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.

The most obvious cause of Glas’s difficulty is women. He is, or claims to be (but one believes him), a virgin. ‘I feel,’ he says, ‘as if at this moment no one in the world is lonelier than I – I, Tyko Gabriel Glas, doctor of medicine, who at times help others, but have never been able to help myself, and who, at past thirty years of age, have never been near a woman.’ He tells us about a girl he kissed and then lost as a young man (as happens with Lydia and Arvid in The Serious Game), about his difficulties believing the facts of life when he was told them as a boy. He passes whores in the street, he is sent an intimidating bunch of roses by the bold Eva Mertens (again, something similar happens in The Serious Game), whose face he isn’t quite able to recall. He holds most undoctorlike views on parturition, and on life: ‘A pregnant woman is a frightful object. 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.’ The only women he has an eye for are those who are in love with other men, ‘but naturally, being in love with other men, they did not see me.’ He is, as Atwood points out, ‘glass’.

So far, perhaps, so 1890s-ish: a conjunction of desire and fear, romance and misogyny. But there is instability and dynamism in Glas; he can’t just tell himself, like Ruskin or de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël or some Oscar Wilde character, that he prefers boys, or statues, and leave it at that. He is drawn into life, away from his observation post. Partly it is his catastrophic choice of profession, partly it is his vanity, partly his 20th-century propensity not to set any limits to what he may think. A young woman walks into his surgery, the wife of a much older parson, one Gregorius. She suffers from his attentions: can he, as a doctor, do anything to help induce her husband to ‘give up his rights, at least for a while’? And there is more: ‘I’m an unfaithful wife. I belong to another man. And that’s why it has become so terribly hard for me.’ Helga appeals to Glas on very many levels: as a lover, a knight-errant, a protector, a Samaritan, an aesthete, a doctor, a thinker. Gregorius is horrible, and he brings out Glas’s virulent anti-clericalism. Isn’t it an act of enlightenment – of, so to speak, dragon-slaying, not that anyone still believes in dragons – that she is asking him for? She doesn’t want him, but she wants something that may be in his gift. She wants him as an agency – which perhaps is why her appeal is so peculiarly irresistible to him. (He is glass.)

‘I must really have quite a strong nature,’ the clever Glas says to himself at one point. He gets to work on Gregorius, who is also a patient of his, and something of a hypochondriac. First he appeals to his altruism; his wife, he tells him, is not all that strong. When that fails, he shifts his attack to Gregorius himself, and subjects him to a protracted auscultation. ‘Let us be honest with one another, Mr Gregorius,’ he says to the terrified clergyman, before prescribing ‘separate bedrooms’ and a solitary holiday by the sea. It is an exquisite scene, Gregorius not daring to be honest, Glas not needing to be, and orchestrated with fantastically resonant incidentals – ‘His spectacles reflected only my window, its curtains, and my rubber plant’ – brilliantly showing the one man floundering in the power of the other. Söderberg has Chekhov’s gift for separating speech from inner purpose: he is one of a bare handful of other writers who, I feel, might have given us something like Gayev’s ‘I pot the black’ in The Cherry Orchard. (Apparently, Swedish critics found fault with Söderberg for his ‘digressions’ and ‘collages’, and he remained un-understood for some considerable time.) The consultation includes a bizarrely wonderful – and again resonant – discussion of ways ‘to prevent infection at the communion table’ as the medical and the theological get to grips with each other: ‘Then, he went on, there was a clergyman of the modern, free-thinking variety who had suggested that Our Saviour’s blood could be swallowed in capsules.’ The anti-sacerdotal image, itself worthy of Fellini, betrays Gregorius’s anxiety, his willingness to compromise, and finally his absurd victimhood.

In a direct line from these wine-capsules are some cyanide pills that Glas keeps in a secret drawer in his desk. From the moment that he gets them out – he had made them up in case he ever wanted to put an end to his own life – it is only a matter of time till he thinks of poisoning Gregorius. (The pills are like the revolver in the first act of The Seagull.) Glas stages a great debate with himself, but Söderberg is too clever to want to pretend that people decide things rationally: there’s only one place the pills are going. (There is a somewhat similar scene in The Serious Game, where Arvid flips a coin to decide whether or not he should visit his beloved; the coin says no, but of course he goes anyway.) When he finds a beautiful empty watch-case and buys it to keep his pills in, it’s as if he were getting stripped for action, or being barbered like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver. (It’s also a sumptuous image of death, rather ahead of Dalí.) I want, if I can, to avoid saying what happens then: suffice it to say, it is cleverly spun out, attended by false alarms and dry runs (‘a majestic police constable walked slowly past, stopped, flicked a grain of dust off his well-brushed overcoat, and went on along his beat’). It solves nothing. The beautiful Helga’s lover – whom the envious Glas watches as he smokes ‘a very long slender cigar’ – moves on, Helga has no eyes for Glas, and never did, and Glas himself? He has become involved, he has rolled up his sleeves and got his feet wet, he has acted and taken a hand in life (like Lydia in The Serious Game, who yielded to the ‘desire to find out whether I could intervene in the fate of another’), but really nothing has changed, beyond the season. The snow is welcome, but it, too, is only for a time. The ending strikes me as completely open. The whole thing, the story of a summer (‘I’ve never known such a summer’), might be an exception, an aberration (Söderberg’s first novel was called Aberrations), or then again, it might have changed the course of Glas’s career for good.

Doctor Glas is beautifully balanced, rich, coherent and free. There are lovely notes on weather and light, on sections of Stockholm, on the doctor’s past. Like Arvid, the journalist hero of The Serious Game, Glas regrets that he isn’t a writer; that would, he feels, make sense of his life for him. (This is probably tantamount to a regret that he isn’t a ‘man of the 1890s’, an aesthete; feeling himself forced to make his own life, he wishes he had the literary licence to do so.) It contains occasional sentences of sublime irrationality, things that contain a high measure of unconscious sense, and dazzle our notions of character: ‘It’s raining, and I’m sitting thinking about unpleasant things’ is one; or ‘A half-grown girl served our vichy water, two small quarter bottles’; or ‘a third gentleman I’ve met some time or other, but whose name I’ve forgotten or perhaps never known – he’s very bald and every time I’ve met him before it’s always been indoors.’ There is a similar irrationalism about the way this anti-ecclesiastical man is given to Biblical language. The translation is Paul Britten Austin’s, and while, for the most part, it reads very well, I sometimes feel it straining against my English reader’s sense of probability: I can’t quite believe Doctor Glas encompasses scriptural tags and elaborate rhetorical inversions, and yet will describe a shop-girl as ‘tasty’ and fellow diners as ‘scum’. And even if he does in the original, then Austin hasn’t quite given him the authority to do it in English. Occasional – putative – Swedish notes get by much more easily. They fall easily within the reader’s range of expectations, such things as: ‘Oh yes, without question she has a good little character, too’ or ‘I worry myself blind and grey over this.’ If it sounds like it’s in the original, and there’s not too much of it, it doesn’t really count as an impurity. It’s where the translator offends more gratuitously against English that he must chiefly expect censure: I can’t quite believe anyone could speak of ‘a simple-minded, grumbling, pious, sensual type of lass, not wholly unlike the good Catharine of Bora’, or say: ‘if you take a little potassium cyanide in a glass of wine or suchlike, death follows instantly.’ Each italicised phrase (my italics) seems like an intrusion. But there are not many like that, and everything else I’ve quoted has given me considerable pleasure.

If Doctor Glas is a wonderful book, The Serious Game is almost better. It’s simpler, less shapely, less focused (even though Söderberg blithely ignores the focus in much of Doctor Glas, or rather takes it with him for a walk), but it seems to encompass real change, psychologically and historically, in the way that only a novel can. Eva Claeson’s translation – although of an easier book – reads very fluently but for an irritating habit she has of misusing ‘I suppose’. Oddly, both books seem to be some impossible creature between novel and novella; they cover a lot of ground, but with high resolution; they tell a story, but gesture beyond both ends of it; and neither leaves one with a heavy feeling of repleteness.

The Serious Game covers a period of ten or fifteen years. It begins with Lydia, a young girl, waiting for Arvid, a student, to arrive; and ends with him on a train, having left her for the very last time. At first, he is rowing towards her for a musical evening with her painter father and a couple of other men – both also infatuated with her – and in the end he takes out his copy of Heine’s Buch der Lieder and reads from it. Both are married, both separated, both have children, and in leaving each other after a rackety off-and-on affair, they are ending – we as readers feel this – what should have been the story of their lives.

It sounds modern, it sounds ‘authentic’ – Söderberg had indeed fled Sweden for Copenhagen in 1906, at the end of a calamitous affair with a married woman, and the Stockholm in his novel, though it doesn’t feel like it, or read like it, is a memory – but a lot of its ‘argument’ stems from propriety and money. Arvid doesn’t have the income on which to marry, and Lydia, quite properly, isn’t up for anything else. They part, both sheepishly and trustingly, expecting to meet again in Stockholm. Instead, they don’t meet for a long time. Arvid slips out of his probationary schoolmastering, and works for a newspaper, first as proofreader, then as occasional reviewer, then music critic, and finally, in the argot, ‘foreign minister’. The strange bohemian career of a newspaperman is written about with beautiful insight (Söderberg himself was one): the clubbiness, the frustrations, the gentle improvement of prospects. One of a number of yardsticks set throughout the book is the progress of the Dreyfus Affair (where again, Söderberg took a hand, translating Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ into Swedish); characters are faded in, salaries are faded up; the King appears, first as ‘Europe’s most handsome King’, then his Jubilee is celebrated, and he dies and is buried. Altogether, the way time passes is made very agreeable.

But all the while, Lydia can’t wait for ever. Her father dies (Arvid sees the obituary as it goes to press), she meets Arvid by chance at the newspaper offices (she has gone to deliver an ad to ask for work), and the next thing he hears about her is the announcement of her engagement to one Markus Roslin, a much older man with money. ‘Howling like a wild animal, he threw himself onto the sofa.’ While there are elements of what one might call tragic farce in the story – à la Romeo and Juliet, or Pyramus and Thisbe – there is also a systemic failure, the understanding that men and women want different things. This is complicated further by the fact that the system is beginning to change, that the men – the newspaper, Arvid’s subsequent father-in-law – are economically less solid, that the women are no longer to be put off by poverty, that they are beginning to work themselves. It is altogether a tantalising moment of history, rightly described by Atwood as being on the cusp.

Things thereafter happen both quickly and slowly. Arvid – he, too, can’t wait for ever – unwisely takes up with the girl who sends him flowers (he already has an illegitimate son, put with foster parents), and they marry and have daughters. He meets Lydia, unhappily married, by chance at the opera – it is the same soprano, Miss Klarholm, now Mrs Klarholm-Fibiger, whom he wrote his very first piece about in the paper – and they embark on a passionate, perspectiveless affair. It is, more or less, what he wanted before (‘But if you wanted to be my little beloved girl in secret?’), but it’s not enough for either of them now. When he has to go away briefly because his father is dying, she is so upset she picks up another man (this is where she wanted to find out ‘whether I could intervene in the fate of another’), and he is appalled; it is perhaps the only moment in Söderberg that approaches 19th-century misogyny, and even then he is at pains to understand. Thereafter, things get rapidly worse, she acquires – like Doctor Glas? – a series habit and a capacity for self-delusion, and he runs away to Copenhagen.

Söderberg lived for almost another thirty years, but wrote no more fiction. He wrote about religion, his old bête noire, and history. Unlike Knut Hamsun, he opposed Fascism and Hitler. I like the description – I don’t know whose – of The Serious Game as ‘a total novel’. It has a feeling, not of autobiography, but of reality. It processes time to trial and outcome, incorporating change, bringing to bear pressure, incident, orientation, possibility. Everything in the book advances, creeps forward, like little cogs. There is hardly any description to delay the sad machinery.