This weekend I spent a night reading "Förvillelser" (= aberrations) by Hjalmar Söderberg. It´s his debut novel from 1895 (not translated to English), and it caused a scandal when it was published. It´s what´s called decadent literature, and it was considered a very bad influence on young readers.

The story in short is about twenty-year-old Tomas Weber, who is half-way through his medical studies when he is struck by ennui, and takes to strolling around the city, eating and drinking with his friends, and spending money that he doesn´t have. He spends some of his pocket money on hotel rooms for meetings with a shop girl he seduces. When he tires of her, he moves on to Märta, a girl in his family´s social circle, and to facilitate his meetings with her, he moves away from his parent´s apartment - but he still eats with his family every evening. His mother worries about him, and he only ever meets his father, the Professor, if he crosses paths with him in the street. When he runs out of money, he forges the signatures of some of his father´s friends to get a high interest loan from a shady moneylender. But Tomas has, like his friend Anton Recke, difficulty understanding money. "Where do they come from?" Recke asks Tomas. "I know where they go; but from where do they come?"

As you may imagine, things go wrong for Tomas. As a medical student, he should have realized that Märta would become pregnant, and she does. She brakes up with him, and goes to Norway with her mother to have the baby. The loan matures, and of course he has no way of paying for it. He buys a gun and tries to shoot himself, but fails even at that. When the loan shark seeks out one of the men Tomas has named as guarantor for the loan, the loan is quietly paid, and Tomas gets a proper telling-off. Whereafter he sobers up to his responsibilities and becomes a reformed man, returning to his studies.

For me, the best thing about this novel is the way Söderberg depicts Stockholm in the late 19th Century. You really get a feel for what the city must have been like, more like a small town than a state capital. At the newsstand, you can very well meet the King of Sweden, taking a morning stroll, buying his daily paper. Instead of telephones, the city is littered with messenger boys, ever ready to deliver a note, for example to Tomas´ mother, when he decides to take an impromtu boat trip to Utö in the archipelago, an adventure heavy with metaphores for how lost poor Tomas is. And there are lengthy, beautifully drawn scenes where Tomas visits and has dinner with the upper middle class families of his parent´s social circle.

Every character has fits of shivering, there are waiting girls with slave-girl gestures, and an immoral woman is one who lets herself be seen in nothing but her corset. And I love the sartorial details, how this twenty-year-old, barely out of adolescence, takes his hat and walking stick and runs down the stairs.

I suppose this book has lost its significance, really. Books about young men (and women) behaving badly is a cliché, and what Tomas is up to wouldn´t be considered the least bit shocking now. I can´t really see why you would want to read it, unless you are very interested in Söderberg, or the spirit of the late 19th Century. I suppose that´s what I will remember about this book: the atmosphere of Stockholm in the 1890´s.


  1. i googled the author and see the dreyer movie "gertrud" is based on his work. that's another dvd i have on the shelf not yet watched. the film "doctor glas" was also based on one of his works. i don't remember soderberg's name, but it looks like he was influential.

    it's interesting to look back at what was considered shocking in past years. i think we would shock those who were so shocking back then! lol

  2. Yes, I was surprised to see how known Söderberg is abroad. I suppose he is to some extent what they call a "writer´s writer", mostly read by those with a particular interest in literature. I haven´t read "Gertrude", but I will, in time.

    From what I read in Söderberg´s "Hjärtats oro" (worries of the heart), he´d be very shocked by what the women´s lib has achieved! As much as he may have pushed the way women were portrayed in literature at the time, he was still a man of the 19th Century.