October 29, 2008
Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas
I saw Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas on display as a staff recommendation in a provincial bookstore – the sort of shop where otherwise it’s wall-to-wall 3-for-2s – and I was so surprised that I bought it, just to encourage them. Here in the UK, it remains available only in hardback, which seems a shame; then again, as it’s been reprinted five times in five years in this pricey format, the publishers (the redoubtable Harvill) must know what they’re doing. The cover suggests an imminent screen adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst.
Doctor Glas is over a century old – published in Sweden in 1905 – but shows no signs of its age. What it does show is perfect attention to detail and judgement by its author, beginning with the structure: the story spans a long summer into autumn, opening with oppressive sun (“A sultry heat-wave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places”) and closing with the relief of imminent snow (“It will be welcome. Let it come. Let it fall”).
In between, our eponymous narrator, a Stockholm physician, creates a stifling atmosphere from the outpourings of his feverish mind. It demands release. The object of his passion is the wife of the local clergyman, Gregorius; but what, we wonder, does he really know about such things?
I feel as if at this moment no one in the world is lonelier than I – I, Tyko Gabriel Glas, doctor of medicine, who at times help others, but have never been able to help myself, and who, at past thirty years of age, have never been near a woman.
The problem is that “not till late did my senses awaken and by then my will was already a man’s,” suggesting a developmental disturbance in Glas’s emotional maturity. This passion born of ignorance becomes an obsession with Glas, so that as early as page 5, he is declaring that “if, by pressing a button in the wall, I could kill that clergyman, I do believe I should do it.” Even so, he has enough self-awareness to see that what really drives him (and, he believes, almost everything else in the world) “isn’t love. It’s the dream of love.”
As he struggles with his own desires, Glas is exercising a godly power over his patients (“human life, it swarms around us on every hand”), such as when refusing a local woman an abortion. In fact Doctor Glas was initially controversial on publication one hundred years ago, viewed as promoting abortion and euthanasia, probably through passages like this:
The day will come, must come, when the right to die is recognised as far more important and inalienable a human right than the right to drop a voting ticket into a ballot box. And when that time is ripe, every incurably sick person – and every “criminal” also – shall have the right to the doctor’s help, if he wishes to be set free.
In fact it seems to me that here, Glas is both expressing his own interest in that right, and indulging in a little projection in order to justify his murderous feelings toward Gregorius. The clergyman’s wife has secured Dr Glas’s complicity in telling her husband that he must not exercise his conjugal rights (he diagnoses separate bedrooms for at least six months), but Glas is horrified and envious to discover that she has a young lover. “Life, I do not understand you,” is his refrain.
Glas is a tremendous creation, primed full of angst and misanthropy, and then set running by his torrid feelings of hatred, envy and lust. Just as he struggles to distinguish duty from desire, his moral responses are so muddled that he revels in any heightened emotion, not distinguishing good from bad. When he carries out a terrible act,
I feel light, empty, like a blown egg. … And I had to ask myself: What you’ve done today – is that all there has been inside you, is nothing left? … I felt no guilt. There is no guilt. The shiver I felt was the same as I sometimes feel from great and serious music, or very solitary and elevated thoughts.
Thoughts are what drive Dr Glas, for good or ill. “Thought is an acid, eating us away,” he observes, as his long summer nears its end. Then again, if there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, we must wonder why all Dr Glas’s thoughts turn in one direction, and to what extent he is in control of his thoughts and desires, and to what extent they control him. If all thought is corrosive, just as all heightened sensation justifies itself, then there is a pattern of absolutism in Dr Glas’s thinking, which leads only to tragedy for him and those whose trust he holds.
We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.
Doctor Glas, regarded as Söderberg’s masterpiece, has inspired two other novels that I know of. Bengt Ohlsson’s novel Gregorius (2004) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and tells the ‘backstory’ of Glas’s rival. Dannie Abse’s novel The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas (longlisted for the Booker Prize, 2002) has a protagonist in a similar situation to Dr Glas, who is inspired by Söderberg’s book. I hope to read the latter soon.