Reader Involvement

As I mentioned, I had tickets to go see Krister Henriksson at the Culture House (which is the building that holds our library, our art exhibition hall, two stages, a restaurant, a café, etc). Unfortunately, I was too ill to go, and gave my ticket to a librarian (I had to go in to get a book I had ordered anyway), who took it with some delight, sure that he could find a person who wanted it. So I hope it made someone happy and enlightened, as the show was sold out weeks in advance.

I read the reviews in the paper the day after, and either it was a disappointment, or the poor journalist they sent had no idea what was happening. I´ll put a penny on the latter. She writes that Henriksson got his first taste of "Doctor Glas" (from 1905) when he was doing Wallander in Ystad and had to spend most of a year living in a hotel. To begin with, he spent his evenings in the bar, drinking, snacking and gaining 25 pounds. Instead, he started reading Hjalmar Söderberg´s novel in his room. He read it about a hundred times. Which seems a bit excessive. But, when I read "Doctor Glas" myself, as part of a course in Creative Writing I took a few years ago, when I had finished the last page, I immediately turned to the first and read it all over again. At once. I had never done that with a novel, and I haven´t done it since. I imagine a text like that must be like cocaine to an actor.

In short, "Doctor Glas" is a monologue, a diary of a misanthropic/depressed medical doctor who "helps" a young woman he falls for. He murders her aging husband, the pastor Gregorius, so that she can be with another man, with whom she is having an affair. Ironically, she is jilted by him. End of story.

I can´t really say if everything Söderberg writes has this quality. I intended to read "The Serious Game" before I went to listen to Henriksson, as he was supposed to talk about that as well (he has recorded the book for radio), but I just didn´t have the energy for it, and now I have put it aside for later. I did, however, read "Hjärtats oro" (= the worries of the heart, not translated as far as I can see) from 1909, which is not a novel, but a tankebok, "book of thought", something that is popular to publish by men of a certain intellectual standing. It is almost impossible to read, as much of it is polemics directed towards another intellectual of the times, Vitalis Norström. He was a conservative philosopher and member of the Swedish Academy, and so much of the 19th Century that he is never refered to these days. Not in popular culture, anyway. Söderberg also has some ideas about women´s right to vote (in Sweden, women got that right in 1919 and voted for the first time in the 1921 election), and for a latter day reader like me, it´s impossible to know if he is serious or joking when he says that women´s lib supporters want to be like men, because they are failed women, something he arrives at after having seen an ugly woman bathe in the sea. 

Söderberg´s novels, however, are very much in circulation these days, and always have been. They have been continually dramatized and filmed and read, and he is considered a great depicter of women. I understand that Swedish actress/director Pernilla August (mostly known as Anakin Skywalker´s poor mother) is going to adapt "The Serious Game" to film some time in the near future. The play "Doktor Glas" is being performed to full houses in Stockholm, and Henriksson will take it to London in April and May, where he will be performing at the Wyndham Theatre - in case you are interested and in the neighbourhood. It will be performed in Swedish with English subtitles. I saw the performance only last week on television, having recorded it about a year ago. I also have a film from 1942 with Georg Rydeberg, that I have seen twice. I think Rydeberg, who was younger, is closer to Söderberg´s Glas, whereas Henriksson is a bit too old to play the 33-year old doctor. On the other hand, Henriksson´s performance really makes a case for psychological projection - that the doctor hates himself, really, and therefore does away with Gregorius. That way, the play is perhaps even more up-to-date, a comment to racism, sexism, and any kind of hatred of the other.

Anyway, the reason I started writing this post in the first place, was that when I read "Doktor Glas" as part of that course in Creative Writing, we also read another book as part of the same batch of homework, and it was Elisabeth Rynell´s "To Mervas" - a very different creature of a book from "Doktor Glas". Her novel was very much an emotional, partly dreamlike tale of a woman on the edge. (I didn´t appreciate it very much, I confess.) It seemed to me, and I argued this in our discussions, that Söderberg´s story, being very rationally presented, evoked more emotion than Rynell´s, as when reading her, I had to engage with logic and reason, to make sense of all her emotional eruptions and poetic digressions. To me, this was a combination reading experience that really demonstrated clearly how a reader is invited into a story by an author, and how it´s not what you put down on the page, but what you leave out that really decides what type of response you will bring out in a reader.

As I remember it, most of my classmates had no idea what I was talking about, but at least one wanted to talk about it all the rest of the day. I still think a lot about this when I read something really engaging, on whatever level.


  1. i had never heard of soderberg. wikipedia says margaret atwood wrote the introduction to the most recent translation into english of doctor glas. it sounds fascinating, so i've added it to my cart at amazon. thx :)

    it is interesting to notice the effect writing style has on how a book strikes me.

    1. Happy to spread the word on Swedish literature! Hope you like it. I´m always surprised to see Swedish writers in English, I certainly hadn´t expected Elisabeth Rynell on amazon.