister Henrikkson in the lead and generally very good, though could perhaps have used more time (there’s a lot of mood changes to fit in, though that’s probably part of why Henrikkson was so tempted by it). It was in Swedish, with surtitles.

    Raquin for me is a deeply flawed novel with huge pacing issues, this I think is much stronger. It’s a real classic so I’m glad too to see it get more attention.

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