Category Archives: Epistolary fiction

Why can’t I sleep? After all, I’ve committed no crime.

Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg and translated by Paul Britten Austin

Perhaps people would not have so much confidence in me if they knew how badly I sleep at nights.

Recently I went on a business trip to Stockholm. I wanted to read some Swedish literature, so took a copy of Strindberg’s The Red Room which I hugely enjoyed. The other book that I bought for the trip was Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg. Emma of book Around the Corner had recommended it to me on twitter, having read a review of it by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

By pure coincidence London’s just had a staging of a one-man production of a theatrical version of the book, starring Krister Henriksson of Wallander fame. I bought tickets, and before the play could shape my view forever of the characters and the story I read the book.

Doctor Glas was written in 1905, and is set a few years earlier. It’s important to remember then that it’s a contemporary novel, radical in its day. Its themes, which include sex, abortion, women’s rights to control their own bodies, euthanasia and murder were thought shocking and controversial, and by and large they still are though at least we can openly talk about them now.

Doctor Glas - large

Glas is a Stockholm doctor. He’s well educated, naturally, but deeply lonely (“My loneliness I have borne about with me through the crowd as a snail his house.”) and his life is lived without hope (“I shall never set eyes on the coast where I wish to build and live.”).

The narrative takes the form of his private diary (I can feel some potential readers bailing now, but it works here). Here’s how it opens:

I’ve never known such a summer. A sultry heat-wave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places.

Immediately the atmosphere is airless and oppressive. There’s no reason not to believe that description, within the fiction that’s likely how the weather is. This isn’t though an omniscient narrator talking, it’s Doctor Glas himself. Authors frequently use weather as symbol for emotion, but here the link is direct. The brooding atmosphere may be external, but it’s also very much internal.

Glas is a solitary man, with but a few friends. He’s reserved, repressed would perhaps be a better word. He’s an aesthete and a rationalist, perhaps too rational. He’s in his thirties but hasn’t been touched by a woman since he was an adolescent, hasn’t touched one save as their doctor. He wishes sex were something nobler than it is, something which could be done in church, and curses the society which speaks of marital duties and makes it an obligation.

– But latterly I’ve come to know more about myself than in my whole life before. I’ve learned to feel and understand that my body is me. There is no joy, no sorrow, no life at all, except through it. And my body knows very well it must die. It feels it, as an animal can feel it. And that is how I now know there is nothing for me on the other side of death.

Into this arid life comes the young wife of the Reverend Gregorius. Gregorius is old, ugly, Glas finds him physically and intellectually repugnant and so he has every sympathy when Mrs Gregorius comes to him with a strange request. At first he thinks it one he’s heard before from a number of women, that he perform an abortion. He’s refused all such pleas, not as he notes from respect for human life or his duty as a doctor, but because the risk to his position to benefit a stranger simply isn’t worth it to him.

Mrs Gregorius though wants something altogether different. She wants Doctor Glas to persuade her husband to stop demanding sex. She is beautiful, alive and desperate and Glas falls in love with her and decides to help her. He does this even though he soon guesses the reason she now finds her husband’s touch intolerable is that she has found herself a lover of her own age.

Glas persuades Gregorius that his wife is unwell and that he must keep away from her if she is to recover. Gregorius agrees, but soon declares that his wife’s duty to her husband is greater than her duty to her health and that God will see her right. Glas then pretends that Gregorius needs a rest cure, alone, for the sake of his heart. Gregorius though will inevitably return, and however much he fears his heart will fail he is too lecherous an old man to keep away from his young and pretty wife for long. What to do? It’s not as if Glas thinks there’s any special value to human life after all.

Comparisons to Therese Raquin and to Crime and Punishment are obvious here (not least as Glas says at one point “I’ve read Raskolnikov, I’ve read Thérèse Raquin.”) Caroline makes the much more apposite comparison though to Arthur Schnitzler, and I think she’s spot on in doing so. This is psychological drama of the highest order. An intense examination of a single person’s, well, soul for want of a better word.

There’s a rich vein here of ethical debate of course. What does make human life worthwhile? If the Reverend Gregorius, by living, makes his wife’s life intolerable should he continue to live? Is though the Reverend Gregorius so terrible? He comes across that way, but his wife has every reason to want him gone and Doctor Glas is hardly impartial here. Reading between the lines it’s not clear how despicable the Reverend actually is.

Gregorius forces himself upon his wife against her will, and he does so even though he thinks it could harm her health. He’s from a society though where the wife is the property of the husband, where the provision of sex is a duty, an obligation. He doesn’t see himself as a wrongdoer, to him it’s his wife that’s acting badly by refusing him.

Glas finds the Reverend’s conversation obvious and his company tedious, but the Reverend himself shows Glas every friendship. What’s more, Glas is a hypocrite, or at the very least arbitrary. Women who come to him in desperation he closes his heart to. Mrs Gregorius’ situation troubles him only because he secretly loves her.

Mrs Gregorius meanwhile is oblivious to much of this. She has enlisted Doctor Glas’s help, but there’s no evidence she knows how far he might go on her behalf. She has broken her marriage vows, refused her husband, slept with another man, but shouldn’t she have the right to control her own body? To have a chance at happiness? Today she could divorce, but that’s not an option here. Marriage for her is irrevocable, but then she knew that when she married the Reverend and it becomes apparent that nobody pressured her into that decision. Still, should one mistake overshadow the rest of her life?

These aren’t easy questions, even now, and it’s part of the sheer craft of this novel that as it progresses it becomes increasingly clear there are no obvious right answers.

Above all of this is the masterly psychological portrait of Glas himself. This distant and lonely figure, locked off from humanity and observing them dispassionately save with regard to his own empty desires. The edition I read comes with a brilliant foreword by Margaret Atwood who speaks convincingly and intelligently about the symbolism around his full name (Tyko Gabriel Glas, an astronomer, an angel of Annunciation and destruction, a brittle transparency which can either reflect ourselves or through which we can see the world).

It’s an intense read. Söderberg is too smart though to make it relentless, and in places it’s very funny (not least when the Reverend Gregorius considers serving communion wine in the form of pills to avoid transmission of germs on the chalice). The result is a book that is perfectly judged, remorseless yet human. Like Doctor Glas in fact.

Caroline links in her review to another at a blog I wasn’t previously aware of: A Work in Progress. That review is here. If you don’t know that blog already then I’d suggest checking it out, it looks very good.

I’ll close by talking a little about the theatrical production I saw of this. It was in Swedish, with English surtitles, which was refreshing. The staging was very simple, just Doctor Glas’s room and Krister Henriksson pacing about it speaking his thoughts as Doctor Glas writes his in the book. The backdrop occasionally changed colour to reflect mood, and in the main was simple and effective.

Strictly speaking Henriksson is too old for the part, but his performance was such that it didn’t matter. I did have one issue with the production though, which is that during the course of the book Doctor Glas argues with himself, shifts from mood to mood, experiences extremes of emotion. It’s an actor’s dream and Henriksson is more than able to portray all of it, but the time constraints meant that often I’d have liked to see him given a little more space to develop a particular state of mind. The play felt a little crowded to me, and could perhaps have used another 20 minutes, half an hour (but if it had no doubt much of the rest of the audience would have grown restive, the number of British theatregoers who want one-man shows in Swedish to be made longer than they are is I suspect quite small).

Despite that criticism, the play did bring the book to life to me. Oddly, when I read it I didn’t wholly connect it to the parts of Stockholm I’ve seen. It was only when I heard Henriksson deliver the lines that I realised that I’d had a drink on the very hotel terrace where Doctor Glas meets his friends. Listening to Henriksson, having been recently to Stockholm, the words came alive and I could directly link what I’d seen to what Glas sees. Söderberg wrote from life, and if you go to Stockholm you can (and I inadvertently did) walk in Doctor Glas’s shadow.

If you do choose to read Doctor Glas, and you should, I’d strongly recommend this translation. I spent a fair while comparing translations and this for me was the right one. It’s not free, but it is excellent, and really a book as good as this deserves the best translation you can find.

Update: John Self alerted me on twitter that he reviewed this one back in 2008. His review is here, and as ever is worth reading.

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Filed under Epistolary fiction, Söderberg, Hjalmar, Swedish fiction

Does one ever write other than to preserve a moment?

In The Absence Of Men, by Phillipe Besson and translated by Frank Wynne

As an adolescent I thought that most adults were idiots, obsessed with things of no consequence and seemingly wilfully ignorant of anything that really mattered. Now I’m an adult myself, and I have many of the same concerns as the adults I once looked down on. That doesn’t of course mean that I was wrong, it could just be that I joined the idiots.

In the Absence of Men is, in part, a novel of adolescence. It’s also a novel about first love, about grand passion and undying commitment. Most of us make undying commitments as teenagers, but they tend to pass. At 16 we are all immortal, it’s easy to expect things to last forever when you know in your heart that’s how long you’ll last yourself. Here’s the first paragraph:

I am sixteen. I am as old as the century. I know there is a war, that soldiers are dying on the front lines of this war, that civilians are dying in the towns and the countryside of France and elsewhere, that the war – more than the destruction, more than the mud, more than the whistle of bullets as they tear through a man’s chest, more than the shattered faces of the women who wait, hoping sometimes against hope, for a letter which never arrives, for a leave of absence perpetually postponed, more than the game of politics that is played by nations – is the sum of the simple, cruel, sad and anonymous deaths of soldiers, of civilians whose names we will one day read on the pediments of monuments, to the sound of a funeral march.

The narrator is a boy of aristocratic, or at the very least haute bourgeois, family. The year is 1916 and and a boy born with the century is both old enough to enter into adult society and yet too young to be called to the front. It’s a privileged position, and all the more so when the boy in question is intelligent, precocious and extremely good looking.  In peacetime a 16 year old of good birth, however good looking, would be unlikely to come to the attention of a great man. In wartime however, in the absence of men, everything is possible.

The great man I’m referring to is called Marcel. In Paris, in 1916, he doesn’t need to give his surname. He and the narrator, whose name is eventually revealed as Vincent de L’Étoile, form a close friendship. Perhaps too close for propriety, but then as Vincent observes: “We live in a world in which everyone knows and says nothing.” 

Vincent is a boy filled with the vanity and self-importance of youth and beauty. He sees the friendship of Marcel Proust as no more than his due, a natural compliment to his own gifts and charms. He sees his parents as dolts, well meaning but lacking his sophistication and worldly insight. “My conception was not planned. My coming was an accident. They transformed this curse – for curse it must have seemed at first glance – into an important, long-awaited event.” He is, of course, profoundly vain: “In my bedroom mirror I face my reflection. I see my black hair, my green eyes, the hint of a smile.”

By way of aside, having a character look in the mirror and then describe their own appearance is generally an extremely lazy authorial trick for wedging in details of what the protagonist looks like. How many of us spend time pondering our own images in this way in reality? I suspect very few, except of course as teenagers when one’s own image can be the subject of doctorate-level investigation. Vincent returns time and again to his black hair, his green eyes, beautiful as he is one has the distinct impression that nobody spends as much time looking at him as he does himself. Vincent falls in love in this novel, but arguably he starts it in love too, just not with someone else.

Marcel’s friendship is deeply important to Vincent. The two meet, in cafes, in Marcel’s bedroom from which he receives all his more important guests. Exciting as all this is though it becomes almost a sideline when Vincent discovers a different and much more immediate sort of passion in the form of Arthur, 21 year old son of Vincent’s family governess. Arthur is home from the front for a brief leave, almost every night of which he will spend in Vincent’s bed.

Besson then has set up an examination of different forms of love, one based more on intellect and bonds of friendship, another which is physical and raw. As the novel progresses it switches (quite naturally) to an epistolary style which allows Besson to speak in each of the central three character’s voices, Vincent, Marcel and Arthur. It’s one of the novel’s many strengths that I never had to check which name was at the bottom of a letter, from style alone I knew who had written what.

In the Absence of Men was Besson’s first novel, and it’s hard to think of a greater statement of ambition in a first novel (particularly by a French writer) than to include Marcel Proust as a character and then to include letters ostensibly written by him. I’ve so far only read two volumes of Proust, but that’s enough to say that Besson pulls it off. For Besson Proust is a character focussed on what was, on memories and the reconstruction of a past forever out of reach. Proust goes beyond mere nostalgia though in using those memories to reconnect more deeply with the present. As Besson has Proust say:

I work with memory. Some think of it as mere nostalgia, they say I am retrospective. I study the past the better to control the present and I discover feelings in the present which I know from experience of the past. Memory weaves a connection between yesterday and today. It is as simple as that. No need to look any further. I say: time is these moments I spend with you, it is no more than that.

Arthur by contrast is not so intellectual, thoughhis use of language is at no less a level of sophistication than that of Vincent or Marcel. At first Arthur’s eloquence struck me as somewhat unlikely, but on reflection as son to the governess to Vincent’s family it may well be that he would have been highly educated even if his station wouldn’t have allowed him to do much with it.

Arthur has no desire to reflect on the past, which since his entry into the war has become filled with horror. He cannot gaze on the future either though, because all that offers is a return to the front and the likelihood of death or maiming. For him there is only the present, physical passion as an escape from a temporal Charybdis and Scylla. 

In the Absence of Men is very much a novel of language. Vincent is fond of epigrams (“Surely it is important to leave no trace behind?”, “Does one ever tell a tale other than one’s own?”), and is deeply conscious of the literary potential of his own experiences. He writes as if for an audience (naturally, since Besson in fact is writing for an audience). The letters later in the book are equally carefully crafted, even Arthur’s from the front. Each is designed to be read carefully and scrutinised for meaning.

At times the book is powerfully erotic. Although Besson has none of Hollinghurst’s fondness for explicit description, and there’s no direct portrayal of actual sex, as filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age knew you can get pretty steamy without showing any actual action. Here’s one example:

 As day breaks, I study your face, turned from me and resting on your right arm; the folds at the nape of your neck; the hollow between your shoulder-blades where the sun has cast a pool of light; your back strewn with freckles, like points of reference for later use; your downy buttocks on whose crown the sheet has come to rest; your heavy sleep.  

It’s also intensely French. and at times almost archly pretentious. Whether of course that’s a question of Besson’s style, or the fact that at 16 Vincent almost certainly is a bit on the pretentious side is hard to say on the strength of one novel, but everything here is deeply meaningful and considered in a way that is ultimately quite alien to English traditions (which are often fiercely, even bumptiously, anti-intellectual). That doesn’t stop it however from often being very funny. I particularly loved how Vincent’s father becomes concerned at the time Vincent is spending with Arthur, not because he suspects their affair but because of the class divide:

Father says: you were seen with Blanche’s son. You know how fond we are of Blanche, how much we appreciate her. In fact, she would hardly still be in service with us after almost twenty years if we didn’t have some small affection for her. Her son seems a fine lad. He is honest, hard-working, he has been educated – I believe he is a schoolmaster – and is doing his duty as a soldier to defend his country. But you must understand that these people are not of our world, and it is important that we keep a certain distance from them. We have always opposed this kind of contact between the classes, this social mixing – no good can come of it, believe me. I feel obliged to discourage you from seeing the lad again, do you understand? This may seem a little harsh now, but later you will thank me for helping to preserve the purity of our class. I do not answer. To my father, this silence amounts to acquiescence. I make no attempt to contradict his repellent convictions. Mother, for her part, can accept such friendships as these turbulent times create. She is happy that her son is not alone. She says: the solitude of wartime can be very destructive. You shouldn’t deprive yourself of the company of people your own age. She could not possibly guess the nature of the company I keep with Arthur. I am grateful for her encouragement, and for her naïvety, which merely typifies her stupidity.

 In the main I loved In the Absence of Men. I found the characters convincing, the writing often beautiful and the rawness of emotion persuasive. Sadly towards the end Besson relies on what even Vincent describes as “the most bizarre coincidence” to bring various plot strands together and in doing so makes things too neat, too convenient.

It’s a shame because that neatness wasn’t necessary, books about language and emotion don’t need tidy endings and In the Absence of Men would have been a better book without one.  It’s a significant flaw in an otherwise highly successful book, but it’s a flaw some readers might well forgive and some might even admire. One reader’s excessive neatness is another’s satisfying resolution after all.

I read In the Absence of Men because Emma of bookaroundthecorner raved about it here at her blog. I bought it almost immediately after reading her thoughts on it, and while I have that caveat regarding the ending in the main I agree with Emma. In the Absence of Men is well written and perhaps more importantly is ambitious, both in the way large parts of it are written in the second person and of course in the use of Proust as a central character. It’s no wonder it made an impact on its 2001 release.

Like Vincent itself it sets out to impress, confident of its own charms, and if perhaps at times it’s not as clever as it thinks it is it’s nonetheless dazzling and quite charming. Thank you Emma, and here’s hoping that more Besson makes it into translation (Frank Wynne has already translated a second Besson in fact, but so far it’s only available in hardback. Let’s hope that changes).

While writing this I found that Stu of Winstonsdad’s blog has interviewed Frank Wynne. The interview is here, and if you’ve any interest in translated fiction and don’t already know Stu’s blog it’s well worth exploring a few of his posts while you’re there.

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Filed under Besson, Phillipe, Epistolary fiction, French

Addressant Unbekannt

Address Unknown, by Kressman Taylor

Address Unknown is a 1938 short story by American writer Katherine Kressman, published under the name Kressman Taylor (Taylor was her husband) as it was considered “too strong to appear under the name of a woman”. It’s published today as a stand alone work, as a novella essentially, though the Souvenir Press edition I read achieved its length of 64 pages by the somewhat shameful expedient of leaving the bottom 40% or so of every page entirely blank. That said, I wouldn’t envy Souvenir trying to sell a 30 to 40 page story at anything like a price that could make it worth publishing, so perhaps the fault lies not with our publishers but with ourselves.

All that aside, what is it? It’s an epistolary tale set in 1933. It opens with Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American, writing to his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse wishing him well on Martin’s recent return to Germany with his family. Max is optimistic, missing his friend but confident he has made the right decision, that he will be happy and successful back in Germany, a land now free of its “old Junker spirit, the Prussian arrogance and militarism”. As Max says:

You go to a democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginnings of a fine political freedom. It will be a good life.

Max writes too with news of his sister, Griselle. She is an actress and a woman with whom Martin once had a passionate extramarital affair, now ended.

Martin responds in equal good cheer, he writes to “Max, dear old fellow”, laughs about his big new house and the bed he has had made for his wife, but comments too on how rich he is in Germany with his American wealth, his countrymen so poor that he pays ten servants in Germany for the same money as two in the US. His letter is gossipy, emotional, full of affection advising Max to find “a nice fat little wife” of his own. The friendship between the men is evident.

The correspondence continues, and soon Max is asking Martin “Who is this Adolf Hitler who seems rising toward power in Germany?” Max’s reply is equivocal, telling “Dear Old Max” “I think in many ways Hitler is good for Germany, but I am not sure” and adding that he “is like an electric shock, strong as only a great orator and a zealot can be. But I ask myself, is he quite sane?” To the politics, he adds news of family, his wife’s new dress, but he returns to Hitler concerned at where Germany may be headed.

From there, the story takes a darker turn. Max writes enquiring if the stories he hears from Germany, of atrocities against Jews, are true. He is worried and has news that Griselle may herself be travelling to Berlin, a journey he has counseled her against in the circumstances. Max’s reply, to “Mr. Max Eisenstein” is written from his business address, he no longer wishes correspondence from a Jew arriving at his home. He writes:

As for the sterm measures that so distress you, I myself did not like them at first, but I have come to see their painful necessity. The Jewish race is a sore spot to any nation that harbors it. I have never hated the individual Jew — yourself I have always cherished as a friend, but you will know that I speak in all honesty when I say I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.

Martin is a Nazi official now, his wife entertaining members of the party, his son a member of the Hitler Youth. Hitler is now referred to as the “Gentle Leader”, with capitalisations it’s worth noting, the letter is full of Nazi rhetoric, references to the “old, strong gods of the German race” and the “Semitic character”.

I shan’t quote much further, Griselle travels to Berlin, and on that trip turns the former friends’ story. In essence, however, this is an examination of how the Nazi regime changed people, like Martin who starts off praising Hindenburg as “a fine liberal whom I much admire” but later writes without irony of how “We ate the bitter bread of shame and drank the thin gruel of poverty. But now we are free men.” Without irony as, of course, Martin had no such experience. He lived well in America, in partnership with a Jewish friend, Germany’s post World War I hardships were never his.

Address Unknown is a neat and clever tale. Generally a month passes between letters, sometimes two months, we see the friendship die in slow motion, as Martin’s greetings move from exclamations of friendship to literally opening a letter with simply the words “Heil Hitler”. Kressman was inspired to write it, we are told in an afterword, by an experience where German friends who had lived in America but now returned to Germany briefly revisited the US, and while there refused to speak to a former Jewish friend. Kressman wondered how such a thing could happen, how good people could become so indoctrinated that could turn their backs on their former companions. Address Unknown is her examination of that question, and of the absurdities of the regime that gave rise to such results.

Address Unknown is a very fast read, I read the whole work in around half an hour, perhaps slightly less. It’s an enjoyable and rewarding story, well written (Max and Martin have distinct and consistent voices) and the ramping up of tension and the sudden turn of the story as Griselle heads to Berlin are well paced and judged. It’s also a surprisingly prescient tale, illustrating the dangers of Nazism at a time when many weren’t paying attention, it’s easy to forget when reading it that Kressman had no benefit of hindsight. She saw what the Nazis were, and the seductive power of certainty. That last element is why the story remains relevant, the allure of simple solutions and a convenient other to blame never goes away for long.

I learned about Address Unknown from Stewart McAbney’s blog, Booklit, he reviewed it here. Stewart’s review is an exemplary one, his analysis absolutely spot on. In particular, I owe the point that Martin uses “we” when speaking of Germany’s suffering even though he wasn’t there for it to Stewart’s writeup.

Address Unknown

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Filed under Epistolary fiction, Novellas, Short stories, Taylor, Kressman