Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Doctor Glas

Knocked out by a bad cold! I'm still woozy so if anything I say about Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg doesn't make sense, it's the cold and/or one of the many varieties of cold medicine I'm taking. Dr. Glas is a middle-aged, well-respected doctor in Stockholm. He has no wife or children, the only woman he ever loved and who loved him back died suddenly and unexpectedly after they had one lovely day together. Glas's female clients like him and bring their troubles to him, asking for an abortion, which he refuses, not because he thinks it wrong but because it is against the law and he doesn't want to get into trouble. And now Mrs. Gregorious, the beautiful young wife of the Vicar no one seems to like, comes to him asking for help. She is repulsed by her husband and in love with another man. Is there anything Dr. Glas might do to keep her husband from exercising his "rights"? Dr. Glas falls head-over-heels for Mrs. Gregorious; he only ever falls in love with women who are already in love with someone else. He speaks to Mr. Gregorious, telling him that his wife has a condition that requires her to abstain from sex. This works for a couple weeks until Mr. Gregorious can't stand it any longer and forces himself on his wife. The next ploy is to convince Mr. Gregorious that his heart is bad and he needs to go take in the waters. This works for about two months. What else can Dr. Glas do to help? He has a secret drawer in his desk in which he has hidden a few cyanide pills against the day he might decide to take his own life. Could he convince Mr. Gregorious to take one? Dr. Glas is no Raskolnikov, he is neither mad nor does he have high philosophical theories. He views respect for life as a hypocrisy:
What else can it ever be on the lips of anyone who has ever whiled away an idle hour in thought? Human life, it swarms around us on every hand. And as for the lives of faraway, unseen people, no one has ever cared a fig for them. Everyone shows this by his actions, except perhaps a few more than usually idiotic philanthropists. All governments and parliaments on earth proclaim it.
Yet Dr. Glas is not a bad man nor is he unlikeable. He is very lonely and, as his friend Markel says, lacks a talent for happiness. The story is told in the form of a diary but as Glas says, it isn't a confession
To whom should I confess? Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what 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
Later he tells us he does not write all his thoughts in his diary, only thoughts that recur to him more than once. He is reliable in what he tells us, but what, if anything, is he not telling us? Glas has such a trustworthy voice and I really felt sorry for him and for Mrs. Gregorious, but I can't help but wonder if there were thoughts that got left out and what they might be? Doctor Glas is a most excellent and compact read. It was first published in Swedon in 1905 and caused a bit of a scandal because people saw it as promoting abortion and euthanasia. It doesn't, not really, but there is much in it to think about and I am sure I will read it again one day when my head is not full of congestion and cold medicine. Cross posted as So Many Books

"Morality - you're joking!" Doctor Glas

The obvious comparison for Doctor Glas is probably Crime and Punishment, but as I haven't read that (I know, I know) I was reminded of Poe's tales of horror, specifically "The Tell-Tale Heart," which is also a tale told by a murderer, full of logic and hatred and signifying ... well, actually, that's where the resemblances end, as Poe's murderer is a sociopathic madman, while Doctor Glas is something else. That's he's not so clearly a lunatic makes his story both more creepy and more depressing. It's easy to distance ourselves from Poe's delightfully raving, palpably unreliable narrator. Doctor Glas (and Doctor Glas) elicits a more complicated, even ambivalent response.

Doctor Glas is told as a series of journal entries by the eponymous narrator, a lonely doctor prone to brooding and philosophizing. By any standard, but especially for a doctor, he's disturbingly uncommitted to the value of human life. "Respect for human life--what is it in my mouth but low hypocrisy? What else can it ever be on the lips of anyone who has ever whiled away an idle hour in thought?" He's an outspoken advocate of euthanasia:
The day will come, must come, when the right to die is recognised as far more important and inalienable a human right than the right to drop a voting ticket into a ballot box. And when that time is ripe, every incurably sick person--and every 'criminal' also--shall have the right to the doctor's help, if he wishes to be set free.
He keeps cyanide pills handy -- for his own exit plan, initially, but that bit of forethought turns out to be convenient when he resolves to end someone else's life.

That someone else is the odious Rev. Gregorius, whose pretty wife Helga comes to the doctor seeking help because she finds her husband's sexual demands repulsive...or does she? I wondered at a couple of points just how much of Dr. Glas's version we should accept, given that his own interest in Mrs. Gregorius is fairly intense and he has his own sexual issues, as someone who "at past thirty years of age, [has] never been near a woman." He wonders why that drive that "forces honest men to subject themselves to every sort of tribulation and sacrifice," and women "to surmount those feelings of modesty which the education of generation upon generation of young girls has been designed to awaken and develop," has so far "not driven [him] to anything." Is it that urge or some more philanthropic motive that eventually drives him to murder?

Why would I even entertain the notion that there might be something principled about murder? That's where Doctor Glas is most conspicuously different from Poe. The doctor is not simply a obsessive creep. In fact, I'm not even sure he's creepy at all, though he certainly makes me uncomfortable. We know Poe's narrator is a bad guy because his reasoning is so absurd:
He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
But Dr. Glas's logic is pretty compelling, his murder arguably an extension of his duty to heal. First he tries to solve Mrs. Gregorius's problem by telling her husband she has a medical condition and should be left alone. When she returns to him with the news that "he raped me. As good as raped me," that "he was strong. Wouldn't let her go," he has to try a different strategy. This time he warns Rev. Gregorius that his own health is at risk and prescribes separate bedrooms. When that doesn't work, his dreams of killing Gregorius become plans--though not until after he has an extended debate with himself:
I hear conflicting voices. I must interrogate them; I must know why the one says: I want to, and the other: I don't want to. You first, who say 'I want to': Why do you want to? Reply!
--I want to act. Life is action. When I see something that makes me indignant, I want to intervene. . . .
--But the unwritten law? Morality . . . ? 
--My good friend, the law, you know as well as I do, is in a state of flux. . . . Morality, the proverbial line chalked around a hen, binds those who believe in it. Morality, that's others' views of what is right. But what was here in question was my view. . . . I'm a traveller in this world; I look at mankind's customs and adopt those I find most useful. And morality is derived from 'morales,' custom; it reposes entirely on custom; habit; it knows no other ground. And I don't need to be told that, by killing that parson, I'm committing an action which is not customary. Morality -- you're joking! 
 Though excerpted like that it sounds kind of annoying, the doctor's tendency to think and question adds a lot of depth and interest to the novel, and more importantly, to the character. For a murderer, he's a pretty poignant figure, actually, as he reflects on his sad childhood, his abusive father, his lost dreams of love -- and yet these too have their disturbing aspects, as, for instance, after the drowning death of a girl he once kissed he dreams of her "white body lying among weeds and slime, rising and falling on the water." Love and lust seem hopelessly intermingled, in his thoughts and feelings and memories, with hatred and disgust.

What will linger with me most after finishing the novel is its atmosphere. It is eerily evocative, with a strong sense of place, and of spiritual isolation in that place:
The moon is shining. All my windows are open. In my study the lamp burns. I have put it on my escritoire, in the lee of the night breeze which with its gentle hush fills the curtain like a sail. I walk to and fro in the room, stopping now and then at my writing desk and jotting down a line. For a long while I've been standing at one of the windows of the sitting-room, looking out and listening for all the strange sounds that belong to the night. But tonight silence reigns, down there beneath the dark trees. Only a solitary woman sits on a bench; she has been sitting there a long while. And the moon is shining.
Though, following the dictates of the self that argued "life is action," Dr. Glas does ultimately act, the much-anticipated action is anticlimactic, bringing little satisfaction and no resolution. "Life has passed me by," he concludes, and we're left with another image of emotional bereavement:
Autumn pillages my trees. Already the chestnut outside my window is naked and black. Clouds fly in thick droves over the rooftops, and I never see the sun.

(cross-posted at Novel Readings)