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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg


Tale of a doctor who struggles with his medical oath.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Another rare source for my voracious reading is the occasional mention in a novel of another novel.  Most often these are made up, but every once in a while one turns out to be published.  Such was the case with Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg mentioned several times by Fredrik Backman in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  Söderberg’s short novel, Doctor Glas turned out to be a very popular novel by an acclaimed author.  He is considered one of the greatest writers in the Swedish language.  Doctor Glas, his third novel, was first published in 1905.

The novel has the expected Spartan language, along with a healthy amount of introspection, topped off with some serious angst.  Doctor Glas is a young physician in Stockholm.  One of his patients is a local parish priest, Gregorious, who is about 20 years older than his lovely, young wife, Helga.  She comes to Glas for a solution to her unhappy marriage.  The doctor falls seriously in love with Helga.  A few women come to the surgery for help with a procedure then illegal in Sweden.  He refuses each time.  After a couple of feeble attempts at freeing Helga, Glas begins toying with the idea of “rescuing” Helga by murdering her ageing husband.

In this passage, Glas agonizes in his journal over failed love.  He writes, “No, I don’t understand it.  Why must it be?  Why does it always have to be like this?  Why does love have to be faerie gold that on the next day turns into withered leaves, or dirt, or gruel?  From the human longing for love, a whole branch of culture has sprung up – everything, indeed, that does not immediately pertain to quieting hunger or vanquishing enemies.  Our sense of beauty has no other source.  All art, all poetry all music has drunk from it.  The tawdriest modern history painting no less than a Rafael Madonna and […] no less than the “Song of Solomon” and […] Vienna Waltzes, indeed […] – everything that would decorate and embellish, whether it succeeds or fails, derives from it, though sometimes remotely and circuitously.  And this notion is no nocturnal whimsy of mine, but has been demonstrated a hundred times. // But the true name of that source is not love, but the dream of love” (17-18).

Another example of his introspection is his musing on happiness.  Glas writes, “And I often wonder what sort of environment I’d choose for myself if I’d never read a book and never seen a work of art – maybe then it’d never even occur to me to choose at all; […] Most likely all my dreams and thoughts about nature are founded on impressions I’ve taken from art and fiction.  From art I’ve learned my longing to wander aimlessly among old Florentine flower meadows and upon Homer’s wine-dark sea.  Oh, what would my own poor eyes see in the world, left to their own devices, without all these hundreds and thousands of teachers and friends from among those who’ve written and thought and seen for the rest of us!  In my youth I often thought: But that I might join them!” (53-54).

I enjoyed this clever little novel.  And I think readers who enjoy introspection will, too!.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Check out my new blog at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!