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Full of desperate longing: Unquiet, by Linn Ullmann, reviewed

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

3 October 2020

9:00 AM

Unquiet Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Thilo Reinhard

Hamish Hamilton, pp.400, 14.99

The scrawny little girl with ‘pipe-cleaner legs’ wants to feel at home with her parents. But father and mother live mostly apart —the former in Sweden, the latter in Norway or New York — and the trio fails to bond: ‘It was never us three.’

Her famous father is a migratory sage with ‘a unique talent for partings’, obsessively orderly and punctual but happy to let this youngest child (of nine, by five wives, and the girl’s unmarried mother) grow up ‘without any plan or direction’. Her mother, often dubbed the father’s ‘muse’ (though never by the father), fills the planet’s screens with beauty ‘of the sort that belongs to everyone and no one — like a national park’.

Every summer, though, the father comes to rest, and plan, and write, on a gale-swept Baltic island ‘in the long, narrow house surrounded by sea, stones, thistles, poppies, and barren moors’. Here he owns several properties, including a barn made over into a private cinema where his scattered clan gather to watch films. For the father (never given a full name here) was Ingmar Bergman, the mother Liv Ullmann — who starred in ten Bergman movies, from Persona and Cries and Whispers to Autumn Sonata. That gangly lass ‘full of desperate longing’ would become the Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann.

In previous novels, Ullmann has drawn on those sunlit, spellbound but anxious summers on the island of Fårö, south of Stockholm. Unquiet at last stares unblinking into the strange sun of her childhood. Call this ‘autofiction’ if you like, but Ullmann disdains fancy tricks and roman-à-clef stunts. Places and people appear undisguised, if often unnamed. This is a novel, however. The narrator agrees with the father (Bergman himself wrote autobiographical stories about his parents) that turning the lost beloved into fiction is ‘the only way of breathing life into them’.

In Unquiet, that remembered life not only breathes. It roars. Fiction’s freedom permits Ullmann’s tone to swivel from lyrical reverie to tough-minded judgment (both parents ‘yearned to be free. They yearned to be children’), from tender mourning to a delicious vein of sardonic wit and affectionate takedown. Father-daughter dialogues, presented as transcripts of tapes recorded in his final year, show how the magician of screen and stage struggles to direct the ‘hard, gruelling, unglamorous work’ of old age. They also crackle with deadpan comedy routines and killer asides: the guru of existential cinema says that he ‘always wanted to call one of my films Laid & Slayed in Eldorado Valley, but never made one that quite fitted the bill’. The world’s cinéastes would probably agree.

This mobility of voice and viewpoint — captured with zest by the translator Thilo Reinhard — lets Unquiet tell the kinds of truth no memoir could reach. Yet its paradoxical power depends on Ullmann’s devotion to her craft as novelist, not family chronicler. Neither reverent nor reductive, she allows the father his charismatic glow, his knack for making everyone feel like ‘the one and only’. She skewers his narcissism too, as grief and infirmity ring down a slow curtain on a lifelong melodrama of love-struck creativity. When his beloved fifth wife dies, the father laments that ‘only now does God decide to kick me out of the nursery’. A child of two solitudes, windblown by abandonments, the lonely daughter fuses with the author (and mother) who composes this quiet, and unquiet, gem of a book. ‘I’m trying to understand something about love here,’ she tells us. And she does.

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