I've never known such a summer. A sultry heat-wave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places.
Only as evening falls do one's spirits revive a trifle. I am just back from my evening stroll, which I take almost daily after visiting my patients, and they aren't many now in the summertime. From the east comes a steady cool breeze. The heat-wave lifts and drifting slowly off turns to a long veil of red, away to westward. No clatter, now, of workmen's carts; only, from time to time, a cab or tram clanging its bell. My footsteps take me slowly down the street. Now and then I fall in with an acquaintance and for a while we stand chatting at a street corner. But why, of all people, must I keep running into the Rev. Gregorius? I never see that man without remembering an anecdote I once heard told of Schopenhauer. One evening the austere philosopher was sitting, alone as usual, in a corner of his cafe, when the door opens and in comes a person of disagreeable mien. His features distorted with disgust and horror Schopenhauer gives him one look, leaps up, and begins thumping him over the head with his stick. All this, merely on account of his appearance!
Well, I'm not Schopenhauer. When I saw the parson coming towards me in the distance across the Vasa Bridge I halted abruptly and, turning, leaned my arms on the parapet to admire the view. Grey houses on Helgeand Island. The crumbling wooden architecture of the old Nordic-style bath-house, reflected in The Stream, in whose flowing waters the grand old willows trail their leaves. I hoped the clergyman hadn't seen me, or wouldn't recognise my rear-view. Indeed, I'd almost forgotten him, when suddenly I realised he was standing beside me, his arms like mine resting on the parapet and his head cocked a little to one side--exactly the same pose as twenty years ago, in Jacob's Church, when I used to sit in the family pew beside my late lamented mother, and first saw that odious physiognomy, like a nasty fungus, hop up in the pulpit and heard him strike up with his Abba Father. Same greyish pudgy face; same dirty yellow side-whiskers, now greying slightly, perhaps: and that same unfathomably mean look behind the spectacles. Impossible to escape! I'm his doctor now, as I am many others'. And sometimes he comes to me with his aches and pains.--Well, well . . . good evening, Vicar, And how are you?--Not too good; in fact not at all well. My heart's bad, thumps irregularly, sometimes stops at nights, so it seems to me.--Glad to hear it, I thought. For all I care you can die, you old rascal, and rid me of the sight of you. Besides, you've got a pretty young wife, whom you're probably plagueing the life out of, and when you die she'll remarry and get herself a much better husband. But aloud I said: Really? Really? That so? Perhaps you'd better come and see me one of these days. We'll look into the matter. But there was a lot more than this he wanted to talk about. Important things: It's quite simply unnatural, this heat. And: It's stupid, building great big parliament buildings on that little island. And: My wife isn't really well, either, if it comes to that.
In the end he cleared off, and I went on my way. Entering the Old Town, along Storkyrkobrinken, I strayed among its narrow alleys. A close evening atmosphere among the cramped passages and between the houses: and along the walls strange shadows. Shadows never seen in our quarters.
Mrs Gregorius, yes! That was a queer visit she paid me the other day. She came to my surgery hour. I noticed clearly when she arrived, but although she had come in good time she waited until the last, letting others who had come after her see me first. At last she came in. Blushed and stammered. Finally blurted out something about having a sore throat. Well, it was better now.--I'll come back tomorrow, she said. Just now I'm in such a hurry . . .
So far she hasn't come back.
Emerging from the alleyways, I walked down Skeppsbron Quay. Over Skeppsholmen Island the moon hovered, lemon yellow in the blue twilight. But my quiet and peaceful mood was gone. Meeting the parson had spoilt it. That there should be such people in the world! Who hasn't heard the old conundrum, so often debated when two or three poor devils are sitting round a cafe table: If, by pressing a button in the wall, or by a mere act of will, you could murder a Chinese mandarin and inherit his riches--would you do it? This problem I've never bothered my head to find an answer to, perhaps because I've never known the cruel misery of being really and truly poor. But if, by pressing a button in the wall, I could kill that clergyman, I do believe I should do it.
As I went on homewards through the pale unnatural twilight the heat seemed as oppressive as at high noon; and the red dust-clouds which lay in strata beyond Kungsholmen's factory chimneys, turning to darkness, resembled slumbering disasters. With long slow steps I went down past Klara Church, hat in hand, sweat breaking out on my forehead. Not even beneath the great trees in the churchyard was the air cool. Yet almost every bench had its whispering couple; and some, with drunken eyes, sat in each other's laps, kissing.
* * *
Now I sit at my open window, writing--for whom? Not for any friend or mistress. Scarcely for myself, even. I do not read today what I wrote yesterday; nor shall I read this tomorrow. I write simply so my hand can move, my thoughts move of their own accord. I write to kill a sleepless hour. Why can't I sleep? After all, I've committed no crime.
* * *
What I set down on these pages isn't a confession. To whom should I confess? Nor do I tell the whole truth about myself, only what it pleases me to relate, but nothing that isn't true. Anyway, I can't exorcise my soul's wretchedness--if it is wretched--by telling lies.
* * *
Outside, the great blue night hangs over the churchyard and its trees. Such silence now reigns in the town that sighings and whisperings among the shadows down there reach up to me in my eyrie. And, once, an impudent laugh pierces the darkness. I feel 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.
* * *
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? A doctor must be one of two things: either a philanthropist, or else avid for honours. True, I once thought I was both.
Again a poor woman was here, weeping and begging me to help her, a woman I've known for years. Married to a minor official, four thousand crowns a year or so, with three children. In the first three years the babies came, one after another. Since then, for five years, perhaps six, she has been spared. Has regained a little health, strength, youth. She has had time to put her home in order, recuperate a little after all her troubles. Bread, of course, has been short. But they seem to have managed somehow.--And now, all of a sudden, here it is again.
She could hardly speak for tears.
I replied, of course, with my usual lesson. Known by rote, I always recite it on such occasions: My duty as a doctor. Respect for life, even the frailest.
I was serious, immovable. In the end she had to go away; ashamed, bewildered, helpless.
I made a note of the case. The eighteenth in my practice. And I'm not a gynaecologist.
I shall never forget the first. A young girl, twenty-two or so; a big, dark-haired, rather vulgar young beauty, the sort, you could see at a glance, which must have filled the earth in Luther's day, if he was right when he wrote: It is as impossible for a woman to live without a man, as for a man to bite off his own nose. Thick middle-class blood. Father a wealthy businessman. I was the family doctor, so she came to me. She was distraught, out of her wits; but not particularly shy.
--Save me, she begged, save me. I replied with duty, etc., but that was clearly something she did not understand. I explained to her how the Law does not connive at any jiggery-pokery in such cases.--A glance of non-comprehension. The Law? I advised her to confide in her mother: She'll talk to Papa, and there'll be a wedding.--Oh, no, my fiance hasn't a penny, and Father would never forgive me. They weren't engaged, of course; she used the word 'fiance' because she could find no other, and 'lover' is a novelist's word, foul in the mouth.--Save me! Haven't you any mercy? I don't know what I'll do! I'll throw myself into the harbour!
I became rather impatient. Indeed, she did not inspire me with any very merciful feelings. These things always arrange themselves, where there is money. Only pride has to suffer a little. She sniffed, blew her nose, talked wildly and in the end threw herself on the floor, kicking and screaming.
Well, in the end it all turned out, of course, as I expected. Her father, a crude blighter, smacked her face once or twice, married her off double-quick to her partner in crime, and packed them off abroad on a honeymoon.
Such cases never worry me. But I was truly sorry for this poor little woman today. So much suffering and misery, for so little pleasure.
Respect for human life--what is it in my mouth but low hypocrisy? What else can it ever be on the lips of anyone who has ever whiled away an idle hour in thought? Human life, it swarms around us on every hand. And as for the lives of faraway, unseen people, no one has ever cared a fig for them. Everyone shows this by his actions, except perhaps a few more than usually idiotic philanthropists. All governments and parliaments on earth proclaim it.
And duty! An admirable screen to creep behind when we wish to avoid doing what ought to be done.
Besides, no one can risk his all, social position, respectability, future, everything, merely to help strangers he is indifferent to. Rely on their silence? That would be childish. Some woman friend gets into the same fix, a word is whispered as to where help is to be found; and soon you're a marked man. No, best stick to duty, even if it is nothing but a piece of painted scenery, like Potemkin's villages. I am only afraid I recite my duty-formula so often that in the end I shall come to believe it. Potemkin only deceived his empress; how much more despicable to deceive oneself.
* * *
Position, respectability, future. As if I were not ready, any day or moment, to stow these packages aboard the first ship to come sailing by laden with action.
* * *
Again I sit at my window. The blue night is awake beneath me; under the trees, rustlings and whisperings.
Yesterday, while taking my evening stroll, my eye fell on a married couple. I recognised her at once. It is not so many years since I danced with her at a ball, and I haven't forgotten how, every time I saw her, she presented me with a sleepless night. But of that she knew nothing. She was not yet a woman. She was a virgin. She was a living dream; man's dream of woman.
Now she goes walking down the street on her husband's arm. More expensively dressed than before, but vulgarly, more the bourgeoise. In her gaze is something extinguished, worn. Yet at the same time it is a contented wifely look, as if she were carrying her stomach before her on a silver-plated salver.
No, I don't understand it. Why must it be like this, why must it always be like this? Why must love be the troll's gold that on the morrow turns to withered leaves, filth, or beery indulgence? Does not all that side of our culture not directly designed to still hunger, or defend us against our enemies, spring from mankind's longing for love? Our love of beauty knows no other source. All art, all poetry, all music has drunk at it. The most insipid modern historical painting, every bit as much as Raphael's madonnas and Steinlen's little Parisian working girls; 'The Angel of Death' as the Song of Songs; and Das Buck der Lieder, the Chorale and the Viennese waltz, yes, every plaster ornament on this dreary house I live in, every figure on the wallpaper, the form of the china vase over there, the pattern on my scarf, everything made to delight or embellish--no matter whether successful or unsuccessful--springs from this origin, albeit often by the longest and most circuitous of routes. Nor is this a brainwave of mine, born of the night, but something proven a hundred times over.
But that source's name isn't love. It's the dream of love.
And then, on the other side, everything to do with this dream's fulfilment, instinctual satisfaction, and all that follows therefrom. To our deepest instincts it appears as something ugly, indecent. This can't be proved. It's only a feeling; my feeling, and, I believe, everybody's. People always treat each other's love affairs as something low or comic, often not even making exception for their own. And the consequences . . . 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.
But first and last, the act itself. I shall never forget as a child under the great chestnut trees in the schoolyard hearing a schoolmate explain 'what happens'. I refused to believe it. Several more boys had to come over, laughing at my stupidity, and confirm it. Even then I hardly believed them, but ran away, beside myself with fury. Had Father and Mother done that? And would I do the same, when I grew up? Was there no escape?
Always I had felt a profound scorn for the bad boys who scribbled dirty words on walls and hoardings. But at that moment it seemed to me as if God Himself had scribbled something filthy across the blue spring sky; and I believe it was then I first began to wonder whether God really existed.
Even today I've hardly recovered from my astonishment. Why must the life of our species be preserved and our longing stilled by means of an organ we use several times a day as a drain for impurities; why couldn't it be done by means of some act composed of dignity and beauty, as well as of the highest voluptuousness? An action which could be carried out in church, before the eyes of all, just as well as in darkness and solitude? Or in a temple of roses, in the eye of the sun, to the chanting of choirs and a dance of wedding guests?
Excerpted from Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg. Copyright © 2002 by Hjalmar Soderberg. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.