Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas – Doktor Glas (1905) A Swedish Classic

doctorglas

The haunting tale of Doctor Glas takes place in Stockholm during the closing years of the 1800s. The doctor, a troubled and compassionate man, relates the strange story of the Reverend Gregorius and his pretty wife. Gregorius, an elderly and offensive pastor, has endangered her physical and mental health. She consults Doctor Glas, who for the first time violates the ethics of his profession and uses a highly unorthodox method of helping her. But when the wife takes a lover, and Doctor Glas becomes emotionally attached to her, an intolerable situation develops. The uxorious pastor dies, poisoned. The aftermath of his death and the doctor’s unforeseen reactions to it bring the story to a chilling, horrifying close. Originally published in 1905, Doctor Glas is a novel of extraordinary immediacy and frankness. Its concerns – sexual incompatibility, abortion, euthanasia – together with its psychological insights, make it a remarkably modern work.

I’m so glad I’ve discovered this book on Danielle’s blog (here) not too long ago. I haven’t read a lot of Swedish literature. I’m familiar with some names, like Strindberg, Lindgren, Lagerlöf, and Lars Gustafsson but I hadn’t heard of Söderberg. I tend to read books from Scandinavia in German and Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas wasn’t available in Germany anymore. It has just been republished for the first time last year following the success of another Swedish writer, Kerstin Ekman, who wrote a book called Tagebuch eines Mörders (Diary of a murderer) in which she tells the fictitious story of how Doctor Glas told Söderberg about the planned murder. Her novel led to the rediscovery of Söderberg’s controversial book. It was considered to be very scandalous when it came out. That’s not surprising as some of the topics (abortion, euthanasia) still lead to heated discussions.

Doctor Glas has been compared to Zola’s Thérèse Raquin and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I would add Schnitzler to these two as there is clearly another dimension to this story which seems influenced by depth psychology.

Doctor Glas is written in form of a fictitious diary. The diary is kept by the doctor himself. The book is set during one hot summer, in Stockholm towards the end of the 19th Century, and tells the story of a murder.

Doctor Glas is a loner and a very sensitive man who is filled with disgust by anything all too human. He’s in his thirties and has never had a relationship or any physical contact with a woman. It’s not that he never felt attracted but he thinks too much about it and it starts to look absurd and revolting to him. The summer during which the story begins, is hot and sweltering. Couples meet in the dark in the cemetery below his window. He can hear and sense them, and after a while he cannot shut himself off anymore.

The elderly Pastor Gregorious is a man who more than any other fills Glas with disgust. He looks revolting and has an obnoxious character. Imagining him with his young and beautiful wife is awful for Glas, all the more so as he is secretly in love with her. One day she comes to see Glas and asks him for help. She wants him to tell her husband that he cannot have sex with her as she suffers from an illness. She then tells Glas that he forces her and even rapes her when she is not willing. This shocks Glas so much that even though he knows she loves someone else, he decides to free her one way or the other.

The story line circling around the planned murder reminded me a lot of the above mentioned books by Zola and Dostoevsky but the way the inner life of Glas is rendered, the descriptions of the weather and the nature, his thoughts, emotions and dreams seem influenced by depth psychology and reminded me of Schnitzler. It’s this aspect that made me love the novel. But there is another dimension. The book covers a lot of themes. Adultery, abortion, free love, marriage, euthanasia, murder, guilt. It’s almost endless and highly fascinating. What I found the most interesting are the thoughts on love, marriage and sexuality which made this a very modern novel. This reminded me of another Swedish author, Carl Jonas Love Almqvist whose much earlier novel Sara Videbeck and the Chapel (1839) is equally ahead of its time. It’s the story of a young woman who doesn’t believe in marriage and thinks that a relationship suffers if people are too close and live together. The very same spirit can be found in Doctor Glas only the story is bleak, as Doctor Glas, unlike Sara, is a very troubled mind.

I wrote in the beginning that the novel is set in Stockholm. Stockholm is much more than just a setting, it’s one of the topics of the book. Glas hates the country and loves the city and many of his entries describe the beauty of Stockholm. The initial descriptions of his diary entries always capture a special sight, the blue moon over the cemetery, a walk through the city, a famous building.

Doctor Glas is a rich, multi-layered book which has not only put me in the mood to read more Swedish authors but to finally visit Stockholm. If you like books which take a look into the darkest corners of troubled minds, this is for you. I loved it.

56 thoughts on “Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas – Doktor Glas (1905) A Swedish Classic

  1. I am unfamiliar with Swedish authors, but I am entranced by the dark and troubled mind. Somehow. Not as a steady diet, mind you, but they are an intriguing look into parts of our nature. Loved Therese Raquin, am intrigued by this, and thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    • I think you would like this, or at least find it interesting as the question about was is morally right are at the heart of it. I found it captivating and I liked the fact that it’s written like diary.

  2. I read this a year or so ago and felt much the same as you – bleak and intriguing and quite ahead of its time. I wonder if Soderberg wrote any more novels?

  3. duely noted ,I hope to mix a few classics in translation other coming months and years to add depth to my blog this be great one for sweden and seems very apt to present from sweden books I ve read which can also be bleak at times ,all the best stu

  4. It is very good, Doctor Glas. I’ve been very close recently to reading The Serious Game as well – I’ve even got the book down off the shelf several times and put it in a different pile of other books.

    • I’ll be interested to read what you think of it. There are a few more available in German. They all sound similar, Doctor Glas stands out due to the murder aspect but I suppose most of what he wrote is quite good.

  5. Oh this sounds absolutely amazing. I’m really not that knowledgeable about Scandinavian or even Danish literature and I’ve never heard of this one but it sounds like something I would love – and like it would be fun to read it together with the Ekman book.

    • I’m tempted to order the Ekman. I remember when it came out in German but I thought, because of the title, it was a crime novel. She seems to be one of the best Swedish writers though and a lot is translated. However I think this one isn’t available in English but I’m pretty sure you can find a Danish translation.

  6. Among the many things sound interesting about this book, it seems unusual that the author is so negative about rural areas and positive about urban areas. At least lately, most authors that I have been reading seem to trend to the opposite of this.

    • It the afterword they call his protagonist a typical “flaneur” and most of those, dandy-like charcaters love the city and prefer it to rural areas. It’s another interesting aspect. But I think, since he is hostile to the body, he is hostile to earth too. I’m simplifying but it’s going in that direction, I suppose.

  7. I would love to visit Stockholm too. Caroline, have you ever seen the Masterpiece Theatre version of Thérèse Raquin? Unbelievably scary, but so well done. Crime and Punishment is a big favorite of mine, so I may have to try this as well.

    • I haven’t seen that version, no.
      I really liked this book and hope you will like it as well. I thought it offered a great combination of many things and I’ll certainly read more of him.
      I had planned to visit Stock holm last year but it didn’t work out. Maybe this year. I’m not sure, I’ve already planned two other trips and one is even booked already.

  8. I have to agree thisis a great read. Have you tried Bengt Ohlson,s Gregorius – same tale but told from the perspective of the victim?

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline! The theme of the book is really fascinating especially because of the time the book was published. I am guessing that it might have inspired the whole ‘noir’ genre of books. Carl Jonas Love Almqvist’s book looks quite fascinating! I would love to read it sometime. It is interesting to know that Stockholm is also a character in the book. I haven’t read much of Swedish literature – I can’t recall a single title. Maybe it is time to start. Thanks for this beautiful review!

    • It’s my pleasure. Swedish and Scandinavian literature in general is well worth discovering. When I compare it to German literature for example it strikes me that they are much more progressive. Almqvist’s novel stunned me completely when I read it. Some of what Söderberg writes about is still modern today. I liked the beginnings of the diary entries best, the way he described how the city looks from his window, the weather, the light. These are just brief lines but full of atmosphere. It wouldn’t be a bad place to start reading Swedish literature. 🙂

  10. This one sounds great. I haven’t read that many Swedish authors either, but I would like to. And you should go to Stockholm. I was there last July and it’s beautiful. They get so much daylight. I wonder how I would react to the winter. It would be hard to almost always be in the dark.

    • I think you’d like this book. I wonder what Swedish authors are on your list.
      A friend of my lived in Stockholm and hated it big time in winter. At 2pm it’s dark. I would have a hard time.
      I don’t think I’ll manage this year but maybe next.

      • I did a quick search and only saw 9 books on the list. I’m shocked by that! Miles would go into a deep depression if it was dark at 2. Atticus would love it I believe.

        • 9? I’ll have to see which ones.
          I’m not even so sure about my cats. They are not nocturnal at all. They don’t even want to get up when it’s still dark in the morning. They like twilight best.

          • Oh Att is full on nocturnal and he loves to wake me up all night long–he gets bored.

            I still can’t believe only 9 books out of 1001. Dickens had ten on the list!

            • I somehow managed to “reschedule” my cats. A lot of playing beore they go to sleep helps and they are two. They chase each other for half an hour every evening until they are eally worn out. 🙂
              Looking at it that way, 9 doesn’t seem a lot but I could imagine there are less novels from Switzerland even. 🙂

  11. I was really annoyed that my recent bout of anxiety meant I never read this in time for the Slaves of Golconda discussion. They all loved it, though, and now so do you, so I really, really must catch up with it at some point. I agree it sounds fascinating – as you know, anything with a psychological perspective speaks to me.

    • I hope you are finally over it or out of it.
      I think you would like the way this is written. He felt like Schnitzler meets Zola or something like that. An interesting combination.

  12. I love to read this one…I always love troubled mingd character. Just from reading your review, I have already fell in love with Doctor Glas. There’s something interesting in every unique character. I think I had mentioned that I really like Silas in DaVinci Code and if I ever reread it, it is because I miss reading about Silas and will skim the rest.

  13. I’m so glad you liked this–I thought you might! I liked it so well that I bought two of his other books that I found translated into English and look forward to reading them. I had no idea about the back story–the reference to Doctor Glas in the Ekman novel–how interesting that her reference caused it to be reissued! And I had not heard of Almkvist either so another name to look up. I love novels like this–at almost could read as a crime novel, but really looks at the depths of the mind, too.

    • It was fantastic, I really enjoyed the way it was written too. The novel Lizzy recommends is another one isnpire by Doctor Glas. I?ve ordered it right away.
      I’m very interested to hear how you will like his other books.

  14. I’d love to read this but it’s OOP in French.

    The Doctor Glas is a doctor like a GP or a doctor as a degree? I find it strange that a GP “is filled with disgust by anything all too human.” How does he do his job?

    • He is a GP. Well, it’s difficult for him to do his job, exactly because of that but he is still a man filled with compassion nd not everyone fills him with disgust.
      I’m pretty sure you would like it. Maybe it will be reissued in French as well.

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