Nationality: Swedish. Born: Stockholm, 2 July 1869. Family: Married 1) Märta Abenius in 1899 (dissolved 1917), one daughter and two sons; 2) Emilie Voss in 1917; had one daughter from another relationship. Career: Briefly customs officer, then journalist, and literary critic, from late 1880s, Kristianstad; traveled frequently to Copenhagen, from 1906, and moved there, 1917. Awards: De Nois prize, 1934; Fröding Scholarship, 1941. Died: 14 October 1941.
Samlade verk [Collected Work], edited by Tom Söderberg and Herbert Friedländer. 10 vols., 1943.
Skrifter [Writings], edited by Olle Holmberg. 2 vols., 1969.
Skrifter [Writings], edited by Hans Levander. 9 vols., 1977-78.
Historietter. 1898; as Selected Short Stories, edited by CharlesWharton Stork, 1935.
Främlingarna [The Strangers]. 1903.
Det mörknar öfver vägen [Darkness Falls]. 1907.
Hjärats oro [The Heart's Unrest]. 1909.
Den talangfulla draken [The Talented Dragon]. 1913.
Resan till Rom [Journey to Rome]. 1929.
Selected Stories, edited by Carl Lofmark. 1987.
Förvillelser [Aberrations]. 1895.
Martin Bircks ungdom. 1901; as Martin Birck's Youth, 1930.
Doktor Glas. 1905; as Doctor Glas, 1905.
Den allvarsamma leken [The Serious Game]. 1912.
Gertrud [Gertrud]. 1906.
Aftonstjärnan [The Evening]. 1912.
Ödestimmen [Hour of Destiny]. 1922.
Valda sidor (selection). 1908.
Jahves eld [Jehovah's Fire]. 1918.
Skrifter [Writings]. 10 vols., 1919-1921.
Jesus Barabbas [Jesus Barabbas] (essay). 1928.
Den förvandlade Messias [The Transformed Messiah] (essay). 1932.
Sista boken [The Last Book] (essays). 1942.
Makten, visheten och kvinnan [Essays and Aphorisms], edited by Herbert Friedländer. 1946.
Vänner emellan [Between Friends], with Carl G. Laurin, edited by Carl Laurin and T. Söderberg. 1948.
Kära Hjalle, Kära Bo. Bo Bergmans och Söderberg brevväxling 1891-1941 [Dear Hjalle, Dear Bo. Correspondence between Bo Bergman and Söderberg 1891-1941], edited by Per Wästberg. 1969.*
in Is There Anything New under the Sun? by Edwin Björkman, 1913; "Söderberg" by Eugénie Söderberg, in The American-Scandinavian Review 29, 1941; "Söderberg: Doktor Glas" by Tom Geddes, in Studies in Swedish Literature 3, 1975; "Söderberg: Martin Bircks ungdom " by Wolfgang Butt, in Studies in Swedish Literature 7, 1976; "Söderberg: Historietter, " in Studies in Swedish Literature 10, 1977, and "Söderberg (1969-1941): A Swedish Freethinker," in Question 11, 1978, both by Carl Lofmark; "A Coincidence According to the Gospel of St. James" by Johannes Hedberg, in Moderna språk 72, 1978; "Ethical Murder and "Doctor Glas" by Merrill Reed, in Mosaic 12 (4), Summer 1979.* * *
Hjalmar Söderberg wrote prose, drama, and poetry, as well as journalism and learned essays, but he is best known in Sweden as a novelist and short story writer. The collected edition of his works in nine volumes contains more than 60 short stories, about half of them written while he was in his twenties and published originally in Stockholm newspapers and magazines.
Although he spent the latter part of his life as a journalist and writer in Copenhagen, Stockholm was the city where Söderberg was born and grew up, and it features in most of his prose writing. The settings are generally realistic (although he does occasionally venture into surrealistic realms), but often the plot is sparse and Söderberg's characters are rarely more than caricatures, often passive vehicles for opinions or attitudes the author wishes to discuss in the guise of fiction. Indeed many of the so-called short stories are little more than anecdotes—the collection he published in 1898 is called Historietter, an invented diminutive form of the normal Swedish word for "story."
Especially in the early stories Söderberg's skeptical and melancholy pessimism is expressed in the "decadent" fin-de-siècle style fashionable in Scandinavia at the turn of the century. Several of his characters are flâneurs, who prefer to sit in cafés discussing questions of philosophical interest or the injustices of life rather than actually attempting to do anything about them. Söderberg's stories are rescued from sheer gloom and doom, however, by his wry humor.
It has been suggested, perceptively, that if Strindberg wrote in oils, Söderberg wrote in water colors. His style, much admired in Sweden for its clarity and rhythmic balance, is restrained and ironic. Emotions are generally subdued, and on the rare occasions when an emotional outburst occurs the narrator is nonplussed—in "The Sketch in Indian Ink," for instance, a simple shop girl is unable to comprehend why the narrator has given her a landscape drawing to look at, and she bursts into tears when he is unable to answer her question, "What does it mean?" She has asked the wrong question, and here, as in several other stories, Söderberg implies that questions like, "What is the meaning of life?" are similarly misguided.
In later life Söderberg wrote several works in which he attacked Christian beliefs and lost few opportunities of ridiculing what he thought were the absurd, inconsistent, and illogical teachings of the church. His story "The Talented Dragon" is a hilarious send-up of religious faith, with farcical names, souls in bottles, a manufactured dragon, a troubadour impersonating a war-god, and a magician working "miracles." When the troubadour is sentenced to death the High Priest "added a request that the man should be hanged in secret so that the people would not become agitated. He considered that it might be highly dangerous for religion if the truth were to leak out." Similar criticisms are leveled at the church in "Patriarch Papinianus" and "After Dinner," but Söderberg claimed he was not irreligious. In one of his best-known stories, "A Dog without a Master," he depicts a dog whose master dies: at first, the dog experiences a deep feeling of loss, but he soon grows used to his freedom. As he grows old, however, he begins to envy other dogs who can respond to the calls and whistles of their masters. One day he hears a whistle that must, surely, be from his own master. He searches in vain and eventually gives up, sits down at a crossroad, and howls: "Have you seen, have you heard a forgotten, masterless dog when he stretches his head up at the sky and howls, howls? The other dogs slink quietly away with their tails between their legs; for they cannot comfort him and they cannot help him." Söderberg may have had no God, but he did not pretend that made life any easier for him.
Humbug and hypocrisy are frequent targets for Söderberg's wit and sarcasm. "Vox Populi" is an amusing story reflecting a lively debate taking place in Stockholm at the time of writing: a sculpture depicting a naked man and boy had been erected near the National Library, which scandalized the guardians of public morals. In the story two ugly matrons gape at the statue and are vociferously horrified—but why should nakedness be immoral? The statue is aesthetically pleasing, and the old man is evidently thinking beautiful thoughts—more than can be said of the ladies, whose dogs join in the chorus of disapproval as the scene degenerates into farce. In "A Cup of Tea" a character complains about the hypocrisy of a society that encourages beer and spirits to be drunk in a tea-shop but exposes him to censure because he orders a cup of tea. The irony goes deeper than that, however, for the man himself is exposed as a hypocrite: people in glass houses should refrain from throwing stones.
Söderberg always sides with the underdog, but he is well aware that in a meaningless world there is no justice. The opening sentence of "The Chimney-Sweep's Wife" informs us: "This is a sad, cruel story." And so it is, with the evil bully of a woman surviving to live happily ever after while all the people she abuses die or go mad. In "The History Teacher" the narrator tells the story of how the teacher was teased and mocked by his pupils and cruelly treated when he fell upon hard times: "His world fell apart. There was nothing he could do but cry. And so he cried."
Admirers of Söderberg's stories tend to read them because they are stimulating and thought provoking, and while they rarely present solutions, they raise questions over which one can ponder at length. Although some of them are well crafted in the tradition of the German novelle ("The Fur Coat") and although the niceties of his style are pleasing, his main attraction is his honest and persistent search for the truth and his ironic vision that exposes hypocrisy but reinforces his humanism.