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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Serious Game

Hjalmar Söderberg

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To purchase The Serious Game

Title: The Serious Game
Author: Hjalmar Söderberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1912 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 238 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Serious Game - US
The Serious Game - UK
Le Jeu sérieux - France
  • Swedish title: Den allvarsamma leken
  • Translated by Eva Claeson
  • With an Introduction by Elena Balzamo (translated from the French by Ken Hollings)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd but powerful novel of passion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books A 28/11/2002 Michael Hofmann
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/5/2002 Bruce Bawer

  From the Reviews:
  • "If Doctor Glas is a wonderful book, The Serious Game is almost better. (...) (I)t seems to encompass real change, psychologically and historically, in the way that only a novel can." - Michael Hofmann, London Review of Books

  • "Among this novel's distinctively Scandinavian virtues are Soderberg's sense of justice, sense of proportion and (gently sardonic) sense of humor, not to mention his obvious distaste for for jingoism and dogma. Then there's his prose, which Claeson has done a mostly fine job of rendering into English." - Bruce Bawer, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Serious Game focusses on Arvid Stjärnblom, first encountered in 1897, when he is twenty-two years old. The novel follows his life for the next decade and a half, but overshadowing it almost always is the slightly younger Lydia Stille, the sometime object of his passion.
       It is in fact Lydia that is first introduced to the reader, despite the fact that she then relatively soon fades from the fore (only to then resurface repeatedly). The opening scene of the novel lingers on Lydia, revealing already a great deal about her. The first two lines of the novel tellingly read:

       As usual, Lydia went swimming alone.
       She liked it best that way.
       Arvid and Lydia share a moment of intimacy that summer at her father's country home, considering the possibility of love, and a life lived together. But it is not quite in the stars, and their relationship seems essentially nipped its bud. Soon enough Arvid is back in Stockholm, trying to begin his professional life. He begins his "year of practice teaching", but also tries (successfully) to break into journalism.
       Arvid isn't sure of his ambitions. He knows he isn't a poet:
He looked at the world with eyes that were too sober, too unimaginative. He didn't have the happy and necessary capacity for dreaming, for becoming intoxicated by his dreams. Nor, perhaps, was he irresponsible enough to be a poet !
       Sometimes he also imagines what it might be like to be with Lydia. Their lives brush against one another, but neither manages to successfully reach out and grab hold of the other. Opportunities are missed -- but then perhaps they're not really wanted .....
       Lydia gets married. So too then does Arvid, roped into marrying Dagmar. It is not a union that begins particularly auspiciously. An early kiss, before marriage is even contemplated, is thought by the terminally detached Arvid to be "simply an act of courtesy necessary to the situation". Only Lydia can bring out the mindless passionate lover in him .....
       Lydia marries an older man, who can provide her financial security -- if not the great love she also clearly yearns for. Arvid's marriage is happy enough, leading to an acceptable if unexceptional sort of domesticity that he appears to be able to live with. Soon there are two children too, and his career improves too, as he works his way up the journalistic ladder.
       Lydia does not completely escape his imagination, even as the years go by -- with Söderberg easily glossing over extended periods of time. Fate throws the Arvid and Lydia together again, and they can't help themselves: passion bubbles over.
       Lydia's situation has changed, and this facilitates a closer relationship between the two. It is one of love but also, much more emphatically, of lust. For all that, they are not exactly devoted to each other, neither willing (or able) to commit fully to the other. It's a remarkable game the two play, with neither acting in an exemplary manner. Yet Arvid is too complex to be written off simply as a cad (or Lydia as a femme fatale).
       Others suffer too: Dagmar, another man. But that can't be helped. Arvid contemplates a tombstone with the inscription: "HONOUR - DUTY - WILL", a reflection of his own concerns as he is pulled in these different directions.
       The philosophy and world-view presented is dark, but not entirely cynical. But again and again Söderberg offers a view of characters being unable to entirely embrace life (and love, and opportunity). Even memory itself is too much of a burden for his characters:
However, nature has fortunately endowed human beings with the ability to forget. Otherwise it would be impossible to tolerate living.
       But, of course, memory continues to be one of the things that haunts his characters -- as is the constant question of what other possibilities and alternatives might be embraced. Arvid seems to chance into most of his life: his marriage, his work, even his affairs, as if trying his best to avoid being responsible for his actions by never seeming to actually pro-actively decide to do anything.
       Söderberg tells this story very well, with a simple, at times almost lackadaisical style that heightens the very primal human dramas at the core. Interspersed throughout the novel are also philosophical asides, and mentions of and commentary on the events of the day: the death of the king, the Dreyfus-Affair, political issues. Söderberg presents a whole broad canvas of the society of that time in this relatively compact book -- an unsparing and dark picture of Scandinavian society on the periphery of a Europe about to disintegrate, as uncommitted as the adulterous lovers in the novel.
       Of interest also are the real-life portraits in the book. The amusing figure of writer Henrik Rissler appears from time to time: the image of Söderberg himself. And there is Ernest Thiel hidden behind Henry Steel, among others.
       Some of the novel is little more than melodrama, but Söderberg does this quite well. Overall, the book is strikingly modern, and a good, engaging, quick read.

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The Serious Game: Reviews: Hjalmar Söderberg: Other books by Hjalmar Söderberg under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Scandinavian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Hjalmar Söderberg lived 1869 to 1941.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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