Doctor Glas

What I set down on these pages isn’t a confession. To whom should I confess? Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn’t true. Anyway, I can’t exorcise my soul’s wretchedness — if it is wretched — by telling lies.

Thus begins the strange diary of Doctor Tyko Gabriel Glas of Stockholm. It was written in 1905 by Hjalmar Söderberg, and it is a controversial story of obsession, brooding, a man with a God complex, and the way we can polish our filthiest motivations until they are shiny enough to meet inspection.

Doctor Glas has never liked the Reverend Gregorius, an overly pious, repulsive little minister with “an odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus.” When young, beautiful Mrs. Gregorius comes to call, then, begging the doctor to help her ward off the priest’s unwanted and excessive sexual attentions, the doctor is inclined to lend a hand. First he tells the priest that his wife is ill, and then he makes up a heart condition for the priest himself, even when he finds out that Mrs. Gregorius is carrying on an affair behind her husband’s back. But when the repellent priest returns, fitter than ever after a stay at a spa, Glas finds himself tangled in his own lies and contemplating murder.

Dr. Glas’s name gives a hint to some of the most important leitmotifs. First there is Tyko, for Tycho Brahe, the astronomer. Glas himself is the moon, thinking of himself as the romantic hero but emitting only cold, reflected light. Glas’s friend Markel says, “Truth is like the sun, its value wholly depends upon our being at a correct distance away from it.” So it is with Mrs. Gregorius: Glas may worship her and want to rescue her, but she is never a real possibility to him, never a living relationship. All his fantasies of women are at careful arm’s length.

Gabriel is Dr. Glas’s middle name: the angel that comes to announce Jesus’s birth to Mary, and also the angel of Judgement. Perfect for a doctor, of course, who holds the keys of death and life in his hand. The book opens with Glas’s just slightly contemptuous description of yet another weeping woman who has come to him begging for an abortion. Four children in four years, and she can’t possibly have another, but what can he do? He knows he could help, but he’d be a marked man. He knows his duty is to sustain life, and that’s what he tells her. Later in the book, of course, his sense of duty changes. Whose rights are important? The “marital rights” of Dr. Gregorius? The right of Mrs. Gregorius, to be free? The right of Dr. Glas, to decide? He turns these ideas — abortion, murder, suicide, right, freedom, duty — around and around, like marbles in the palm of his hand.

And finally, of course, his last name, Glas. Glass is sometimes transparent, as when Mrs. Gregorius fails to see Dr. Glas for himself, but sees through him as a means to an end, a life with her lover. Glass is sometimes reflective, as in the obsessive, brooding thoughts of the diary. And glass is slippery. Dr. Glas tells us in the first few paragraphs of the book that he does not tell us everything in these pages. What is he leaving out? He examines and re-examines his motivations, spit-shining them until they are presentable — and in the process, leads himself closer and closer to madness.

This book is deeply unsettling, with odd, dreamlike images haunting its corners: dark flowers, reflections, eyes. It would make a wonderfully surreal film, by someone like Cocteau or, in a different way, Bergman. It’s brief, but it’s powerful and fresh. Well worth reading.

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3 Responses to Doctor Glas

  1. Stefanie says:

    I’ve this book on my shelf for several years meaning to read it but never getting to it. I first heard about it from a mention Margaret Atwood makes of it somewhere about its being a forgetten classic of something like that. Now I’m really going to have to move it onto my reading pile!

    • Jenny says:

      Margaret Atwood wrote the introduction to my edition, so it’s clear she’s interested in getting it read. I found it fascinating! And it’s short, so it’s not a huge investment.

  2. Pingback: The Invisible Man, Part 3 | Dirty Looks

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