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Bengt Ohlsson, Gregorius

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2004. ISBN: 9100104442

Reviewed by Neil Smith in SBR 2005:2

It is difficult to know quite what to make of this substantial novel, another in the succession of wristthreatening tomes that has emerged from Sweden in recent years. It won what is arguably Sweden’s most prestigious literary award, the August Prize, last year, and garnered generally favourable reviews upon publication. In many ways it builds upon an ingenious conceit, retelling as it does the events recounted in Hjalmar Söderberg’s classic novel Doktor Glas (published exactly a century ago) from the point of view of that novel’s cuckolded and ultimately doomed priest, Gregorius. The events of the narrative will be familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Doktor Glas: the physically unappealing Gregorius is married to the beautiful Helga, who is many years his junior – there are hints of something decidedly unsavoury in Gregorius’s reminiscences about his attraction to Helga while she was still a child. Helga seeks solace in an affair – something Ohlsson has Gregorius made aware of – and the family doctor (Glas) attempts to protect her from Gregorius’s attentions by fabricating ailments for him that necessitate sexual abstinence, then a rest cure in a spa resort, before Glas ultimately takes more drastic meaures. Like Doktor Glas, Gregorius is a first-person narrative, but in place of the spare, considered prose that both reflects and conceals so much about Söderberg’s protagonist, Ohlsson’s priest is verbose, given to lengthy self-justification and minute examination of his life, society, marriage and faith. Gregorius is not without its charms, though: perhaps tellingly, the narrative is at its most appealing when it breaks free of the constraints of Doktor Glas and follows Gregorius into uncharted territory on his rest cure to the spa resort of Porla – an absence from Stockholm that is necessarily omitted from Söderberg’s metropolitan novel. And the depictions of Stockholm and Porla alike are rich in period detail – albeit perhaps a little too rich at times: while Gregorius’s is certainly a life mired in the minutiae of human frailty and society’s shortcomings, perhaps the reader could be trusted to imagine some of these details. The amount of research which underpins this is clearly extensive and admirable, but it could perhaps have been more sparingly exhibited. Latterday “riffs” on classic novels are apt to make prospective readers a little apprehensive: how many of the various novels inspired by Jane Austen and the ranks of the Victorian classics can be judged to have been even moderately successful on their own terms? Gregorius is more successful than most: it is intelligently written, evidently exhaust-ively researched, and neatly plays off Doktor Glas. But this reviewer cannot help but wonder “Why?”, and looks forward to enjoying Ohlsson’s future work as much as he has his previous novels.

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