abortion

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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SPRING SNOW [THE SEA OF FERTILITY VOL.1] BY YUKIO MISHIMA

Has there ever been a stranger novelist than Yukio Mishima? On the one hand, he was a body-building Nationalist, who advocated bushido, the samurai code; he also, as many know, committed seppuku, which is a ritual form of suicide involving disembowelling and beheading. You don’t, it is fair to say, get that kind of thing with Julian Barnes and Karl Ove Knausgaard.

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Yet, on the other hand, Mishima was undeniably a cultured man, who spoke English and dressed in the English fashion; he was a bisexual who acted in films and wrote plays as well as novels and short stories. It is almost as though he embodied the conflict – that of the traditional and reserved vs. the modern and progressive – that until very recently so dominated most of the great Japanese literature, and about which his own work, especially Spring Snow, is also concerned.

In what is perhaps a nod to Murasaki Shikibu’s monumental Tale of Genji, Spring Snow is primarily focussed on a preternaturally beautiful young man. As with the shining prince, everyone who meets the central character, Kiyoaki Matsugae, is struck by his attractiveness; and the awareness of his good-looks and the effect it has on other people makes him somewhat spoiled and conceited. Furthermore, although he is the son of a nouveau riche couple, who dress in Western clothes, he was actually raised by a once-prosperous aristocratic family, in order to ensure that he is well versed in traditional Japanese ways and has an elegant bearing. This upbringing means that Kiyoaki is, in a sense, caught between two different eras; he isn’t fully a traditionalist [he doesn’t revere the Emperor, for example], nor is he entirely modern; he is elegant, as his parents desired, but his elegance, and decadence, means that he is unfit for the modern world [for instance, out of indolence he neglects his schooling].

I imagine that it is clear already that my opinion of Kiyoaki is not especially positive. He is not bad per se, but he is tremendously arrogant and self-obsessed. Of course, you could excuse some of his flaws on the basis of his age; Kiyoaki is a teenager and so arrogance and self-obsession are pretty much part of the deal, but even so the behaviour of most teenagers does not lead to the ruin of numerous people. I should point out, however, that I do not think that the reader is meant to like him; I believe that, as a product of two conflicting eras, or ways of life, the effete and ineffectual Kiyoaki is, for Mishima, a necessary failure as a human being. For me, it is telling that his servant Iinuma, the one character whose attitude would have, I think, most closely resembled Mishima’s own [in terms of his feelings about loyalty, duty, etc], is disappointed in him, and even, at times, disgusted by him.

“Iinuma looked down at his face, at the sensitive darting eyes with their long lashes – the eyes of an otter – and he knew that it was hopeless to expect him to swear the enthusiastic oaths of loyalty to the Emperor that a night like this would have invoked in any normal young Japanese boy.”

“Kiyoaki’s eyes were now wide open as he lay on his back staring at the ceiling, and they were filled with tears. And when this glistening gaze turned on him, Iinuma’s distaste deepened.”

As I read the novel for the second time, I was baffled by the popular opinion that it is a moving love story, or even the greatest of all love stories. Yes, it details a troubled relationship between two young people – the aforementioned Kiyoaki and the equally beautiful Satoko, the daughter of the noble family who raised the boy – but it is a strange kind of love that continually rejects someone and then suddenly wants that person at the point at which it has become impossible to have them. Perhaps Satoko does love Kiyoaki, but there is abundant evidence that the same is not true for the young man. For example, the first thing he says to his friend Honda, when an ill-looking Satoko is unresponsive towards him, is “I don’t think Satoko will sleep with me anymore”. Does that sound like love to you? No, it sounds like someone who is a bit of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not always been a nice guy where girls are concerned, so you could say I’m in no position to judge. But on the basis of the principle of it takes one to know one I’m calling Kiyoaki out.

Moreover, although there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles to their relationship, I don’t necessarily buy the star-crossed lovers interpretation of the story because the couple, Kiyoaki in particular, cause their own problems and create those obstacles themselves. Having said that, I guess you could argue that fate or destiny is also an obstacle to the couple’s love, and this is certainly not something that Kiyoaki and Satoko can control. As you may know, Spring Snow is part of a tetralogy called The Sea of Fertility. Each book in the series deals with reincarnation and predestination. In Spring Snow, the first volume, there are numerous hints and suggestions that what is happening, specifically to Kiyoaki, is, in a sense, meant to be. For example, he keeps a dream journal, and one of his dreams involves Satoko clinging to his coffin; there are repeated references to his demise, and a general sense of foreboding hangs over the novel.

“There’s no doubt that he’s heading straight for tragedy…I’ve got to use every ounce of my strength to stop him fulfilling his destiny.”

In this way, Satoko and Kiyoaki’s relationship is tragic, because they never had a chance. However, if you want to appeal to predestination then you can’t really talk about Kiyoaki at all, because without free will he becomes a non-entity. As a reviewer, in order for discussion to be possible, I want to take him on face value.

One may ask then, if Kiyoaki is so unpleasant, and Spring Snow is not the tragic or tear-jerking tale of adolescent love it is billed as, why should you read the book? Well, first of all, it is always engrossing; whether one sympathises with Satoko and Kiyoaki or not, one is, crucially, still interested in their fate. Furthermore, although the narrative isn’t exactly full of high-octane action, Mishima, unlike many of the other historically important Japanese novelists, does serve up a steady amount of excitement and surprise and tension. In contrast, something like Tanizaki’s acclaimed novel The Makioka Sisters may be wonderful, but it is at times interminably slow and uneventful; I can’t imagine that, when reading that book, there are people that have stayed up late into the night, desperate to reach the end of a chapter, so as to find out what happens next, but I can certainly see that being the case with Spring Snow.

I wrote at the beginning of this review that Mishima to some extent embodied the conflict that he wrote about, that of the traditional and the modern ways of life; what is most interesting about Spring Snow is that this conflict, this tension, is not only apparent thematically, it is in the style too. So, while the prose is undeniably graceful, as you would expect from a great Japanese novel, it lacks simplicity; indeed, Mishima’s style, with its extended metaphors, extreme emoting, and psychological depth, is, I would say, closer to Western writers, like Flaubert, Proust, and Dostoevsky, than Kawabata or Tanizaki. I would also argue that Mishima’s characters are easier to understand and relate to for a Western audience; again, one may not like their behaviour, or admire their motivations, but they are more familiar to us; Kiyoaki is a brat, for example, but we all have known brats. Satoko is perhaps more a mystery, more like the enigmatic women you find in Kawabata, but even her actions can be viewed in terms of a young girl having the hots for a great-looking guy.

Yet for all that, the biggest selling point is just how beautiful Spring Snow is; it really is breathtaking at times. As with Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the prose is actually so beautiful that it is, in a sense, diverting, so that, like when in the company of a beautiful woman one becomes incapable of judging her behaviour, readers tend not to pick up on how unsavoury the behaviour of the characters actually is. Also like Flaubert, Mishima’s prose is sensual, and highly detailed; in my review of Madame Bovary I called the Frenchman a hyperrealist, by which I mean he makes the real or ordinary seem extraordinary, and I would apply the same term to Mishima. There are numerous passages in the text that one could highlight as evidence, but one that particularly struck me was Kiyoaki holding the train of the princess’ dress:

“Beautiful, elegant, imposing, she was like a flower at the moment of its perfection…Princess Kasuga’s hair had the blackness and sheen of fine lacquer. Seen from behind her elaborate coiffure seemed to dissolve into the rich white skin-textures of the nape of her neck, leaving single strands against her bare shoulders whose faint sheen was set off by her décolleté…she held herself erect and walked ahead with a firm step, betraying no tremor to her trainbearers, but in Kiyoaki’s eyes that great fan of white fur seemed to glow and fade to the sound of music, like the snow covered peak first hidden, then exposed by a fluid pattern of clouds.”

I love that. It isn’t a one-off either, Mishima throws this kind of stuff out by the page. Mad, bad, and dangerous to know he may have been, but he was a wonderful, sensitive writer.