Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

by Peter

Doctor Glas, Hjalmar SoderbergDoctor Glas is a classic Swedish novel. When it was first published in Sweden, in 1905, it caused a scandal, as it deals with sensitive matters that were not discussed in public at the time: Death, sex, lust and abortion. Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) seemed to be advocating abortion and euthanasia. He also discussed how a doctor could easily kill without being caught.

The novels and short stories of Hjalmar Söderberg remain widely read in Sweden today, especially Doktor Glas (1905; Doctor Glas) and Den allvarsamma leken (1912; The Serious Game).

A medical doctor, the main protagonist Tyko Glas is an interesting, quite intriguing and strange character. The novel Doctor Glas contains his personal diary – his notes about things he does, thoughts, people he meets, and reflections about Stockholm, Sweden, and the world at large. He was a child genius of sorts, finished unusually early at the university, but decided he wanted to make a living – earn his own money – rather than do a doctoral degree. Now he is about thirty years old. His life is somewhat boring and routine, and he is looking for adventure. He views himself as an enlightened man, a progressive and an aesthetic intellectual in a city that is quite conservative. He disdains the many requests he receives for abortions, invariably turning them away, not of his own beliefs, but because he fears Sweden’s hypocritical society would ostracize him.

He has never had a relationship with a woman. Maybe he could have. A few years ago he fell in love, he thinks, but nothing ever came of it. And only rarely is he attracted to women – he mostly doesn’t care too much about them, but sometimes he sees beauties that attract him. As he struggles with his own desires, Glas exercises a godly power over his patients.

One day an attractive young woman named Helga comes to his office with an unusual plea: She wants him to declare she has an “infection of the womb”, so her husband of six years – Pastor Gregorius, an elderly man – will not touch her sexually. She is very honest: It is not only because she dislikes his sexual advances, but more because she has a relationship on the side with another man.

Glas – the romantic idealist – knows Gregorius well. And for reasons of his own, he despises him. He approaches him and tells him that he has to stay away from his wife for a time, at least six months, in order to avoid serious complications for her. But while Gregorius may be ageing, he still has his strong needs, and only a few days later he again forces himself upon his wife. He feels he has the right to do so – a right given him by God.

This time Doctor Glas, having been told by Helga, decides to go one step further, He “diagnoses” Gregorius with a “weak heart”, and in no uncertain terms tells him that sex could quite possibly kill him. And to avoid further incidences and make things easier for himself, he strongly advises Gregorius to leave town, and go away to a nearby coastal resort to spend the summer alone.

Increasingly, Glas becomes infatuated with Gregorius’ wife. And, as Gregorius returns, and again has a sexual encounter with Helga, Doctor Glas starts to think about even more radical solutions to the problem, in deliberations that to his mind appear as philosophical and logical, and totally unconnected to his own emotions:

“The day will come, must come, when the right to die is recognized 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.”

He starts to wonder if Gregorius could justifiably be killed to relieve the “burden” upon Helga. This leads him to reflect on morality, love, sex, and religion, and – as he sees the result of an abortion he refused – on abortion. His thoughts increasingly become feverish and his actions bolder. He prepares tablets of potassium cyanide; he ponders ways to kill Gregorius that would allow him to get away with it. Will he actually try to kill Gregorius? Will he woo Helga for himself? Or will he drop the entire issue, and snap back to reality and morality?

Doctor Glas is very well written, and uses the “diary”-device in a very clever fashion. Also, it is a book that in many ways may be viewed as breaking out of and challenging the naturalistic school in literature that was very dominant in Scandinavian and European literature at the time. Some of his images foreshadow the Surrealists. With its focus on the inner deliberations of a confused mind, it strongly reminds me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, a novel that went even further in its challenge to naturalism. There are also traces here of Dostoevsky and the ghost-ridden Henrik Ibsen.

Doctor Glas is a literary pearl. It is clever, elegantly written, and brief. The workings of the novel are very subtle. I enjoyed it tremendously. Even today, it feels as if it poses a challenge and forces readers to reflect on issues that still are difficult, and it is still unsettling. A very impressive novel!

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