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Hjalmar Söderberg: Den allvarsamma leken (The Serious Game)

Söderberg seems to have a grim view of love affairs, as they do not tend to be too happy in his novels. Arvid and Lydia meet when young. They flirt. They have some sort of relationship. They seem to be in love. But, as happens in real life, things happen and they drift apart. Lydia’s father dies and she marries a much older, rich man. Arvid – the story is told from his perspective – pursues his career, first as a trainee teacher and then as a journalist. Meanwhile he gets to know Dagmar. He likes her and he finds her attractive but he does not love her, thinking often of Lydia. He tells her he cannot marry. However, as one character comments, You do not choose your destiny, any more than you choose your wife, your lover or your children. You get them, and you have them, and possibly you lose them. But you do not choose them. So, though he doesn’t choose her, he ends up marrying Dagmar.

Life carries on. We learn about world events. Arvid’s career advances. He becomes the music critic for his paper. He and Dagmar have two daughters. Then, one day, while he is at the opera to do a review, Lydia and a female friend sit next to him. When the female friend leaves early, they hold hands. They make a rendezvous for the next day at her hotel and end up in her bedroom. She is still married but not very happily. They start an affair. She leaves her husband and later divorces him. The affair drags on for sometime, without Dagmar suspecting anything. They nearly break up when Arvid has to spend some time away from Stockholm with his sick father (who dies soon after). Lydia confesses that she has given herself to another man while he was away, though she did not love him. Arvid forgives her but, in his letter, refers to her love affair. She is furious and ends the relationship. However they soon get back together but this is a doomed relationship and, once Dagmar finds out, which she does, things clearly are not going to work out.

Söderberg tells a very clever love story, even if Lydia does not come across as well as Arvid. This novel is rightly considered one of the foremost Swedish classics of the twentieth century. Sadly, though he lived another thirty years, it was his last novel. His earlier novel, Doktor Glas (Doctor Glas), had a modern novel written in response to it, giving another side to the story – Bengt Ohlsson‘s Gregorius (Gregorius). This novel had the same fate. Modern Swedish writer, Gun-Britt Sundström, has written a novel giving Lydia’s point of view, called För Lydia [For Lydia]. Unfortunately, it has not been translated into any other language.

Publishing history

First published 1912 by Bonnier
First English translation 2001 by Marion Boyars
Translated by Eva Claeson