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Bengt Ohlsson: Gregorius (Gregorius)

One of the classic Swedish novels is Hjalmar Söderberg‘s Doktor Glas (Doctor Glas). It tells the story of a medical doctor who assists a young married woman, married to an odious, elderly cleric, who wishes to escape her husband’s affections. In Doktor Glas (Doctor Glas), the cleric – Gregorius – is arrogant, pompous and obnoxious, with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. Ohlsson’s novel tells Gregorius’ story and gives his – very different – side of the story. It is a lot longer than the original but is superbly done.

In this novel Gregorius has known Helga the woman who will become his wife, since she was a child. Gregorius and his first wife, Lydia, are friends of Helga’s parents so he is often at their house. Helga, as a teenager, often flirts with him. A defining moment is when he accidentally sees her naked, unbeknownst to her, as a fifteen year old, fondling her breasts. After Lydia dies, his attraction increases and he eventually woos and marries Helga. However, contrary to what we learn in Doktor Glas (Doctor Glas), not only is Helga not reluctant to marry Gregorius, but very keen to do so. Their early sex life is seemingly not done out of duty but for pleasure for both parties. Again unlike in the early book, Gregorius learns early on about his wife’s affair and a friend, who has some hold over Helga’s lover, offers to persuade the lover to give it up but Gregorius declines the offer and plans to deal with the matter himself, though he does not manage to do so.

In the Söderberg book, Gregorius is clearly repulsive, though we only see him through the eyes of Dr. Glas, who is in love with Helga. In this book, he cannot be all that repulsive as he manages to attract another woman. When he goes to the sanatorium for his fake heart condition, arranged by Glas to give Helga an opportunity to spend time with her lover, he meets Anna, who really does have a horrible husband, and she falls for Gregorius but Gregorius, though tempted, does not succumb. In short, he still loves his wife, despite her infidelity.

Ohlsson has clearly read the original thoroughly. He plays around with individual scenes but also fills in gaps in the original, allowing him to invent other characters, such as Anna. Above all, he shows us what Gregorius thinks. It is not just that he makes him a more sympathetic character, which he does, but he makes him human. He has his foibles, such as his lusting after the adolescent Helga and his temptation to have an affair with Anna, but his concerns and weaknesses are the concerns and weaknesses of many men, which makes him so much more interesting than Söderberg’s Gregorius.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Bonnier
First English translation 2007 by Portobello Books
Translated by Silvester Mazzarella