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.


  1. A fantastic account of what is, amongst all my reads of the year, probably the best. Talking of Ohlsson, I saw him at the Edinburgh Festival and he talked enthusiastically of the novel, calling it his favourite and saying he reads it all the time. He also answered a question that had been niggling me for some time: if Glas can write his account with such brevity, how come Gregorius takes about five or six times as long? Answer: “I like big books.”

  2. I read it recently- excellent, acidic book. To use Eastern philosophical lens, the perceiver and perceived are one, and so Glas mistakes his own ferevered thoughts for thought in its essence, falseness for truth. He has, quite obviously, become prey to disturbance. And such evil betrays itself to the one who can perceive the symptoms with such thoughts as thought’s acidity, eating us away. That is existentially what happens with madness- the self is led down a false, imaginary path of its own making, though with the strange simultaneity of this, in somewhat religious terms, an external temptation. The Father of Lies and all that.

    It might seem superficially easy to compare with the uneasy genius of that other Scandinavian, Knut Hamsun, but there is fairly obvious similarities in sensibility. HoweverDr Glas is more neurotically internal than Hamsun’s early heroes who inhabt life in a more open-ended way, and so are more “alive”- which presumably means something like open to life. “Glas” is an intense, brilliant but more hopeless read than even something like Hamsun’s “Hunger.” I don’t think it especially gives anything away to say there is never really any possibility of a way out for Glas.

  3. Great book. I re-read it this year, after first reading it in college 20+ years ago, and it was every bit as good as I remembered it. I’m also on the lookout for Ohlsson’s novel.

  4. I really really really like this book – the tormented late-night scribblings, the bleak wasteland of it all. Each time I think of the Doctor – and what a wretchedly buttoned-up life he leads! – I remember Macbeth’s plaint: ‘O, full of scorpions is my mind!’

    I can’t quite say I love the book (in the same way that I can’t quite say I love ‘Hunger’ despite its obvious greatness), but I think it was probably this novel (novella? It can’t be more than 35,000 words) more than any other that made me realise how much I value humour in a novel. I’m really glad this novel exists.

    The Abse was very enjoyable too, and, like the original, sparesly and coolly written.

  5. Tremendous, Mr Self. I read it during the summer and have yet to review it. But no need now – I’ll simply link to this when I post my review of Gregorius!

  6. Nice review, John Self (“… a tremendous creation, primed full of angst and misanthropy). I actually bought the novel last summer in Stockholm, but haven’t yet read it. Now I must. As far as I can work out, the translation is a recent one, from 2002, by the late Paul Britten-Austin (1922-2005).

  7. Thanks Eric – I forgot to mention the translator, which is rather remiss of me given how much I go on about another certain translator. Yes, it’s by Paul Britten Austin, and although this edition was published in 2002, it was first published in English in 1963. The translation is listed as copyright 1963 and 1991 by Britten Austin, so either he revised it then or just renewed the copyright. Anyway I hope you like it as much as Stewart, Andrew, Pete, Sam, Lizzy and I have!

    Stewart, allow me to return the compliment by referring everyone here to your review of Doctor Glas, which I reread last night after I’d written the above; Stewart’s review covers aspects of the book which I have completely overlooked.

    Andrew and Sam, thanks for your insights. I haven’t read any Hamsun, I’m ashamed to admit – Hunger seems the obvious choice (I think I have a copy somewhere), but I see Souvenir Press have issued a lot of his less well known stuff in the UK. Any directions to offer? And Sam, yes, I value humour greatly too, though there’s a sort of anti-humour to be found in a book which is so completely straight-faced and unfrivolous (frivol-less?).

    Pete, I trust you’ll now be keeping an eye out for Lizzy Siddal’s upcoming review of Ohlsson’s Gregorius – I know I will!

  8. On Hamsun, I’ve only read ‘Hunger’ and ‘Pan’. I think I prefer ‘Hunger’, but that may be only because I’ve read round the book more and think I have a better understanding of the narrator’s motives. I found both books miserable, confusing, glittering and brilliant. But not lovable (though, somehow, I don’t think Hamsum was aiming for lovable).

  9. My favourite Hamsun is certainly “Mysteries”, which I thought a (much) broader scope than “Hunger”, while retaining all the edgy brilliance. It’s certainly not lovable in a happy-happy kind of way, but miserable isn’t a word I’d reach for in describing it. Undoubtedly a must-read. A positive bucket of joy actually compared to Glas.

  10. ‘Glas’ is great, and the Danny Abse book is also pretty good (though I think it suffers in comparison with the original). If you can get your hands on what I think is the only other Söderberg in print in English, ‘The Serious Game’, you’d be well advised to do so. Wonderful stuff.

    For Hamsun, start with ‘Hunger’, and then go on to ‘Pan’ before girding your loins to tackle ‘Growth of the Soil’.

  11. ‘Pan’ is brilliant also. ‘Growth of the Soil’ a very different kind of book, more Thomas Hardy widescreen. SImilarly ‘The Wayfarers.’ ‘Mysteries’ for me the masterpiece of all mentioned, though.

  12. Read Hunger, then Pan. I haven’t read Mysteries in years but will do so again soon. One odd volume of the Hamsun canon that’s also worth looking into is In Wonderland, his not-quite-factual, not-quite-fiction account of his journey through Russia at the turn of the 20th Century. Not sure if it’s been published in the UK, but in the US it was put out by the indie publisher Ig: http://www.igpub.com/wonderland.html

  13. Unlike Stewart, Glas is officially my number 2 book of the year, after another Scandinavian, Tarjei Vesaas. Glas is one of those worrying books where I find the central character a bit too much like myself. – I have another book by Soderberg, called something like The Unfinished Game (it would take a while to find it), and saw a book of short stories by him the other week which I strangely failed to buy. (It was an expensive secondhand shop and I was already buying 4 books. I have to ration myself).

  14. Obooki, which Vesaas was it? If it was The Ice Palace, then that was (I think) Stewart’s number 1 book of last year – so you’re close in spirit! The other Soderberg you refer to could be The Serious Game (its current English translation title), which JRSM mentions above. By the way JRSM, I believe there’s also a collection of stories and a novel, Martin Birck’s Youth in English. Martin Birck was a secondary character in Doctor Glas, but his novel predates it.

    Thanks for the Hamsun recommendations, everyone. I checked my local bookshop yesterday (trying to support them and avoid buying online where possible) and they have Mysteries and Growth of the Soil, so I will probably go for the former and report back in due course (which may not be all that soon).

  15. Very inspiring review and comments! 🙂

    You had me google Hjalmar Söderberg and then I found that he lived in Denmark and was the grandfather to 2 of our famous writers, Henrik Stangerup and Helle Stangerup.

    He seems very interesting and an absolutely must read, so I ordered the book immediately!

  16. I really enjoyed this book and felt it has a Dostojevski feel to it.

    Now I have learn that a novel has been written from the pastor´s point of view by another author, Bengt Ohlsson called “Gregorius”. So the story somehow continues or should I say widens?

  17. That’s right Flower – Gregorius was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in the UK last year. There is also a novel called The Strange Case of Dr Simmons and Dr Glas by Welsh author Dannie Abse, which involves (I think) someone reading Dr Glas and using it as inspiration for a murder. It was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2002.

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