DOCTOR GLAS BY HJALMAR SÖDERBERG

I have a [deserved] reputation for being brutally honest. I lack tact; and good manners too, probably. I will, for example, tell someone if they are boring me. Indeed, there is a guy at work who I will not even allow to speak to me. If I see him opening his mouth I walk away. I’m an arsehole, basically; but I refuse to waste my time, and other people’s, engaged in conversation that isn’t worthwhile, and I refuse to lie about my feelings. Who do these lies benefit exactly? Why are people so petrified of the truth? In any case, I have often wondered how I would react to being in a profession that demanded some level of dishonesty from me, such as a doctor. To work as a GP one must, no matter how tired or irritated or disgusted, feign interest in all your patients’ minor and major ailments, one must give the impression of absolute sympathy at all times…

Tyko Gabriel Glas, the protagonist in Hjalmar Söderberg’s acclaimed Swedish novel, is in just such a situation. It is, I believe, appropriate that Söderberg chose to present his novel in the form of diary entries, because we consider a diary to be someone’s truth, to be the one place that one can be honest, no matter how alarming that truth might be. In his private thoughts, as set down on paper, Glas makes various admissions. He acknowledges, first of all, that he perhaps entered the wrong profession. ‘How can it have come about that of all possible trades, I have chosen the one that suits me least?’ he states. His bedside manner may be faultless, and kind and helpful words always on the tip of his tongue, but, in reality, the image that he presents to his patients, and to the world-at-large, is a false one; he is not who he appears to be; necessarily so, for an honest doctor would be a doctor without visitors.

“A pregnant woman is a frightful object. A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood.”

One of Doctor Glas’ regular visitors is the Reverend Gregorius. While Glas fails to feel the expected good-will towards a number of his patients, he reserves a special, intense kind of disdain for the clergyman. Indeed, Gregorius’ introduction into the novel occurs while Glas is trying, unsuccessfully, to hide from him. [‘Impossible to escape!’ he laments]. As the two converse politely, the doctor considers the ‘odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus,’ and when Gregorius admits to having a bad heart, Glas, in his thoughts, is delighted. In fact, he wishes death upon the parson, so that he might be rid of him ‘once and for all.’ This exchange, which is handled wonderfully by the author, with its mixture of blandishments and bile, occurs very early in the novel; and so one understands, almost from the beginning, that Glas isn’t merely someone who chose a career for which he is unsuited, but is potentially a very dangerous, but certainly emotionally unstable man.

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[Georg Rydeberg as Doktor Glas]

This is not, of course, to say that Glas does not have reason to feel antipathy towards Gregorius; he is, in fact, incredibly easy to dislike, at least as filtered through Glas’ lens. The main reason for this is his treatment of his wife, Helga, a woman some years his junior. Early on, Glas assumes the Reverend is ‘plaguing the life’ out of her, and as the novel progresses this proves to be the case. What this plaguing consists of is a relentless desire for sex, [almost] to the point of forcing her. There are plenty of novels – Middlemarch, for example – that deal with an unhealthy and regrettable relationship between an older man and a younger woman, but one must applaud Söderberg for not flinching in the face of the more squeamish questions these kind of unions might raise; which is to say that he directly acknowledges what we all think: that the poor woman must find being mounted by an old codger she doesn’t love deeply unpleasant. That he goes even further than this and touches upon the issue of rape within marriage, an issue that we are still not comfortable with even now, is extraordinary, especially considering that the novel was published in 1905.

In terms of Gregorius, he is shown to be, or the main characters consider him to be, a loathsome hypocrite. The idea being that he gives the impression of being a pious man, and yet he cannot  – even at the risk of his own health, and the obvious resistance from his wife – give up on getting his rocks off; that, in other words, he preaches moderation, understanding, and so on, but is incapable of these things himself. His wife even accuses him of using his religion as justification for his desires,  as though he is manipulating the word of God in order to suit himself. In this way, the heart problem from which he suffers is clearly symbolic. He has a bad heart, we’re repeatedly told, and I don’t think one is meant to take that only literally. Indeed, Glas actually has a dream in which he removes the defective organ.

However, one must not forget, as previously noted, that one only ever gets to see Gregorius as Glas does, and the doctor is, let’s say, not entirely without bias, for he has a not so innocent interest in the man’s wife. So when he is writing about the parson’s ‘grossly indecent behaviour’ one could legitimately see it as little more than jealousy. Moreover, the rest of the information, the juiciest bits in fact, the worst accusations, are provided by Helga Gregorius, and her word shouldn’t be accepted without question either, for who can say that she can be trusted? Certainly, she has a reason to want her husband dead, having mistakenly married him and then started an affair with another man. It is possible, therefore, to see her as something of a cynical manipulator, who plays upon the doctor’s feelings and naivety. Glas is a strange, ‘solitary’ man, who lacks experience with women; he is, in fact, a virgin, who has only ever once held a girl’s hand and touched her breast.

“We know so little about one another. We embrace a shadow and love a dream.”

I have now read Doctor Glas twice, and it is always interesting how one’s perception of a novel can change. The first time, I was aware of sex playing a part in the narrative, but I did not realise just how much it dominates the work.  Of course, there is the central issue of Gregorius’ libido; but sex is actually everywhere, on almost every page: Helga’s affair, her awakening as a woman in the bed of a man she actually desires;  a couple fucking in a graveyard; the multiple abortions that Glas is asked to perform, unwanted pregnancies resulting from grubby, illicit liaisons; the doctor’s frequent dreams of a naked Helga, who he calls a ‘feminine flower,’ and so on. Indeed, in terms of the the latter, one could make a case for Glas’ murderous impulse being caused by extreme sexual frustration. Again, it is Glas’ words, and observations, that we have access to, and so it is he that sees sex in everything, on every corner; and yet he considers himself to be a man who is completely in control of himself, a man who is actually disgusted by sex. ‘So much suffering for so little pleasure,’ is how he describes the act.

I hope that I have given the impression that Doctor Glas is a complex novel. One can see it as progressive, as sympathetically, seriously engaging with a multitude of important, controversial issues, such as the previously mentioned sexual rights [and rape] within marriage and abortion, as well as euthanasia and suicide. Equally, one can enjoy it as a fine example of the ‘unreliable narrator’ genre, with murder and psychosexual drama thrown in for good measure. Regardless, what is certain is that Glas is something of an existentialist anti-hero. By his own admission, he is not tied to conventional morality or duties. When he decides not to help the pregnant women who want him to abort their unborn children he does not do so because he thinks abortion is wrong, but rather out of fear of compromising himself. Likewise, his attitude towards murder is that it is permissible in certain circumstances, when the ‘rotten flesh’ needs to be cut away to preserve the healthy.

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6 comments

  1. Great review. I recall reading this a few years back and being very taken with the book’s handling of these issues so far ahead of its time. And also of course the very wonderful unreliability of the narrator. Time for a re-read maybe.

    1. Cheers, K. I definitely viewed the book differently this time. I pretty much took Glas’, and Helga’s, words on face value when I first read it. And yeah it it is amazing how many issues it tackles that we still aren’t comfortable with.

  2. I’ve also read The Serious Game, but Doctor Glas seems to be Sodeberg’s stand-out novel.If you haven’t already, you might be interested in reading Gregorius by Bengt Ohlsson which uses Doctor Glas as its starting point.

    1. I’ve considered getting a copy of Serious Game. Not as good as Glas? I have heard of Gregorius, but I don’t tend to like novels based on other people’s work.

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