Saturday, December 6, 2014

An action that could be carried out in church, or in a temple of roses - Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas

I’ve never known such a summer.  A sultry heat-wave since mid-May.  All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places.  (13)

More heat and dust, this time from Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905), from Stockholm during the summer.  I invite readers from most of the rest of the world to use their favorite search engine to see for themselves  what a Stockholm summer heat-wave looks like.  Quite pleasant.  Depends on what you’re used to.

More to the point, the narrator of Doctor Glas is a sociopath, not that I could tell from that opening.  Hints of Glas’s mental illness only begin to appear in the second paragraph, when “the heat-wave lifts and drifting slowly off turns to a long veil of red,” and the doctor runs into Reverend Gregorius, who he so loathes that he imagines “thumping him over the head with his stick” as Schopenhauer once did to an enemy.  “Well, I’m not Schopenhauer.”

Don’t sell yourself short, doctor.  The great question for much of the rest of the short novel, entirely told in the form of Glas’s increasingly crazed diary entries, is to what extent he is Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche, or Raskolnikov – exactly what the nature of his mental illness is and to what extreme of behavior it might take him.

The mention of Raskolnikov is a bit deceptive, which is why the unreliable narrator specifically mentions him (“I’ve read Raskolnikov, I’ve read Thérèse Raquin,” 100), as a trick, since, as you just astutely observed, one cannot read Raskolnikov but rather Crime and Punishment or Dostoevsky.  Glas is actually more attuned to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.  Imagine an Underground Man who has read Freud, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.  Especially Freud.

The humor in the mention of Zola’s noir heroine is that in Thérèse Raquin, Thérèse and her boyfriend bump off her idiot husband in order to freely enjoy his money and bed only to be prevented from ever having sex by the husband’s squishy, disgusting ghost, while Doctor Glas is already neurotically disgusted by and presumably incapable of any sexual activity because of some unspoken trauma in his childhood.  The direct evidence suggests his father is to blame; some curious repressed clues make me wonder about his mother.

Why must the life of our species be preserved and our longing stilled by means of an organ we use several times a day as a drain for impurities; why couldn’t it be done by means of some act composed of dignity and beauty, as well as of the highest voluptuousness?  An action that could be carried out in church, before the eyes of all, just as well as in darkness and solitude?  Or in a temple of roses, in the eye of the sun, to the chanting of choirs and a dance of wedding guests?  (21)

The character writing this is, remember, a physician.  He is disgusted by sex, by pregnancy, by childbirth (“that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood”).  Freud is useful here because the author, Sjöderberg, has read Freud and is pouring unadulterated Freud into his novel.  Thus the Oedipal plot, where the Doctor considers murdering the ogreish father-figure Reverend Gregorius in order to free his beautiful wife from his disgusting sexual attention.  Glas is of course in love with the wife, who is a highly sexualized mother-figure.

One more post on Doctor Glas, since I’ve set up so many nice details here.

I wonder how many blog posts I have read about this novel.  Just recent ones that I remembered: Novel Readings, Pechorin’s Journal, Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat, all with good points and good quotations.

The translator is Paul Britten Austin.  Page numbers refer to the 2002 Anchor Books paperback.


  1. I read this pre-blog and can remember very little about it - though your reviews are rather making me want to go back and re-read! :)

  2. C&P was in fact known as _Raskolnikow_ in Sweden at the time of _Doktor Glas_.

    I'm surprised to see that in Norwegian there were no less than SIX translations released under that title.
    The first German translation was also known as _Raskolnikow_, and it seems a lot of other European translations followed suit. But already in 1888 they got _Raskolnikow’s Schuld und Sühne_.

    In the last couple of decades there have been several novels based on _Doctor Glas_. The two most famous, I think, are Kerstin Ekman's _Mordets Praktik_, which you can read about at the Swedish Book Review, and Bengt Ohlsson's _Gregorius_ which retells the story from the reverend's perspective. The latter was an award-winner and has been translated to English, I believe. I've read neither, though Ekman's sounds terrific.

    1. There's also an English language sequel, "The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds & Dr Glas" by Dannie Abse, where a doctor in 1950s London is given a copy of "Dr Glas" by a patient...

    2. The sequel / re-telling phenomenon is remarkable.

  3. Oh, and the sultry heat-wave is "rötmånadshetta." I think that's more or less what's known as "dog days" in English.

  4. I have to read this as I love these sorts of narrators. Plus I even have the book.

  5. First Hamsun, now Söderberg; it's like everybody was writing insane, neurotic stuff at the time. What great times! I wonder if readers realized what a privileged time they were living in. Probably not.

    1. Strindberg was the most neurotic of them all. And the Austrians were not so different. The French were not so neurotic but merely insane at this time.

  6. Øystein, that is wonderful, that Raskolnikov was really the name of the novel. It demolishes my lovely riff, but is otherwise wonderful.

    The better direction to follow with Dostoevsky, I think, is like what I did with Zola. Given Glas's neuroses, to be kind, what does he think is going on in Raskolnikov? Is he going to rescue Sonya?

    I read about those updated, new point-of-view versions at Caroline's place. The novel is easily rich enough to support them. The assumption that readers know the original is interesting. Doctor Glas is not famous in English, although by now it seems to have found a lot of good readers.

    Guy, this one is up your alley, so to speak. In your wheelhouse. A safe bet.

    Kaggsy - pre-blog, good, that explains why I haven't read your blog post. I have read so many about this novel. I'll write one more post; maybe that will jog the memory.