Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg

A short psychological novel, told through the diary entries of a Swedish doctor in his mid-thirties, at the crossroads of isolated youth and lonely middle age. Doctor Glas has largely gone through life as an observer, a non-participant. His attraction to women is limited to those already flushed with love, to who he is invisible. His unknowing nemesis is the toadish elder clergyman, Reverend Gregorius, who inspires in the doctor an almost tangible disgust. By some coincidence, the clergyman’s young wife comes to Doctor Glas’s consulting room. She has an embarrassing anguish: her husband, an old hypocrite whom she has come to despise, is given to forcing himself upon her sexually in the name of the divine duty of procreation, a revelation that the doctor finds confirms his repugnance towards Gregorius. Glas promises to assist her – to give testimony to the Reverend that his wife is of a delicate constitution and must practice abstinence for the sake of her health. Despite his acceptance of this diagnosis, the Reverend cannot resist, and after a few days is once again going after his bride like a satyr in an attack that she characterizes as a rape. A new ruse must be devised, that of giving Gregorius the impression that he has a severe heart ailment, one which could be fatal in the event of sexual overexertion.

This sequence of events ties into the doctor’s increasing perception of himself as a kind of self-appointed savior to the wife (even as it conflicts with his judgmental attitudes towards the sexual responsibilities of his other patients). He is already aware, from her confession, that she has a lover, and the doctor has easily determined who this might be. The doctor’s motivations towards the wife are not overtly sexual, although he finds himself having disconcerting dreams in which she appears naked, offering him a rose, like a maiden to a knight. In the course of the novel, Glas becomes more obsessed with, and agitated at, the problem of Gregorius. He begins to look for means by which he can free Mrs. Gregorius completely, so that she may live a happy life with (who the doctor imagines to be) her true love. But Glas’s isolation increases even as he seeks to put his plan into effect, and he comes to a too-late realization that his perceptions of the situation (and of his own motivations) may not be as he believes them to be. Soderberg’s 1904 novel is, like the works of such contemporaries as Strindberg and Schnitzler, remarkable for its modernity, addressing issues such as abortion and euthanasia against a backdrop of Freudian analytics of the self and the nature of obsession. A perceptive introduction by Margaret Atwood is included in this edition.

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