His spectacles reflected only my window, its curtains and my rubber plant

Michael Hofmann

None for forty years, then two in 14 months. Not London buses, but English translations – in this instance, of books by the Swedish novelist Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941). The Serious Game would appear to be a translation of a novel that was first published in Swedish in 1912 and has not previously appeared in English; Doctor Glas is a reissue of a 1963 version of the 1905 original, with the addition of an admiring preface by Margaret Atwood. A play, Gertrud, was filmed by Carl Dreyer; Doctor Glas has also been filmed; I don’t quite understand why these books and others of his – Martin Birck’s Youth, from 1901, and castigated, on its appearance, for being ‘pornographic’ – haven’t been a continuous part of our literary landscape. But perhaps the requisite mixture of courtesy and curiosity no longer exists? Paul Binding’s Babel Guide to Scandinavian Fiction in Translation describes Söderberg as ‘one of the very greatest Swedish writers, disgracefully little known in the English-speaking world’. The second part of the sentence seems almost to follow from the first.

I knew nothing of Söderberg before I read these two books. Even so, he seemed like a good bet. A contemporary of Chekhov; but because of his distance from the (then French or Russian) centre of things, a little less advanced, his 1910 in this ripple-model corresponding to 1880 elsewhere, but an accelerated, a less cushioned, a less empire 1880. (Atwood adduces comparisons to Poe, Dostoevsky and Ibsen.) Then there is the historical background: a society in flux; peak years of emigration to North America; Sweden positioning itself both internationally and internally; the final relinquishing of Norway; the loosening of the old puritanical certainties (the Ibsenite Church); Darwin and divorce; industrialisation and urbanisation, but still a panoptical, almost a village society; a sense of being on the edge of international (political, artistic) developments, the paths beaten down to Paris and Berlin, perhaps some equivalent of the Russian argument between Slavophiles and Westerners.

These two books offer, it seems to me, generic satisfactions from a golden age of the novel. Neither is especially innovative in terms of language or technique, but both tell tense and involving stories believably and well. (I would place Söderberg in Pound’s second group of writers, those who come after ‘the inventors’, whom he calls ‘the masters’.) Doctor Glas is about love and death; The Serious Game about love and money. I would recommend both of them to anyone.

Doctor Glas is in the form of a journal kept by the eponymous doctor over a long summer. Its authoritative, pregnant opening – ‘12 June. I’ve never known such a summer. A sultry heatwave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places’ – reminds me irresistibly of another great beginning: ‘Ganz Europa leidet gegenwärtig unter dieser Hitze’ (‘All Europe is currently suffering in this heatwave’), from Botho Strauss’s Devotion (1977). It ends, not quite four months later, with a relieving anticipation of early snow: ‘It will be welcome. Let it come. Let it fall.’ Glas is an oddly misanthropic, Prufrockian, frustrated doctor: ‘What a profession! How can it have come about that, out of all possible trades, I should have chosen the one which suits me least?’ He is a man of wide culture and interests, quoting from and referring to philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche and Schopenhauer but finding everything human alien to himself. He sounds squeamish, contemptuous, cynical; sometimes like Malte in Rilke’s great novel (of 1910); sometimes like one of Chekhov’s tired, put-upon, dissuasive medical men; often like Prufrock (‘And never will she slip across the street in the night, with anxiety in her heart and a letter to me. Life has passed me by’); sometimes like Hofmannsthal’s Chandos (from 1901), in a whirl of new difficulty.

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