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doctor glas

16 june 2017

Doctor Glas is one of those "minor classics" that you can't believe you weren't told about sooner.

Of course, who would I blame – everybody who had even a tangential effect on my literary education? Paul Britten Austin's translation of the novel appeared in 1963 and seems to have languished out of print for a while before being revived with the help of Margaret Atwood in 2002. I don't know what I was doing in 2002, but it wasn't reading notices of reprint editions of minor Scandinavian classics, so I remained innocent of Hjalmar Söderberg's novel till I heard a conference paper about it in Poland in 2016. Then come to find my partner had a copy of the Austin translation, sitting unobtrusively in her office, waiting for me to become aware of its existence.

Doctor Glas is told in diary form. Our narrator, the title character, has more than a few hangups. He is a physician, but lacks most experience of life. He's unmarried, virginal in fact; he has few friends, and those he does hang out with are guys who drone on about their pet ideas, mansplaining the universe to one another. But since he's a physician, people tell Dr. Glas all kinds of things, and he isn't slow to empathize with their situation. Empathy does not mean tolerance, though: to himself and his diary, Dr. Glas egregiously plays favorites among his patients and acquaintances.

When the young, striking, and desperately unhappy Mrs. Gregorius confides in Dr. Glas that she cannot stand for her husband to touch her sexually – not least because she has taken a lover – the secret eats away at him. Mrs. Gregorius' approach is hard to assess, not least because we see it only from Glas's perspective. Is she naïvely entrusting him with her most intimate secrets because he's a doctor and thus professionally impersonal? Is she playing with fire – half-seducing Glas so that he will be more inclined to help her get what she wants?

And what does she want? Glas can harangue the Reverend Gregorius, who is also his patient, to adopt a "separate bedrooms" style of marriage, but he knows that the old lecher won't do so for the (spurious) sake of his wife's health, and isn't likely to do so even for the sake of his own. She must know this too, at some level. Of course, if there were some way of simply getting Mr. Gregorius out of the picture for good …

Here I will stop describing the plot, because it's a brief novella and I've already spoiled too much. Suffice it to say that I really admire Doctor Glas for posing its dramatic problems, attacking them energetically, and then steering decisively away from melodrama. Dr. Glas does make some momentous decisions, ones that in most fictions from this period (or any period, really) would result in terrible consequences. They result in terrible consequences here too, but not of the locked-in-a-cell or leapt-in-front-of-a-train kind. Instead, we see banal outcomes that modestly redirect banal lives – and are no less terrible for their banality.

Söderberg, Hjalmar. Doctor Glas. [Doktor Glas, 1905.] Translated by Paul Britten Austin. 1963. New York: Anchor [Random House], 2002. PT 9875 .S6D613