Saturday, November 23, 2002

Physician, Kill Thyself

Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg, translated from the Swedish by Paul Britten Austin. Anchor Books. 150 pages. $12.00

The title character of Hjalmar Soderberg's 1905 novel is a virgin well past the age of 30, and for good reason. In the sleepy Swedish village where he lives, marriage is the local blight, especially for women. They fall in love, get pregnant, and come to the doctor for an abortion he can't perform. They are sent away unhappy, their fate sealed, forced by custom into an early wedding and an unhappy life.

Doctor Glas hates his role in society, society itself, and sex, which only perpetuates the cycle. "A pregnant woman is a frightful object," he writes in the diary that comprises the novel. "A new-born child is loathsome. A deathbed rarely makes so horrible an impression as childbirth, that terrible symphony of screams and filth and blood." His own private life is hardly more content than that of the people he sees; "Nothing so reduces and drags down a human being as the consciousness of not being loved."

Welcome to Sweden, ladies and gentlemen, where dark nights of the soul can last for six months. To read Soderberg's novel is to get a glimpse of the culture that gave birth to August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman; it even has a thunderingly obvious image in it, a clock without hands -- Oh my God! We're running out of time! -- that Bergman used to similarly clumsy effect in Wild Strawberries. It puts us in a world of chilly emotions and wintry despair and, for all that, it's rather surprisingly effective.

Like most cynics, Glas is a disappointed romantic, a man who never got over his first unconsummated love, and who nourishes fantasies of himself as a hero and protector of damsels in distress -- a lovelorn catcher in the rye.

Into his life steps the young and beautiful Helga, who wants the doctor to keep her much older husband from having sex with her. Naturally, Glas is sympathetic; besides, her husband is the Lutheran minister Gregorious, whom Glas loathes, seeing religion as a crippling social institution and the minister as an odious fraud. Helga is not frigid; she is only cold to her husband because she has fallen in love with the younger and handsomer Klas Recke, who is everything Gregorious is not. Glas now sees a chance where he can help someone and get away with it. His initial effort to stem Gregorius' lust -- by telling him that Helga's health won't take it -- comes to nothing, as the gregarious Gregorius isn't about to give up the booty. Eventually, he manages to convince Gregorius that his health requires him to take an extended trip, alone, to a faraway town. Helga's affair with Klas, for the time being, proceeds unimpeded.

Glas is in love with Helga, and lives vicariously through her lover, whose name rhymes with his own, but of whom he is only a pale reflection. Glas is a nothing man, a man who wants but cannot act, a Swedish J. Alfred Prufrock whose unheeded desires have long begun to fester and poison his soul. Spiritually, he's like one of those thin figures by Giacometti, a man whose dashed hopes have withered him down to a wiry hardness. He wants to be a poet but believes he has no sense or vision, "no eyes of my own"; actually, he is something of an artist of his own life, as he closely observes the subtle signals in slight movements -- how people react, how to avoid reaction, how not to get involved, what not to say. He has mastered the psychology of everyday life for his own ends, and it has diminished him: "It seems to me I am the shadow who wished to be a man." He sees himself as a character in a dull play, pushed to the side, watching life as it goes by and hating it; watching it through a glass. He dwells on the outside and the inside, wanting both "the pathos of action and the peace of the on-looker," and finding solace in neither. Suicide is a constant temptation; he has even taken the trouble of making cyanide pills, which he keeps at the ready. Even greater is the temptation to use the pills to kill Gregorius on his return, freeing forever the life of the woman he loves. His own life has always been tortured by dreams of wanting. Now they become nightmares of getting, of killing Gregorius, taking Helga in his arms and being pursued by Klas.

Life, which has always given him perfectly good reasons not to follow his heart, now throws down a challenge. "Life, I do not understand you!" he retorts, and Helga's marriage is a perfect example of why: her only joy in life is considered a sin, while nightly rape by her husband is upheld by law. As Glas talks himself into and out of killing Gregorius, the notion of morality itself becomes suspect: why is killing a man like Gregorius wrong? Why shouldn't Helga be free? I won't give away how he resolves this crisis, but it gives away nothing to say it goes badly, and that it only deepens his misanthropy and self-contempt. The world Glas sees is a hypocritical parade of masks where he is as guilty as anyone, and the only one remotely concerned. Night and day come to reflect his interior and outer selves; one makes him feel lonely and insignificant, the other sheds light on everything he doesn't want to face. The sun, as one friend says to him, is like the truth: "its value depends on our being a correct distance away from it." Life is best lived by not facing the horror of it; "Thought is an acid, eating us away." To be happy is to inoculate yourself from the tragedy. Over the summer and fall that take up the book, Glas is constantly aware of the change of seasons and the passing of time. In the final pages, he yearns for the approach of winter, of snow blotting out light.

In her introduction to this reissued paperback edition, the novelist Margaret Atwood rightly points out that while Doctor Glas was controversial in its day -- due to "the perception that it was advocating abortion and euthanasia, and was perhaps even rationalizing murder" -- it is "not a polemic, not a work of advocacy." Considering that Glas is so completely cynical -- he even takes cruel delight in learning that a pregnancy he could have prevented has produced a mentally retarded child -- one could almost argue that Soderberg only undercuts the liberal opinions he puts in the mouth of his character. There are equal parts bitter truth and mere bitterness to Glas. He hates religion and belief in God, yet his discomfort in life comes from evolution, which only makes "everything seem meaningless, stupid, squalid." He's a 19th Century man who has been assaulted by the 20th.

"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre would write nearly 40 years after this book. Doctor Glas would tell him that's only half the story: hell is other people and none, the pain of others, the pain of loneliness, each feeding on the other. The chilly world-weariness and sexual dysfunction of Soderberg's novel found their best expression in the works of Ibsen and Strindberg, and while this book doesn't have quite their force or complexity, it's a lean work of pure Scandinavian gloom, peering out on a tumultuous, thoroughly Freudian century ahead.

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