Doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas of Hjalmar Söderberg's Doctor Glas (Doktor Glas translated from Swedish by Paul Britten Austin) is an interesting character. He's a conflicted romantic man who looks for beauty in everything around him, yet he he can't quite express it and when he does it takes on a murderous tone and the result is ultimately less than satisfactory. Published in 1905 the novel caused quite a stir since it dealt with abortion, euthanasia and murder, but it's considered very much a modern novel and was well ahead of its time. And truly it does read as smoothly and perceptively as any good contemporary psychological crime novel.
"What I set down on these pages isn't a confession. To whom should I confess? Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn't true. Anyway, I can't exorcise my soul's wretchedness--if it is wretched--by telling lies."
Glas is a physician in turn-of-the-century Stockholm, and much of the story is told through his diary entries and conversations with friends and patients. My first impression was this is a classic unreliable narrator, but strangely the more I read the more I thought he really was being honest even if he was selective what he shared. (Though maybe he wasn't being honest with himself?). Unmarried and over thirty he is still a virgin. He can only love women who are already in love with others since they exude a radiance about them. In many ways he's very conservative and certainly is an outwardly respectable member of bourgeois society.
Glas refuses an abortion to a married woman whose family is already large and who lives in straitened circumstances--"my duty as a doctor, respect for life, even the frailest . . . ", yet he's repulsed by the local pastor, Rev. Gregorius whose beautiful young wife has come to Glas for advice. Helga Gregorius married him in a fit of what she felt at the time was religious fervor which quickly cooled, and now she cannot stand his amorous advances. As a matter of fact they are unbearable and despite being an older man, he believes it would be a sin "if they ceased doing what God wished them to do in order to get a child". So she's stuck.
Glas wants to help Helga. There's a catch, however. She is in love with another man, a married man, and they are having a love affair. Helga has that radiance about her, and so Glas falls for her. Although he cannot act on his emotions and desires, he tries to separate Gregorius from his wife. He sends him away on a rest cure for a heart condition, but when Gregorius returns things go back to the way they were before he left. So Glas begins contemplating the one action that will separate the two permanently. The impetus is his own, Helga has no idea what he's planning for Glas cannot stand the idea of Gregorius with the lovely Helga.
There is a dreamlike quality to this story. Glas himself feels like he is living in a dream and wakes from vivid nightmares. A guilty conscious? He has mental conversations with himself as he tries to rationalize his thoughts and actions and he spells it all out in his diary. With so much going on under the surface and so much repression, Freud is written all over this story. The introduction was written by Margaret Atwood and she notes Söderberg had read Ibsen, Poe and Freud and there are glimpses of influence of each on the story. It's very atmospheric in its way and carries with it that turn-of-the-century feel in terms of ideals and philosophies. I'll be curious to hear what the other Slaves thought of the story as they are sure to offer more insight to Doctor Glas. If you're curious (or if you've read the book) check out the discussion here.
Hjalmar Söderberg is my first great find of the year!