Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg

Hjalmar Söderberg

(July 2, 1869 - October 14, 1941) Söderberg was a Swedish novelist, playwright, poet and journalist. His work is often about melancholic and lovelorn characters. They usually have rich portrayals of contemporary Stockholm as well.

Söderberg is an author that is greatly appreciated in Sweden, by some considered to be the equal of August Strindberg, Sweden's national author.

Bibliogaphy

  • Förvillelser (1895)
  • Oscar Levertin (1895)
  • Historietter (1898)
  • Martin Bircks ungdom (1901) - Martin Birck's Youth (1930)
  • Främlingarne (1903)
  • Doktor Glas (1905) - Doctor Glas (1963)
  • Gertrud (1906) (play)
  • Det mörknar över vägen (1907)
  • Valda sidor (1908)
  • Hjärtats oro (1909)
  • Den allvarsamma leken (1912) - The Serious Game (2001)
  • Aftonstjärnan (1912)
  • Den talangfulla draken (1913)
  • Jahves eld (1918)
  • Ödestimmen (1922)(play)
  • Jesus Barabbas. Ur löjtnant Jägerstams memoarer (1928)
  • Resan till Rom (1929)
  • Den förvandlade Messias (1932)
  • Selected Short Stories (Eng. edition) (1935)
  • Short Stories (Eng. edition) (1987)
Hjalmar Soderberg

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. Two novels in particular, Doktor Glas (1905; Doctor Glas, trans. 1963 and 1998) and Den allvarsamma leken (1912; The Serious Game, trans. 2002), have inspired fellow writers to retell the core narrative from different perspectives.

A medical doctor, 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. Also, 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!

Praise for Doctor Glas:

“Splendid. . . . Söderberg [is] a marvelous writer.” –The New Yorker

“[Doctor Glas] not only sketches the light and shadows of its time, but maps territory still being explored by the writers of today. It is a volcano, shaking, about to erupt.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Elegant, vigorous, and tightly-knit. . . . One of those marvelous books that appears as fresh and vivid now as on the day it was published. . . . It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.” –Margaret Atwood, from the Introduction

"Even the Swedes were dismayed by Soderberg's grim-grey novel when it was published in 1910, but today it is recognized as a Scandinavian masterpiece." - Time

The Serious Game, by Hjalmar Soderberg

The Serious Game, Hjalmar Soderberg Hjalmar Soderberg, born in Stockholm, in 1869, was one Scandinavia's leading modernist writers. He is still much read in Sweden, and The Serious Game is Sweden's most celebrated and enduring love story. It is a deep and penetrating love story, very evocative, and full of struggles and dilemmas. In a review, New York Times reviewer Bruce Bawer called it “the magic fling”, which is quite apt.

It begins on an island outside Stockholm on a summer day in 1897. There several men -- a lawyer, a notary, a baron, a landscape painter and a 22-year-old student named Arvid Stjarnblom -- have gathered at a rented cottage to eat, drink and sing. The painter’s beautiful daughter is also there. Her name is Lydia Stille. As evening falls, Arvid sneaks off for a short and passionate meeting with Lydia, his secret love. They do what young people in love do; hold hands, kiss, look at the stars and dream dreams of the future. Of perhaps, one day, making a little world for themselves. They are young; it is summer; they are in love.

In The Serious Game we follow them over the next fifteen years. They remain strongly attracted to one another, but never really get an opportunity to come together and build their own world of dreams and love. At times they are separated by circumstances, at times by words interpreted differently from the way they were meant, at times by intervening relationships with others. They are young; they feel the love and the attraction, they hope and wish; but there is also pride, lack of self-confidence, anguish, the need for independence, and the desire to have something real to offer.

In brisk, unadorned, unsentimental yet delightful, at times almost telegraphic prose, Hjalmar Soderberg chronicles the two lovers' passage over time and their rollercoaster of a relationship – on, off, on, off-again. We follow them through love and adultery, witness the longing for financial security, and the way the conventions of society interfere and restrict. At the same time the novel raises questions and issues in a thoughtful manner: "You do not choose your destiny any more than you choose your wife, your lover or your children. You get them, and you have them, and possibly you lose them. But you do not choose them!" Or, as when they begin their adultery, they look back to their uncomplicated youthful romance and lament that they "reached the autumn of our lives while still so young."

I loved this insightful and penetrating novel, with its portrayal of love as a "serious game”. It’s a novel that reminds me a lot of Strindberg and the excruciating dilemmas he lets sensitive people face. However, it is a tale that leaves the reader not depressed, but rather released. The Serious Game is an excellent novel, almost a classic, great art, and a joy to read.

Prise for Doctor Glas:

"If Doctor Glas is a wonderful book, The Serious Game is almost better. (...) (I)t seems to encompass real change, psychologically and historically, in the way that only a novel can." - Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books

"Among this novel's distinctively Scandinavian virtues are Soderberg's sense of justice, sense of proportion and (gently sardonic) sense of humor, not to mention his obvious distaste for for jingoism and dogma. Then there's his prose, which Claeson has done a mostly fine job of rendering into English." - Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review

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