"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 31, 2014

"Doctor Glas" by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905)

Doctor Glas (1905) is arguably the greatest Swedish novel - its author, Hjalmar Söderberg, the novelistic equivalent of August Strindberg. The astonishing novel tells a story of the fatal obsession of a single man for a married woman, of a physician for one of his patients. The story takes the form of a fictional diary that describes four months in the life of Doctor Glas, living in Stockholm somewhere at the beginning of the twentieth century.

[Stockholm - Photo Wikipedia]

Doctor Tyko Glas is a lonely, reserved and introspective man, who is not very fond of other people (including his patients). He is settled in his profession, but has no particular love for it, calling it "the one which suits him least out of all possible trades." Doctor Glas is already over thirty years old, but still unmarried - even more than that, he has "never been with a woman." In fact, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse strike him as rather repulsive. He vaguely desires marriage, but when Miss Mertens, a young woman in town, approaches him pro-actively, he retreats into himself.

This particular summer he is kept occupied with the problems of two of his patients, Mr and Mrs Gregorius. The Reverend Gregorius is a 57-year old minister, a rather nasty and repulsive person in the opinion of Doctor Glas; while Mrs Gregorius is a lovely young woman, about half the age of the Reverend. Mrs Gregorius comes to Doctor Glas with the following problem: her husband's sexual advances have become so odious to her that she can't bear them any longer - can the doctor help her by pretending to the Reverend that his wife suffers from a pelvic disease and that he must avoid intercourse with her for several months, for the sake of her health?

Doctor Glas agrees, but the Reverend is not so easily put off. God has given man the task to procreate, and he is only trying to do his Christian duty (no lust involved here)! Moreover, there is such a thing as "marital rights..." (for men, not for women, apparently).

Mrs Gregorius again and again visits Doctor Glas and they devise a new and stronger strategy: this time the doctor pretends with the necessary theatricals that he "discovers" that the Rev Gregorius has a weak heart and must abstain from all strenuous effort - especially intercourse - on penalty of suffering a fatal heart attack. This warning works for a time...

[Hjalmar Söderberg - Photo Wikipedia]

Meanwhile, as summer progresses, Doctor Glas has fallen in love with Mrs Gregorius, who is a strong and interesting personality. But there is one problem: he discovers she has a lover, a handsome young businessman, whom she meets for secret trysts. But Glas can't help himself, his love for his patient becomes stronger and stronger, and he becomes a tortured person, as he must keep silent to her about his feelings and knows his love will never be requited...

The book has some ruminations on abortion and euthanasia, which were modern for the time the book was written and considered as "scandalous," although now they are quite ordinary. But, happily, this is not a novel of ideas, the ideas are there only to bring out the story. For example, when a patient asks Dr Glas for an abortion, he refuses, citing some high moral principles - and he thinks he is vindicated when he hears she has married and born a son... until, cynically, he later learns that the child is mentally retarded. But the hypocrisy of his position (or the measure of his infatuation with Mrs Gregorius) is shown clearly when he imagines what he would do in case Mrs Gregorius would become pregnant from her lover - of course, he would undertake an abortion, for her sake...

In his obsession, Dr Glas finally contemplates one further step, something which Mrs Gregorius has never required from him: to poison the minister with a cyanide pill, which will look like a heart attack... He soothes his conscience by telling himself that this would be part of his duty as a doctor, as it would help alleviate his patient Mrs Gregorius' suffering (and it would rid the world of an odious specimen). Glas is obsessed by the idea to free Mrs Gregorius from the oppressive sexual attentions of her husband, and there is a strong element of personal jealousy and rivalry involved here (the odious older man with the beautiful young woman, beast and beauty). At the same time, Glas knows there is no hope, for Mrs Gregorius sees nothing in him, she just treats him like a trusted adviser, but as lovers go, she prefers quite another type of man...

This all leads to a gripping intense ending, but no final resolution: Dr Glas is alone and will remain alone. "Life has passed me by," he concludes.

The novel is not all darkness. Doctor Glas is also a great flaneur who loves to take daily walks through Stockholm, making the water city almost a second protagonist of the novel. Hjalmar Söderberg has given us lively vignettes of life in the great northern city, and among the friends and acquaintances Doctor Glas meets are characters from his earlier novel, Martin Birck's Youth.

Doctor Glas is a searing literary masterwork, still completely fresh and vivid, as on the day more than a century ago that it was written.

Read the original Swedish text here. English translation by Paul Britten Austin (Anchor Books, 2002)