In my earlier posts on the Origins of Nordic Noir, I wrote about the moment when Swedes first became entranced by the work of detectives after the assassination of their prime minister in 1986. I’ve done a post on the circuitous road to the social welfare state with some thoughts on how it possibly informed Scandinavian authors. One of the more popular posts so far is on Scandinavian Nazism . Now, I’ll push the timeline back even further—to the year 1905, when Hjalmar Söderberg (1869-1941) published arguably the first Nordic noir novel: Doctor Glas.
The Origins of Nordic Noir IV: Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doctor Glas (1905) *, **
This turn of the century Swedish novel sounds as current, direct, and compelling as any literary crime fiction best seller on the market today. Sexual intrigue, the use and abuse of medical knowledge, methodical planning of a murder, a strange and troubled past…it really is all there in just a brief 150 pages. The novel packs an intense literary and intellectual punch, but I think it’s nonetheless a “page-turner.”
Without giving away the middle or end of the plot, I’ll summarize the set up: Doctor Glas is a genteel bachelor with a successful family medical practice in Stockholm. He is unmarried due to a deep-seated malaise at the human condition and a persistent sense of social alienation. In a series of brutally honest, self-probing diary entries (which make up the entire novel), he ponders his unusual situation and the revulsion he feels, at least superficially, toward the sexual instinct. It is 1905, and he seems to struggle with the way modern science, evolution, and consequent moral uncertainty have cast a dark shadow over notions of love and spiritual union. Educated people in this period, and perhaps particularly doctors, were all but forced to think of sex as a nearly mechanical, sometimes savage biological process. Yet it was also a time when marriage endowed men with irrefutable conjugal “rights” over their wives’ bodies, something that disturbs the doctor—mainly because he finds sex repugnant.
Rights. I passed my hand over my forehead…God in heaven, what has happened to people’s brains, that they should have made rights and duties out of it!
One day, an attractive woman comes into his office, and after some hesitation she unburdens herself to him. She says she made a mistake as a young girl while under the powerful influence of her devoutly religious parents. In a fit of guilty sexual repression, she married an elderly Vicar, unaware of the physical burdens she would face. Years have gone by, and no child has been conceived. Yet the Vicar continues to sleep with her, saying that only God should decide whether or not they will have children. But now the woman has fallen passionately in love with another, younger man. Knowing the joy of true love, she can no longer bear the Vicar’s hideous visitations. Doctor Glas sympathizes entirely.
And here is where the story turns into “noir.” The woman asks him to lie for her, and tell the Vicar that if he sleeps with her anymore it will cause her irreparable physical harm. Doctor Glas agrees to the plan, glad to exercise the power of his medical knowledge to free a pitiful human from further suffering.
At about the same time, though, he develops a complicated attraction to the young woman himself.
…only now, for the first time, did I really see her. For the first time I saw a woman was standing in my room, a woman whose heart was full of desire and misery, in the flower of her womanhood, perfumed with love, yet blushing with shame that this perfume should be so strong and noticeable. I myself turn[ed] pale.
Things do not go quite as planned, and the woman remains in distress. Soon enough, the Doctor begins to ask himself, can he do something more for her? After all, he is a doctor, with privileged knowledge of medications and diseases. He also knows the Vicar is worried about his heart….
My examination frightened him a bit…But now I had him on my sofa. And I wasn’t letting him slip away…
–Is it serious? He asked, at length.
I did not answer immediately…
Doctor Glas is a psychological thriller about a man obsessively pondering a terrible crime–or perhaps a not so terrible crime. His uncertainty about the moral implications of the act is all part of the drama. ”Glas” means “glass,” perhaps transparent or invisible, a transmitter of light, terribly hard, but also fragile. As he slowly warms to the idea of committing the crime, casually mingling with the unwitting people involved, he attempts to justify it to himself. But he also betrays his doubts, growing more desperate and sharing more of his own troubled childhood with the reader.
The dark, brooding narrative is enhanced by the setting: Stockholm near Midsummer’s Eve with the strange, relentless summer light of the far north exacerbating the Doctor’s insomnia. When he can’t sleep, he writes:
Midsummer Eve. Light, blue night. From childhood and youth do I not remember you as the lightest, giddiest, airiest of all nights of the year. Why, then, are you now so oppressive, anxious?
I don’t think readers today will feel overwhelmed by any florid 19th century mannerisms. This is partly because the doctor is not—does not feel himself to be—a man of his time. He increasingly stands apart from the cultural ambitions and affectations of society, feeling at times superior for his scientific knowledge, and at other times deeply uneasy and perplexed by his social dislocation. If I may make one admittedly strained comparison, he is sort of like a super-literate, highly articulate Lisbeth Salander. He does not feel as everyone else feels–not quite. But further, like Lisbeth, he sees an unjust world and feels compelled to right a perceived wrong, rules be damned. He relies on his very own unique moral compass to guide his way. In this, he is a kind of hero…yet as with all the best first person narrative novels, the reader is left wondering how far this hero can be trusted—how well he knows himself, and how much he is willing to admit.
In terms of the crime fiction genre, you could say Doctor Glas presents the “criminal,” not the detective, as the character privileged with a sense of investigative duty. The Doctor perceives a critical truth that seems to elude everyone around him, and he feels compelled to act on it. But for all that, he cannot quite see the full meaning of that act, nor guess at its final consequences.
There is tremendous historical interest in the way Doctor Glas grapples with the newly unshakeable scientific truth of evolution, with the Nietzschean blow to religious authority and spirituality, with turn of the century sexuality and marital relations, and even with euthanasia and eugenics.
But this is also just a sweaty-palmed tale of a daring crime committed to halt another sort of crime, and the resultant aftermath of anxiety and dashed hopes.
*pronunciation of Hjalmar Söderberg : yahl’ mar sudd” er ber(ye)’ –the ‘ye’ is pronounced like a single consonant; i.e., ’berg’ is one syllable.
**This post refers to the reissue of Paul Britten Austin’s phenomenal translation of Doktor Glas from 1963 (Anchor Books, 2002). I have not read the novel in Swedish, but it’s one of those translations that makes me shiver to think how incredible the original Swedish version must be. The 2002 edition also features a brilliant introduction by Margaret Atwood.
UPDATE JUNE 11 2012: I just came across Nils Nordberg on Nordic Noir, Circa 2005 at crimetime.co.uk . This is a very lengthy piece on the origins of Nordic Noir with a Norwegian slant. I have now added The Murder of Engineer Roolfsen (1839) by Mauritz Christopher Hansen (1794–1842) to my must-read list.