THE PLOT: A doctor living in Stockholm c.1900 writes an introspective diary. He questions his profession, character, and the meaning of happiness. When a Reverend’s wife comes to visit him complaining of her husband’s sexual attentions, the doctor begins to contemplate murder.
RATING: At first I wasn’t sure about this novel but I’ve decided to give it three and a half stars. Its narrative form is highly intelligent and it manages to weave in a clear plot among the philosophy and psychology. Disclaimer – it’s not a thriller. It’s a rumination on the Aristotelian principle that character is realized in action. It examines the meaning of happiness and truth, the relationship between duty, morality and law, and the fine line between violent thoughts and violent acts.
GOOD BITS: Published in 1905, this novel could be considered a forerunner of the stream of consciousness technique. Thanks to the diary format, the reader gets deep into the mind of Doctor Glas and experiences his thoughts and feelings in reaction to each event he describes. I often found myself agreeing with Glas, only to disagree with him moments later. It made me think but also managed to carry me along on the scant yet compelling character arc and journey.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: The long speeches by Markel and Birck were a bit tedious. Although they allowed to author to capture recent philosophical debate, they took up large chunks of the book and were a bit heavy. Jokes are peppered in but you’d have to be an impressive scholar to catch them all (clearly my knowledge of classical music and the early development of 20th century psychoanalysis is not that refined).
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book if you’re interested philosophy, psychology or just generally questioning your life choices! It’s an interesting perspective on how we create our character with the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Some people may find it a bit depressing – after all life is meaningless and right vs wrong is arbitrary…. BUT, I found some comfort in the ‘Flowers for Algernon’ ignorance is bliss message. As an overthinker, this book made me remember that I should just be one of the cattle (as the author, Söderberg, describes it) and get on with creating my own hyper-conventional happiness.
FAVOURITE QUOTE: “I often wonder too, what character I should prefer for myself had I never read a book or seen a work of art…. All my thoughts and dreams about Nature are most probably based on impressions drawn from poetry and art…. Alas, what would my own poor eyes see of this world, left to themselves without all these hundreds and thousands of teachers and friends among those who have sung and thought and seen on behalf of all the rest of us?” p48