Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905)
Trans. Paul Britten Austin
Intro. Margaret Atwood
Readers are introduced to Doctor Glas via his diary, with his chatter about the weather.
From its opening sentences, you’d never guess at the controversy incited by this novel.
It’s June 12th. There’s been a heat-wave since mid-May. Cool breezes in the evening bring some relief. He runs into neighbours in the street. It’s all very ordinary.
Except that it’s not. Not ordinary, that is.
Even right there, with the talk of the dust and the “veil of red” and the intense heat and discomfort, it’s clear that the doctor’s dislike of the Reverend Gregorius is something remarkable. There, in the second paragraph of his diary.
And, two pages later, there is something unusual about Mrs. Gregorius’ visit to the doctor’s office. She was blushing and stammering and, ultimately, “blurted out something about having a sore throat”, and she was gone.
And, then: “Why can’t I sleep? After all, I’ve committed no crime.”
That’s what the doctor writes on the next page, amidst meteorological musings.
But why mention it? That he has not committed a crime?
Consider the number of times that you’ve discussed the weather lately (or written about it in your diary). Consider how many times you’ve been tempted to mention that you haven’t committed a crime.
Doctor Glas mentions it for a reason. And that reason spins out through the pages of this slim novel, amidst very ordinary, logical, everyday chatter.
So I take that back. What I said up there. When I said it wasn’t ordinary? What I said before that, about it being ordinary, that’s true. It’s all very ordinary. And that’s what makes it so disturbing.
And that bit? Where one thing is said, and then the opposite is put forth, and then the former statement must be revisited?
That’s the kind of circuitous round-about-ing that the reader experiences in Doctor Glas too.
You see, he performs his duties as a doctor diligently. He espouses adherence to the principles that govern his profession.
But, then: “And duty! An admirable screen to creep behind when we wish to avoid doing what ought to be done.”
And he’s round-about-ing on the matter some more. A good deal more, actually.
And that’s understandable, because the matters that haunt Doctor Glas are complex. And because this is his diary, readers have an inside view.
Readers understand that, even though his actions might not reflect it, he does sympathize with the woman who has had too many children, who comes to him and asks for his help out of another pregnancy. And he does sympathize with the man who wants to end his own suffering.
“There was something beautiful, grand about that cup of poison the Athenians, once believing his life was dangerous to the State, allowed the doctor to administer to Socrates. Our time, if it were to judge him in the same light, would have dragged him up on to a mean scaffold and slaughtered him with an axe.”
These are the kinds of things that keep Doctor Glas up at night.
“Yes, suicide is ugly. But it can be even uglier to go on living. It’s terrible how often one’s only choice is between that which is more or less ugly.”
It’s there: talk of abortion, euthanasia, and murder. It’s all right there, with talk about the weather.
And, in the end, even the details about the weather matter. One has the sense, upon finishing this extraordinarily slim volume, that every word was placed precisely.
That Hjalmar Söderberg was just as exacting a novelist as Doctor Glas was a practitioner.
“Doctor Glas is one of those marvelous books that appears as fresh and vivid now as on the day it was published. […] It occurs on the cusp of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, but it opens doors the novel has been opening ever since.”
You needn’t take my word for it: take Margaret Atwood’s word for it.