Category Archives: Swedish 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

Falander eyed her body as if calculating the cost

The Red Room, by August Strindberg and translated by Peter Graves

The Red Room is a 19th Century Swedish state of the nation novel. Put that way it doesn’t sound very enticing, but what’s odd is that it’s also one of the most topical novels I’ve read in a while and it has more to say about 21st Century Britain (and I suspect many other countries) than most contemporary British novels do.

In a way that’s a slightly depressing comment on current fiction. Perhaps the real point though is that for all the advances we’ve made in the last 130 years or so, we’re still the same people we ever were.

RedRoom

A young man named Arvid Falk quits the civil service to follow his dream of being a poet. He joins up with a group of artists and writers who meet most nights in the Red Room, a private dining area in a cheap café. Arvid dabbles in journalism to pay his way, while his brother Carl Nicolaus Falk grows rich from money-lending and investments.

Strindberg uses these characters to set his sights on the whole of Stockholm society: literature, theatre, journalism, business, corporate social responsibility programs (not that he uses that term obviously) the civil service, politics,  the works. Here’s Arvid commenting on what he found at his plum job with the civil service, which he’s just quit to the consternation of everyone he knows:

‘So I went in to the notary’s, where I found a supplies committee in session – as it had been for the last three weeks. The protonotary was in the chair and three clerks were taking the minutes. Samples sent in by suppliers were scattered all over the tables, at which all the unoccupied clerks, copyists and notaries were sitting. In spite of major differences of opinion they had settled on twenty reams of Lessebo paper and, after repeated test snips, forty-eight pairs of Gråtorp’s prize-winning scissors (a company in which the actuary owned twenty-five shares). Testing the steel pen-nibs had taken a whole week and the minutes recording the process had consumed two reams of paper. They had now come to the pen-knives and the committee was in the process of testing them on the black table-tops.’

Arvid despairs of the waste and stupidity he encounters in the civil service, but journalism and writing are no better. Publishers expect him to churn out cheap content at minimal rates and minimal research (the Guardian’s Comment is Free anyone?). The politicians he reports on are venal, the businessmen self-serving. To make matters worse, Stockholm is full of young men writing poetry about how unhappy they are. Nobody wants to read any of it.

The others in the Red Room include men of talent, but of the two painters in the group the best of them is out of fashion and ignored while the lesser does society portraits for which he’s applauded and well paid. In the main they’re desperately poor, regularly pawning their few possessions so they can afford their next meal. Stockholm is not a place that values its artists, not the ones who produce art for its own sake anyway.

Meanwhile, Arvid’s brother is an utterly dislikeable man who lends money to his friends more so he can exert power over them than for the paltry profits it affords him. His pretty young wife does good deeds in the community, but only because its fashionable. He has his company contribute to his wife’s charities, but only so long as everyone knows he’s doing it (and his contributions consist largely of risky stocks which he wants off his own books anyway).

Everywhere is cant, pandering and self-interest. Arvid is innocent, but he’s young and it’s noticeable that nobody here with any experience of life shares his early optimism.

Strindberg writes all this with zest and humour, and I found The Red Room a hugely enjoyable read. Satires aren’t always funny, but this one is and the anger doesn’t overwhelm the comedy.

There are a few problems though: the range of targets is so broad that the book becomes a bit patchy in places, characterisation isn’t particularly deep and there’s a slight feeling that the different sections of the book may have been stitched together from different sources (perhaps written at different times) so that stylistically it doesn’t all quite hang together.At 300 pages all in though the weaker sections don’t overstay their welcome and the whole is so good that I could easily forgive the occasional flaws.

I talked in my opening about how topical The Red Room still is. Here’s some examples:

The art critic was an old academic who had never held a brush but belonged to a brilliant society of artists called Minerva. This gave him the opportunity to describe works of art to the publci before they were even painted, thus saving his readers the trouble of coming to an opinion of their own. He was always kind to those he knew and never forgot any of them when reviewing an exhibition. His long-standing habit of writing nice things about them – how would he dare do otherwise? – and his ability to mention twenty works in half  column made his critics think of a game of Happy Families. He carefully refrained from mentioning younger artists, however, and thus the general public, not having heard any new names for a decade, began to despair for the future of art.

Replace art with literary fiction in that quote, and you pretty much have the state of broadsheet newspaper literary criticism in the UK today.

‘ … So what happened about the financial mess at Triton?’

‘They decided on an open vote that, in view of the company’s patriotic ideals and the national interest, the state should take over the bonds while the company winds up or goes into liquidation.’

‘That means the state propping up the house while the foundations are crumbling, just to give the directors time to get out!’

Governments using public cash to prop up failed private sector investments?  Senior executives taking legally questionable risks and then escaping all personal liability? Privatised profits and nationalised losses? Seems pretty current to me.

Then there’s the press:

‘Don’t you read the books you review?’

‘Who do you think’s got time to read books? Isn’t it enough that I write about them? I read the papers and that’s quite enough. Anyway, we lay into everything as a matter of principle!’

‘That’s surely a stupid principle?’

‘Nope! That way you get everyone who dislikes the author or is envious of him on your side. And that’s the majority. The neutrals prefer to read abuse anyway: the humble find it both comforting and edifying to read how thorny the path to fame can be. True?’

‘You can’t play with people’s destiny in that way.’

‘It;s good for them, both old and young. I know – I never got anything but abuse in my youth.’

‘But you’re misleading public opinion.’

‘The public doesn’t want good judgement, the public wants its passions satisfied. If I praise your enemy you wriggle like a worm and say I lack judgement, but if I praise your friend you say it’s good judgement.’

That quote above goes wider than just reviewing. In the US both MSNBC and Fox feed their viewers the news they want to hear, carefully avoiding any serious hint of other viewpoints. Newspaper readers (those who’re left) choose papers that reflect their politics, google sorts us into filter bubbles which on the one hand means search results genuinely are more relevant but on the other means we only see what we already expect to. The technology changes, but the problem Strindberg’s satirising in that quote above hasn’t changed at all.

As a rule of thumb books don’t become classics, or get translated, without good reason. A translated classic then tends to be a bit of a sure bet (though not always, some classics have huge academic or historical interest but make for lousy reads). It’s a little like foreign language film (if you’re an English speaker). Nobody goes to the trouble of making subtitles, importing and marketing some domestic turkey. They do it for the good stuff. The Red Room is the good stuff.

If you’ve ever had the faintest interest in Swedish literature this is the place to start (and Doctor Glas, which I’m reviewing soon, is the place to go to next). If not, and I didn’t, this is still a rewarding novel with a lot to say about the state we’re in, which sadly is much the same state as we’ve been in since long before my grandparents were born.

There’s a free version of The Red Room available on kindle, but I’d recommend buying this Norvik Press edition anyway. The Peter Graves translation is excellent, and well worth spending a little money on. There’s an excellent review of the free translation here at Bookaroundthecorner’s blog. It was Emma from that blog who persuaded me to read it. Thanks Emma.

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Filed under 19th Century, Strindberg, August, Swedish fiction