Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas

doctorglasThe obvious comparison for Doctor Glas is probably Crime and Punishment, but as I haven’t read that (I know, I know) I was reminded of Poe’s tales of horror, specifically “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which is also a tale told by a murderer, full of logic and hatred and signifying … well, actually, that’s where the resemblances end, as Poe’s murderer is a sociopathic madman, while Doctor Glas is something else. That’s he’s not so clearly a lunatic makes his story both more creepy and more depressing. It’s easy to distance ourselves from Poe’s delightfully raving, palpably unreliable narrator. Doctor Glas (and Doctor Glas) elicits a more complicated, even ambivalent response.

Doctor Glas is told as a series of journal entries by the eponymous narrator, a lonely doctor prone to brooding and philosophizing. By any standard, but especially for a doctor, he’s disturbingly uncommitted to the value of human life. “Respect for human life–what is it in my mouth but low hypocrisy? What else can it ever be on the lips of anyone who has ever whiled away an idle hour in thought?” He’s an outspoken advocate of euthanasia:

The day will come,  must come, when the right to die is recognised as far more important and inalienable a human right than the right to drop a voting ticket into a ballot box. And when that time is ripe, every incurably sick person–and every ‘criminal’ also–shall have the right to the doctor’s help, if he wishes to be set free.

 He keeps cyanide pills handy — for his own exit plan, initially, but that bit of forethought turns out to be convenient when he resolves to end someone else’s life.

That someone else is the odious Rev. Gregorius, whose pretty wife Helga comes to the doctor seeking help because she finds her husband’s sexual demands repulsive…or does she? I wondered at a couple of points just how much of Dr. Glas’s version we should accept, given that his own interest in Mrs. Gregorius is fairly intense and he has his own sexual issues, as someone who “at past thirty years of age, [has] never been near a woman.” He wonders why that drive that “forces honest men to subject themselves to every sort of tribulation and sacrifice,” and women “to surmount those feelings of modesty which the education of generation upon generation of young girls has been designed to awaken and develop,” has so far “not driven [him] to anything.” Is it that urge or some more philanthropic motive that eventually drives him to murder?

Why would I even entertain the notion that there might be something principled about murder? That’s where Doctor Glas is most conspicuously different from Poe. The doctor is not simply a obsessive creep. In fact, I’m not even sure he’s creepy at all, though he certainly makes me uncomfortable. We know Poe’s narrator is a bad guy because his reasoning is so absurd:

He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees –very gradually –I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.

But Dr. Glas’s logic is pretty compelling, his murder arguably an extension of his duty to heal. First he tries to solve Mrs. Gregorius’s problem by telling her husband she has a medical condition and should be left alone. When she returns to him with the news that “he raped me. As good as raped me,” that “he was strong. Wouldn’t let her go,” he has to try a different strategy. This time he warns Rev. Gregorius that his own health is at risk and prescribes separate bedrooms. When that doesn’t work, his dreams of killing Gregorius become plans–though not until after he has an extended debate with himself:

I hear conflicting voices. I must interrogate them; I must know why the one says: I want to, and the other: I don’t want to.

You first, who say ‘I want to’: Why do you want to? Reply!

–I want to act. Life is action. When I see something that makes me indignant, I want to intervene. . . .

–But the unwritten law? Morality . . . ?

–My good friend, the law, you know as well as I do, is in a state of flux. . . . Morality, the proverbial line chalked around a hen, binds those who believe in it. Morality, that’s others’ views of what is right. But what was here in question was my view. . . . I’m a traveller in this world; I look at mankind’s customs and adopt those I find most useful. And morality is derived from ‘morales,’ custom; it reposes entirely on custom; habit; it knows no other ground. And I don’t need to be told that, by killing that parson, I’m committing an action which is not customary. Morality — you’re joking!

 Though excerpted like that it sounds kind of annoying, the doctor’s tendency to think and question adds a lot of depth and interest to the novel, and more importantly, to the character. For a murderer, he’s a pretty poignant figure, actually, as he reflects on his sad childhood, his abusive father, his lost dreams of love — and yet these too have their disturbing aspects, as, for instance, after the drowning death of a girl he once kissed he dreams of her “white body lying among weeds and slime, rising and falling on the water.” Love and lust seem hopelessly intermingled, in his thoughts and feelings and memories, with hatred and disgust.

soderbergWhat will linger with me most after finishing the novel is its atmosphere. It is eerily evocative, with a strong sense of place, and of spiritual isolation in that place:

 The moon is shining. All my windows are open. In my study the lamp burns. I have put it on my escritoire, in the lee of the night breeze which with its gentle hush fills the curtain like a sail. I walk to and fro in the room, stopping now and then at my writing desk and jotting down a line. For a long while I’ve been standing at one of the windows of the sitting-room, looking out and listening for all the strange sounds that belong to the night. But tonight silence reigns, down there beneath the dark trees. Only a solitary woman sits on a bench; she has been sitting there a long while. And the moon is shining.

 Though, following the dictates of the self that argued “life is action,” Dr. Glas does ultimately act, the much-anticipated action is anticlimactic, bringing little satisfaction and no resolution. “Life has passed me by,” he concludes, and we’re left with another image of emotional bereavement:

Autumn pillages my trees. Already the chestnut outside my window is naked and black. Clouds fly in thick droves over the rooftops, and I never see the sun.

Doctor Glas is this month’s selection for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Discussion is scheduled to begin on the weekend; I have to get my copy back to the library by tomorrow, which is why I’m jumping the gun a bit on this post.

2 thoughts on “Hjalmar Soderberg, Doctor Glas

  1. Teresa January 27, 2013 / 12:32 am

    I’ve just finished writing my post (scheduled to post on the 30th) on this and agree with a lot of your points–I even pulled out the same passage about morality because that whole idea of morality in flux seemed so central. It’s an unsettling book because his reasons so often do seem solid. All those years of seeing women suffer has probably taken a toll and made him want to do something. Yet I think it’s really the desire to be the one that helps–to get the glory or the reassurance or the meaning–that’s driving him, which makes his actions seem selfish.


  2. Rohan Maitzen January 27, 2013 / 7:34 pm

    I really look forward to seeing the other posts on this strange book. I agree about that idea of morality in flux being central – and yet what an uncomfortable kind of relativism it could lead to, and I wasn’t sure the book as a whole wanted us to accept it.


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