Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg

December 29, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg (1905) French title: Docteur Glas Translated from the Swedish by Marcellita de Molkte-Huitfeld and Ghislaine Lavagne.

Doctor Glas is a striking novella by Hjalmar Söderberg. It is the diary of the eponymous doctor from June 12th to October 7th, 1905. Dr Glas is a general practitioner in Stockholm. He’s a brilliant mind without social skills. He’s terribly lonely.

N’y a-t-il en dehors de moi personne qui soit seul au monde ? Moi, Tyko Gabriel Glas, docteur en médecine, à qui parfois il est donné d’aider les autres sans pouvoir s’aider soi-même, et qui, à trente-trois ans, n’a jamais connu de femme ? It makes me feel as if there’s no one in the world lonely at this moment but I. I, doctor of medicine Tyko Gabriel Glas, who sometimes helps others but has never been able to help himself, and who, on entering his thirty-fourth year of life, has never yet been with a woman.

Translated by David JC Barrett.

This quote comes from the first pages of the book. We know right away that Doctor Glas is an odd man with his own issues. In the first entry of his journal, he relates a promenade in the streets of Stockholm and his displeasure to run into Rev Gregorius, his patient and a nearby pastor. The man repulses him to the point of comparing him to a poisonous mushroom.

One day, Mrs Gregorius confides in him: her husband forces himself on her and she wonders if the good doctor couldn’t tell her husband that he should stop all sexual intercourse with her, for medical reasons, of course. The brave doctor is touched by her plea, a plea he’s ready to believe as he already hates Rev Gregorius. He agrees to help her and he gets more and more involved in her life, to the point of falling in love with her, even if he doesn’t want to acknowledge his feelings. She makes him cross lines, think about crossing more lines and question medical boundaries and his society’s hypocrisy.

Day after day, we read the thoughts of this unconventional doctor who writes about sensitive topics. He raises ethical questions that are still unresolved today. He wonders about birth control and abortion, not that he thinks that women should have the right to do what they want with their body or choose their time to become a mother. No, he thinks that there are already enough people on earth as it is. He also wonders about euthanasia: shouldn’t people be allowed to decide to die, especially if they have a terminal illness?

These thoughts were already in him but Mrs Gregorius’s story pushes them on the top of his mind. What is the ethical thing to do? He’s not ready to cross all lines but he can’t help thinking about these lines.

Doctor Glas was a scandal when it was published and it’s easy to understand why. Söderberg is brave enough to write about ethical questions from a doctor’s point of view. His character is not warm, someone you feel compassion for. He’s icy and perhaps his steely vision of men allows him to think out of the conventional path. Rev Gregorius, seen from Glas’s eyes, is repulsive. His wife is a lot younger than him and she’s not a sympathetic character either. Sometimes I had the impression she was manipulating Glas to be as free as possible from her husband to enjoy her relationship with her lover. It’s ambiguous.

Doctor Glas is remarkable for its directness. The doctor writes boldly about sex, death and the place of the church in the Swedish society. I don’t think Söderberg used the literary form to promote his ideas. He wrote the portray of a trouble man confronted to a complicated ethical question. How will he react? He has to choose to help Mrs Gregorius or not and this leads him to delicate questions.

I thought that Doctor Glas was a brilliant piece of literature. It’s concise and gets to the point. It’s less than 150 pages long and manages to draw the picture of a single individual while raising important ethical questions.

Highly recommended.

  1. December 29, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    I liked this one a lot when I read it. I bought s couple of others after reading this (Delusions and Diversions are the same book w/different titles)

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 29, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      It stayed with me for its honesty and its modernity.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. December 29, 2017 at 8:59 pm

    I read this pre-blog and remember thinking how striking it was. Perhaps I shall search out a copy for a re-read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 29, 2017 at 9:37 pm

      It is a book one can reread. It has so many ideas in it despite the small number of pages. It has everything: a fascinating personal story, a strong sense of place with the descriptions of Stockholm through the doctor’s walks and questioning about deeper and more general issues. The perfect proof that a writer can say a lot with a few pages. A tour de force, in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. December 29, 2017 at 9:29 pm

    Oh, this does sound interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • December 29, 2017 at 9:38 pm

      It is fascinating. I highly recommend it. You don’t risk much, it’s less than 150 pages long.

      Like

  4. December 30, 2017 at 6:14 am

    Ha, I recently found this for $1 in an American paperback edition with a hilariously salacious cover promising all kinds of titillation. The cover notwithstanding, the novel was great. I agree that there’s almost no one likable in the whole story and that it’s easy to see how scandalous it may have been when it first appeared. But by today’s standards, it seems almost quaint. Like you, I was struck by the novel’s remarkable concision, which to me was its stand-out quality. By the way, I first learned of this novel in a Canadian anthology of essays on “strange” books recommended by other authors. This one was Margaret Atwood’s pick. I was thrilled to find a copy in the discount bin at a local bookstore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 1, 2018 at 1:02 pm

      I’m not surprised it comes with this American cover: the book deals with issues that seem more “unsolved” in the US than in Europe and so the book sounds more scandalous.

      I don’t think it’s quaint for today: the issues of “spouse rape” (I don’t know the English expression for that), birth control and abortion and euthanasia are still relevant questions today.

      I don’t know why it would be tagged as “strange”. It’s not strange, it just deals with topics that are not frequently used in novels.

      Like

  5. January 2, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Very nice. I really enjoyed this (there’s a review at mine) and I agree much of it remains relevant. It is easy as you say to see why it sparked a scandal. Agreed too on the ambiguity of Mrs Gregorious’ motivations.

    Like

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