Friday, February 12, 2016

Hjalmar Söderberg: Doktor Glas (1905)

Ulf Palme as Gregorius and Per Oscarsson as Glas in Mai Zetterling's 1968 movie

[Image source:]

Doktor Glas is a book that I thought about a lot after I'd finished reading it. Not because there seemed to be any problem with the reading that I needed to resolve. It was more that I needed to get away from the Doktor's own narration in order to gather my thoughts; so insidiously had Söderberg led me into seeing things from Glas' point of view.

Even then it came as a shock, leafing through the Swedish copy on my shelves, to find the editor discussing whether there is a psykopatisk element to the narrator's character. That notion seemed wrong, but what really shocked me was that up till that moment I hadn't even conceived the possibility of anyone thinking it. 

The comparison of Glas with the narrator of Chekhov's Shooting-Party (see my earlier post) is fascinating; by chance I read the novels successively. The contrast, too.

In Chekhov's book the transformation in our idea of the narrator (from "bumptious" to "a little self-centred" to "brutish" to...) means that by the end we can barely credit anything of what we were told earlier; the whole narrative reveals itself as a journey into a diseased mind, its veracity entirely compromised.

Not so in Doktor Glas. In this book the transparent veracity of the narrator, inasmuch as he lyrically relates his personal impressions and the summer life of Stockholm - these pages (the bulk of the book), being a significant, perhaps the most significant, aspect of its great power ... well, Dr Glas as narrator remains almost, if not quite, untainted by our realization - we are apt to bury it, it's so inconvenient - that he has after all committed a murder. We continue to interpret the sentence "Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn't true" as rather understating, if anything, the extreme honesty of the narrative. Whereas Chekhov's narrator (though perhaps ultimately intending a confession) fills his pages with subterfuge, Glas seems never to hesitate about confessing anything that he knows to confess.  

The question about truth arises, nevertheless. It becomes, in this case, not a matter of honesty but of whether Glas is capable of assessing other characters accurately. Generally his insights are strikingly keen, but no book makes it clearer that such keenness is never absolute, may indeed imply correspondingly exceptional blindnesses; above all our doubts concern Glas' view of Gregorius and his wife. Glas makes no bones about it; he finds Gregorius loathsome, and finds him loathsome long before Mrs Gregorius talks about the marriage. Glas is, we feel, ready to condemn Gregorius on any grounds whatever. As for Fru Gregorius, Söderberg's book is a pitiless examination of the illusions of love. Through the very transparency of Glas' own descriptions, we see that Fru Gregorius is not at all like the image of the loved one that overwhelms Glas' imagination. Pejoratively, you might say she is more shallow, more ordinary (Glas is definitely not ordinary). Glas in love completely ignores the commonsensical view that one might phrase in this way: After all, she has proven unfaithful, she has taken a lover... But the book is a moral minefield here. If Glas' own judgments are plainly skewed, he is also entirely successful in destroying our faith in such conventional social judgments. But what, for instance, do we make of this?

The very first time I ever saw her it struck me how unlike all others she is. She isn't like a woman of the world, or a middle-class wife, or a woman of the people. Mostly the last, perhaps; particularly as she sat there, just then, on the church steps, with her fair hair free and bared to the sun, for she had taken off her hat and laid it beside her. But a woman from a primitive folk, or one that never existed, where class distinctions had not yet begun, where "the people" still had not become the lower classes. A daughter of a free tribe.

Does this really say anything concrete about Helga, or is it just what Glas would be bound to think about any woman he fell in love with? Or  -  Isn't it merely the truth about every woman, the truth that only love discovers? Or does it reflect the situation in which Glas finds Helga - discontentedly not free -, which makes her seem paradoxically all the more kin to a freedom that preoccupies her and ought to be her birthright? 

In a way Glas' moral crusade seems to be terribly (yet somehow comically) misguided, the bubble of a perfervid imagination; yet who doubts that Fru Gregorius has a right to her own choices, to happiness and freedom? Glas is unable to give her happiness or her own choices, but he does give her freedom. And because he doesn't tell her what he's done and doesn't seek to take advantage of her, there is indeed something heroic about what Glas does. It might even be that, after the book is ended, Helga might find a happiness; a bourgeois kind of happiness that the un-besotted Glas would probably pour scorn on.

If the book continues thus to revolve in our thoughts, in another way this is satisfying; we perhaps don't need to make final judgments about characters that, as the book shows us, we can never entirely know.

There's another way in which Söderberg reminds me of Chekhov, who commented on the difficulty of eliminating a pistol-shot from his plays. Aesthetically this novel seems to require its murder (really, such an implausible kind of murder for anyone to commit) in order to be a complete image; that's an aspect of its era. A few years later Joyce and Proust would show how to do without this. Söderberg's era is characterized by this essential cheapness.

I actually read the book, not in my own Swedish copy, but in Paul Britten Austin's 1963 translation, reissued in 2002.

Some translation notes:

July 2

What's the matter, I asked. The word "ovillkorligen" ("inevitably") has been omitted.

- Last night he raped me. As good as raped me.
- I natt tog han mig med våld. Så gott som med våld.
 (Literally, "took me by force, as good as by force" - but rape in Swedish is våldta.)

What does Fru Gregorius mean by her qualification? Gregorius seems to have mentally bullied her into submission with talk of duty and emotional blackmail about his salvation. So the most likely sense is that, though he did not actually use physical force, the effect was the same: she was bullied into doing something she did not want to do. It's significant that Glas never thinks of Helga refusing to comply, even with the excuse of her health - in this marriage, that is apparently not a possibility - Gregorius' power is absolute.

How reliable is Helga's account? She has a powerful motive for exaggerating the brutality of marital attentions that have become hateful to her. Yet it is certain that Gregorius at any rate begs for, and has, sex with his wife while believing that this seriously endangers her health; he effectively confirms this by his reaction later. My reading is that Helga does pour out the truth; that a doubt about her honesty here would make the novel less interesting, not more so. But she has not told her husband that she hates him, and he of course would utterly reject the imputation that he has raped her.  

But how would it look if the rich brought along artistically embellished silver cups and the poor, maybe, a brandy glass?

This is part of the comic report of Gregorius on the communion-question. The original has "ett brännvinsglas" - brännvin being a general term for strong spirits, typically a vodka flavoured with spices such as caraway.  "Vodka-glass" or "shot-glass" gives a better idea of the class-connotations in this imaginary sacrilege of the communion service. Though Gregorius is a conservative or at any rate prudently conventional priest, he is also a man of the world; there is something of gusto and of plain-speaking in this clerical chatter.  Gregorius comfortably conceives his doctor as a brother-professional. As a matter of fact Glas does lead, to outward appearance, the clubman's life of a male professional. It is only within that he sees himself so differently.

Impossible to decide, whether he's more fool or fox.

"mera får än räv" - more sheep than fox. It remains difficult to decide. Though Glas succeeds in duping Gregorius, though he may well associate Gregorius's despised views with a sheep-like stupidity, yet Gregorius' worldly success (like his sexual drive) does, we suspect, make Glas feel a little inferior - though this he does not know to confess. We come away from the book with very little solid idea of how Gregorius really thinks about anything. In certain social contexts he is, we imagine, very shrewd. Yet there is no clue that he has any conception of his wife's, or Glas', inner lives.      


A year after the publication of Doktor Glas, John Galsworthy's A Man of Property also turns on a marital rape, though Soames Forsyte, at least as troubled by his own act as Gregorius, doesn't of course call it that. Ibsen lies behind both novels. Galsworthy's novel is notable technically for limiting its points of view to members of the Forsyte clan - sometimes admittedly stretching credulity to achieve it. The points of view of Irene and Bosinney are excluded, and some have criticized this as preventing empathy with Irene's difficult situation. But the idea I suppose is to put the reader in the position of the family - and of Soames in particular: to experience to the full their frustrations and to recognize that such things as they do, we also have the potential to do.

Another analogue, of sorts. Gregorius, even through Glas' unfriendly eyes, makes a far more acceptable impression on us than the instantly hateful lawyer Robert Dempster in George Eliot's "Janet's Repentance" in Scenes of Clerical Life .

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger