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Hjalmar Söderberg: Doktor Glas (Doctor Glas)

This novel has the status of a Swedish classic and it is not difficult to see why. It deals frankly with extramarital sex, murder, abortion and the right of a woman both to submit to her husband’s sexual demands, issues which might not seem so controversial today but certainly were in 1905, particularly in conservative Sweden. The eponymous doctor is a thirty-year old practising medical doctor. His contacts with the opposite sex have been limited to a very brief flirtation with a woman he had met at an open-air gathering but he ran away from her and she married someone else. He had been attracted to his cousin when young and, during the course of the book, there is some contact between him and a young woman he has known for some time but nothing comes of it.

The main story concerns his dealings with a couple called Gregorius. He is a pastor in his mid-fifties. By all accounts, including those of Glas, Glas’ friends and Mrs. Gregorius, he is an obnoxious man, justifying God for all his actions, arrogant, obnoxious and concerned only with his position and not his flock. Mrs. Gregorius is a much younger and attractive woman. She comes to see Glas in his professional capacity. She wants Glas to help her manufacture a reason why she should not have sex with her husband. He is reluctant to do so as he is a man of strong ethical views – he tells us on more than one occasion how he has refused to help women in distress get an abortion – but eventually agrees to do so. He goes to see Gregorius and tells him that his wife has a condition that will cause her harm if they continue to have sex and urges him to desist. This works for a while but then Gregorius forces himself on his wife, justifying this as it is God’s will for them to have children. When Mrs. Gregorius comes to him for further assistance, he helps her by examining Gregorius and telling him that he has a serious heart condition and must refrain from sex. In addition, Glas has learned that Mrs. Gregorius has a lover and he helps her further by recommending that Gregorius go away for six weeks on a spa cure. Meanwhile, Glas has found out, by chance, who her lover is.

For a while things seem to be fine but then Glas meets Mrs. Gregorius again and learns that her lover has proposed that they elope together. As Gregorius is about to return from his cure, she is at a loss as to what to do. Glas decides that there is only one solution and plans to kill Gregorius by giving him potassium cyanide pills pretending that they are a heart pill. However, at the last minute he backs out, only to meet Gregorius at a café where he gives him the pill and then certifies that Gregorius has died of a heart attack. Meanwhile he has learned from his friends that Mrs. Gregorius’ lover is planning to marry a rich, single woman. Meanwhile, he, Glas, is falling in love with Mrs. Gregorius.

Not only does Söderberg tells us a fascinating story and raise contentious issues, the character of Glas is very interesting. He is a man fairly set in his ways. He loves Stockholm and despises those who love the country. He likes having his housekeeper bring him his dinner. He has his set hours and his friends but not much else. He likes reading his daily paper. He is firmly opinionated in his views of others but fairly liberal in his political views. There is a fascinating scene where he is discussing with Gregorius the latter’s concerns about infections being spread when taking communion wine. (He comments that Gregorius has only just discovered germs though, as Glas points out, they have been around for thousands of year.) He proposes, partly tongue in cheek but partly seriously, that the communion wine could be given in the form of a capsule to avoid infection. Gregorius takes him entirely seriously. In short, dry humour is a keynote of this book. There is no authorial discussion of morality. Glas’ concern, both with the murder and with the proposed abortions, seems to be more based on the possibility of being caught than whether it is morally right or wrong, even though he does claim some sort of ethical high ground. In short, this is a great literary work and not a moral nor political one.

There is another side to the story. Bengt Ohlsson wrote a novel called Gregorius (Gregorius), telling the story from Gregorius’ point of view.

Publishing history

First published 1905 by Bonnier
First English translation 1963 by Little, Brown
Translated by Paul Britten Austin Little Brown; David Barrett (CreateSpace), Rochelle Wright (Counterpoint)