In his first English-language publication, award-winning Swedish author Ohlsson responds to Hjalmar Söderberg’s 1905 classic, Doctor Glas, by taking on the voice of its villain.
Söderberg’s novel is narrated by a conflicted doctor who crosses ethical boundaries to help a young woman, Helga, escape her abusive husband, a cantankerous clergyman named Gregorius old enough to be her grandfather. Ultimately Doctor Glas wins the pastor’s trust and poisons him, allowing Helga the freedom to pursue her lover. Ohlsson tells the story from Gregorius’s perspective, creating a psychological study more than twice the length of the 1905 work. In this version, Gregorius is pathetic rather than tyrannical, and his attempts to dominate Helga sexually and emotionally are tragic stabs at reclaiming his quickly fading powers. Gregorius justifies the infatuation that began when Helga was just ten years old by expressing disappointment at his inability to have a child of his own. In what will prove to be the last summer of his life, he is candid about the infantilization caused by aging and his fear of death. When he begins to suspect that Helga has been unfaithful, his rage is rooted in his own insecurity and his fear that he will die with only God’s love. Ohlsson’s humanization of a great literary monster is almost Nabokovian; the genius of his novel lies in its deliberate contrast to Söderberg’s original depiction of an utterly repulsive old man with no redeeming qualities. The revisionist retelling of classics has spurned some great works of modern fiction, but Doctor Glas is not exactly Beowulf or Jane Eyre; Ohlsson’s careful experiment in intertexual dialogue and literary interpretation seems unlikely to garner the same level of attention—at least not from Western audiences—as Grendel (1971) or Wide Sargasso Sea (1966).
Will likely be lost on most American readers.