This novella is set in Stockholm of the late 1800s, and covers the life of Martin Birck from the ages of 5 or 6 to about 30. His father was a government bureaucrat, his family is very bourgeois, and much of the novella deals with Martin's resistance to settling for a similar bourgeois life for himself, as opposed to the life of a poet or something else that awards him fame.
This was the second of Soderberg's published works of fiction. The writing does not seem quite as accomplished as in the later and slightly better known novels "Doctor Glas" and "The Serious Game" (both of which I have also reviewed on Amazon). Like those two works, this is very much a "novel of ideas," but here the ideas or themes are at times half-baked. Further, there is in Martin Birck more than a trace of Goethe's "Young Werther", so that the novella often seems to be a collision of Romanticism with Modernism.
Yet there are some beautifully written passages and a number of keen observations of contemporary bourgeois society. Soderberg is a skeptic, but he is full of humane insight and compassion. One of his preoccupations is religion, or rather, whether there is any worth, truth, or validity to religion (in the wake of Nietzsche and others). In addition, Soderburg explores the themes of love versus sensuality (or sex) and how both are complicated (and compromised) by conventional morality, as well as the double standards of late-19th Century bourgeois morals as affecting men versus women. He is surprisingly sensitive to the plight of women, including both "decent" women without means and prostitutes. Perhaps more than anything else, however, MARTIN BIRCK'S YOUTH is a novella about the loss, or fading away, of youthful aspirations and dreams of glory (many idealistic or romantic in nature), and their yielding to the middle-aged mind-set of making do, of quiet survival with a minimum of physical discomfort or psychic upheaval.
MARTIN BIRCK'S YOUTH is a worthy book, if not quite on the plane of "Doctor Glas" or "The Serious Game". Together, the three works indicate that Hjalmar Soderberg is, at least in this country, an unduly neglected writer of fiction that still has much to say, more than a century later.
Martin Birck crops up as very much a background character in Soderberg's better known 1904 work 'Doctor Glas' - the eponymous narrator considers him "a bit of a bore." This earlier work (1901) takes us through Birck's life: his happy, innocent childhood, gradual awareness of "a world where he could no longer rely on the simple formula for getting by that his father and mother had taught him: be kindly and polite to everyone". The loss of religion; finding himself in a monotonous job that doesn't pay enough to live the life he wants... This isn't a novel with a plotline as such but is well written with many quotable paragraphs. I couldn't help thinking that if Dr Glas had got to know Martin Birck better he would have found him quite an interesting and sympathetic character!
Originally published in 1901 (Sweden), Hjalmar Soderberg fans have had to wait decades for a fresh translation of this short but brilliant novel. The book traces the first 30 years of Martin Birck's life from his idyllic Stockholm childhood through his schooling and ultimately his early professional career and romances. The beauty of the book, however, lies in Soderberg's biting wit and philosophical skepticism of middle-class society. Soderberg is a master at spotting trivial ironies and calling out society for all of its imperfections. Martin Birck's Youth is the third translation of a Soderberg novel in the last 4 years (Dr. Glas and The Serious Game). Translator Tom Ellett does an outstanding job of bringing Soderberg's words and ideas back to life for the present-day reader. Recommended for all fans of fin-de-siecle European literature.