Linn Ullmann recomposes her childhood in ‘The Restless’, a book she planned with her father, Ingmar Bergman | Culture

At the headquarters of its publishing house in Oslo, a team from the main Norwegian channel records a report on the renowned writer on the occasion of the appearance of her long-awaited new book, a kind of continuation of the memoirs that she published six years ago and that ended up being established. its international prestige, beyond the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon world. Slender and restless, she greets with a wide smile and a certain nervousness, dressed in black and with a high bow. And it is that contrary to what one might suppose, Linn Ullmann (Oslo, 55 years old), daughter of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann, is uncomfortable with the cameras. That could be the first wrong assumption about her, the little daughter of the revered movie teacher and ravishing performer, the only one they had together and the number nine descendant for Bergman. But on the pages of The restless (published in Spanish by Gatopardo, and in December in Catalan by Les Hores) the presumptions are falling page by page and a brilliant and singular narrator is revealed.

A literary critic and journalist, Ullmann published his first novel when he was 30 years old, a divorce and a son. He says that failure is often the starting point for his books, and with the original project from which he arose The restless he felt the failure was total. “My father was 84 years old and he started talking about how age was affecting him he was forgetting some words and memories, not in a way that others would notice. This surely worried him, but he was also curious about that last period of aging, ”she explains chatty and vital.

Bergman, in addition to her father, was one of her best readers, and no, she was not intimidated by the teacher or his opinions. Nor was it technically the first time they had worked together, although Ullmann has very little recollection of filming as a child. On Screams and whispers she sat on her mother’s lap “in the same velvet dress she was wearing” and flatly refused to allow the actor who kissed her mother on the lips to kiss her forehead. After three takes he got away with it and they skipped the kiss. On Face to face The mild cold with which Ullmann arrived at the filming terrified his father who felt panic before respiratory diseases – “He was born in 1918 and his mother had the flu; now I wonder how she would have lived through the pandemic ”- and the role of a sleeping girl that had been assigned to her enraged her. He decided to keep his eyes wide open, and again managed to change the director’s plan. “The book project started almost as a joke because he felt tired and too old to write, and I told him we should do a book on growing old.” They started planning. “We spent years talking about the book without doing it. When we talked on the phone and saw each other in the summer we had a lot of lovely ideas about how to proceed, whether we should record or I take notes. We were planning and the years passed and sometimes I was on the phone with him and the date to go to the island was approaching and his voice sounded distant and the conversations were slower and he said to me: ‘Are you coming soon?’

Writer Linn Ullmann in Oslo in October 2021.
Writer Linn Ullmann in Oslo in October 2021.Kristin Svanæs-Soo; Kristin Svanæs-Soot

When they sat down, Bergman’s cognitive decline was remarkable. “He was at the end of his life and he was in that space between dreams and reality and oblivion and memories. Some things were very clear and others were very dreamlike ”, he recalls. “The scripted reality that we had somehow created and that had always been there was gone, we had to invent a new language, we had to do something that neither of us knew: improvise. How to speak when we are in a kind of representation of The dream, by August Strindberg? ”.

The work of the Swedish author, in which the daughter of a god comes down to earth, is not the only theatrical reference when talking about those last conversations. “Sometimes I wondered if he was playing Hamlet, pretending he was crazy, because there was a bit of insanity there. But he could speak so eloquently of Bach’s music and he could be a Beckett character, one of the elders who talks about some strange memory as if it had happened yesterday when it had happened maybe he had been 70 years old ”.

Seven years of mourning

The book went into the background, and these tapes of that “goodbye trip” were impossible for him to listen to after Bergman’s death. Seven years later and when he had already written more than half a book about his childhood, the recordings were an essential part of The restless. “They were very interesting space for fiction and for the imagination because they left all the windows open, all genres. It was something so different, so strange, so sad, so vulnerable. There was death and there was life at the same time. As Strindberg says in his work, everything is possible and time and place no longer exist ”. Ullmann wrote a memoir “without saying I remember this or this was like that, because I don’t know exactly how it was.” So the book happened to be about her? “It’s a version of me, it’s me and I’m not, as Deborah Levy, one of my favorite writers, would say,” she replies.

Different materials are being set in The restless. There are memories of the house on the island where he spent every summer with his father, reflections, transfers to the United States, various partners of his mother, and the transcription, as in a script or a play, of some of those conversations with the senile Bergman. Small scenes jump from one space to another, in time and geographically, back and forth, creating movement, almost a poetic dance, something that Ullmann, who trained as a dancer in Oslo and at the Julliard school in New York, does not refute. “My writing is very connected to dance. The first thing I think of when I imagine a book is a simple choreography, how those bodies move in a painful, beautiful, loving way, alone or together ”, he affirms. He cites the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch – from whom he took a painting from her father’s house – and Merce Cunningham as fundamental references, and immediately adds the names of the poet Anne Carson and the musician John Cage.

Was there something that you were sure you would leave out or take away from the story? Ullmann, who in these months of pandemic launched a podcast, How To Proceed (How to proceed), from conversations with writers, is not afraid to talk about method, but resorts to a text reminiscent of a book that includes an interview between Michael Ondaatje and the editor of The Godfather Walter Murch. The filmmaker speaks of a blue light bulb that illuminates a room to convey a sense of that color, and says that the key is to remove it, because it is so powerful that it dazzles, and to see how to maintain that blue feeling without it – “That’s always the key: let’s remove it and see what happens ”-. Hours after the interview, Ullmann sends the exact quote.

Her father, according to her account in the book, wanted to avoid the “sentimental splash” at all costs, did this influence her? “I have not yet met an artist who wants to be sentimental. You can use sentimentality, but you have to know what you are doing, because very easily it can become something just kitsch and that is an affront to humanity ”. Almodóvar, he adds, is one of the few who “knows how to find gold” with a few drops of sentimentality.

Anger is an extreme feeling that he talks about in his book. His father advises him to keep it at bay. “It is part of me, but you have to get away when you write,” he points out and refers to some texts from his students in one of his writing classes that were dripping with anger and pain. They told her that everything written was strictly true and she explained that that was not the important thing. “It is not about keeping an exact record of what happened, but about making it true, when it is on the page. So you have to withdraw a bit and understand that memory is malleable. “

On The restless Ullmann reflects on the memories themselves and wonders if one remembers something in particular because it was something extraordinary or because it was something frequent. “The malleability of memory was my starting point. Memories have some of the mineral mercury that is toxic, and extremely sensitive to temperature, “he says.

Bergman’s decline

His father was not well and his head was lost, he suffered a rapid physical decline. Writing about him raised an ethical question. “I write about people around me, but I am very aware of it and how little you need to say to express something. Telling everything is boring. I did not want the book to be about a famous man, but about the struggle of a man in his old age and that is why they are the father, the mother, the daughter. There are no names and it is not an autobiography, ”he says. “In my private life, I am a mother of a 17-year-old who also writes and is a feminist and a 30-year-old son who makes movies and is a father. So I am a grandmother, and I have lived with my husband for many years. My purpose was not to tell my life as if we were going to chat and have a wine. Writing and confession are two different things ”.

Did you read the books your father wrote about your grandparents? “Yes, but he is not the most important writer for me, he is a very important person in my life. Obviously since he was my father ”, he replies. Ullmann rebels against the idea that many female writers are always celebrated based on their affiliation with a male artist. Mention Linda Knausgard (”She is an exquisite writer, and her book October Children it’s one of the best things I’ve read, and they still ask her about Karl Ove, when maybe they should ask him about her “) or Siri Hustvedt (” There are still people who think she learned neuroscience thanks to Paul Auster “). How controversial can writing about family be? “I took the license to portray a father and a mother who are similar to mine. But the whole story is not on those pages. My father and mother were the two artists who used a lot of their lives and those of those around them in their work, so they know what this is about. And my husband is also a writer. There is a margin, but as I said, I do not write everything, my children are left out ”.

The new book that just came out this weekend in Sweden is titled A young woman, 1983 and part of an episode that mentions in The restless, an adventure that at the age of 16 she had with a much older photographer and that took her to Paris. “Was a case? Was she a girl? Was he an abuser or a simple lover? ”, He says. Relationships between older men and young girls appear several times in The restless. “It is an archetype and I like archetypes, to use and mix them up. I grew up with a father who clasped his hands to look at women. He was the typical man who always looked. My mother was beauty, magnificent. Even today at 83 I’m still a bit in love with her. But that kind of beauty and that way of looking at him … As a child I didn’t fit in, I was dwarf and skinny and also a voyeur, because they didn’t look at me. I did not understand how to be a girl ”, she assures. “My father I think he was a feminist, although in his time male geniuses were still worshiped. Now I think there is a smarter way of understanding things. “

The cameras wait outside the room, and Ullmann still has promotion, interviews and questions to answer. He puts on his wool cap and says goodbye.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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