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Photo: Geir Dokken
Photo: Geir Dokken

Linn Ullmann’s declaration of love

When her father died, Linn Ullmann began recalling childhood memories. The result was an acclaimed novel and a daughter’s explosive, ruthless love letter to her parents.

Linn Ullmann

Age: 50
Lives: Oslo
Family: Married to author Niels Fredrik Dahl
Two children: Filmmaker Halfdan Ullmann Tøndel and seventh grader Hanna Dahl Ullmann
Education: English literature at New York University
Occupation: Award-winning and critically acclaimed author
Career: Has worked as a critic and culture journalist in Norway. De Urolige is her sixth novel.It has been awarded the Norwegian Radio P2 ­listeners’ Book Prize and been nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize. All of Ullmann’s novels have been published in the US and in most of Europe. She has previously won the Gullpennen and Amalie Skram Prizes 

They had a plan, the two of them. Linn Ullmann and her father, the legendary movie director Ingmar Bergman, were going to write a book together. It would be about growing old – the stresses and strains of ageing. They were going to meet on set days, at set times and discuss their combined memories and confessions, about art and life.

They were going to work in a disciplined way. Record everything on tape. But it didn’t go quite as planned. Her father died in 2007, after just six crackly and pretty poor sound recordings had been made. And the content was not quite what they’d had in mind. The director’s words were fragmented. And towards the end, he had become forgetful.

“To see, to remember, to know. It all depends on where you stand. The first time I came to Hammars I was barely a year old and knew nothing of the great and overwhelming love that had brought me there. Actually, there were three loves.”

So opens Ullmann’s latest book, De Urolige, (meaning the disquiet or the restless – the English title is as yet undecided), which was published in late 2015. The Swedish tabloid Expressen hailed the book as a poetic weave of memories and a literary masterpiece. The novel has been nominated for the Nordic Council Literary Prize, with the jury saying it is just as much about understanding and narrating a life as putting specific lives under the magnifying glass. Swedish Radio – and the whole of Norway – think it is the best work that Linn Ullmann has ever produced.

She’s waiting for us in a tiny neighborhood cafe by the streetcar loop in Ullevål Hageby, Oslo. The café is behind an old movie theater. It serves salads, pies and soups and also sells books written by local authors. It’s raining hard outside. The air feels sultry. Ullmann is about to go off on a holiday, her first in 20 years. Her husband, daughter, stepdaughter and dog Charley are all packed and waiting in the car a few blocks away.

Ullmann doesn’t take up much space. She stretches and contracts on the bench, apologizes for being hungry and says a humble thank you for a slice of pie and cup of tea. Three times she tells us she’s sorry for forcing us to change our plans for the interview. Once all the apologies are out of the way, we can begin.

“It’s an extremely personal novel,” she says. “I have taken myself and used a big chunk of my own life. Writing the book was a process of liberation. Something opened up. I closed in on my own life in ways I hadn’t before.”Linn Ullmann has been nominated for the ­Nordic Literary Prize for the novel De Urolige. Photo: Geir Dokken

None of the characters in the book have a name. That was quite deliberate. The main character, a young girl, has a goal: To reunite her parents so she can find out who she really is. Because she was his child and her child. But not their child. And she doesn’t know what is her story and what is their story. The novel also raises the issue of gender and gender roles.

“We were a few steps removed from the gender role pattern we see today,” says Ullmann. “But I still detect in our present society a stronger expectation from the mother figure than the father figure. The father in the novel had not considered taking responsibility, while all of the mothers, his women, strong, intelligent women, many of them artists, took responsibility for the nine children he had in total.”

Ullmann never looked at the archives. She didn’t do any interviews or any direct research. She didn’t go to Hammars, her father’s home on Fårö off Gotland, to walk the overgrown paths and refresh her memory. She reread the books her parents wrote instead and watched many of his films again. Above all, she pounced on books, photographs, films  and music that in a strange way brought her closer to her own story, her own memories. 

“As much as it is a novel, De Urolige is also about rediscovering yourself and those closest to you in art and in memories,” she says. “I watched more Fellini films than Bergman ones when I was working on the book.”

Ullmann wrote most of the novel in her studio apartment in Oslo, barely bigger than a shoebox, with a kitchenette and views over Stensparken. Her tiny apartment gives her a wonderful Astrid Lindgren feeling. It’s just like in the children’s film Lotta på Bråkmakargatan (Lotta on Troublemaker Street) based on Lindgren’s books in which Lotta leaves home and furnishes her own place at Mrs Berg’s. Lotta decides everything for herself.

‘Who said the aim in life is to be happy all the time?’

The girl in De Urolige never gets to decide when and where she goes, and she often moves home. She clings to her beautiful, hardworking single mother, a woman who can make hearts beat faster and work miracles on stage and on screen. A sense of longing can make the girl sick. When she’s sad, she has so much dissonance inside her. She’s surrounded by so many dangers.

“She’s the hero of the book,” says Ullmann. “I see her as a survivor, not a victim. The girl is incredibly tough. She sees. She thinks. She wants to be an adult. She’s got the most beautiful mother in the world and a father who is world famous for seeing women. She has no limits. She is part boy, part girl, part child, part adult. The book is about a constant denial of all of these categorizations.”

Photo: Geir DokkenUllmann is remarkably receptive and hates sentimentality. Her close friend, colleague and publisher Geir Gulliksen says she’s conscientious and takes life very seriously.

“She has the ability to delve deep into everything and be both delighted and despondent at the same time,” Gulliksen says. “She also has a rare feeling for language, which makes her a really good author.”

 Composition, choreography and structure are crucial to her writing. She says she has read as much as she can on music theory. Her father’s last film was Saraband, the name of Bach’s Cello Suite No.5. The sixth and final part in De Urolige is called Gigue, the sixth and final dance in the cello suite. The entire book is like an intense piece of music where Ullmann tightens the strings so hard in the different acts that they seem to almost reach breaking point. But when you feel the strings must snap, she releases all of the tension from this accumulated vulnerability in a merciless, yet comical way. Only in the final sentence of the book are readers given the chance to abandon hope.

“It’s a coming of age novel about three troubled people – and a declaration of love,” Ullmann says. “The book pays homage to the father’s artistic works. I relate both to Bergman – and my father. He was also a son who wanted to understand his parents and tried to reach behind their masks.”

Ullmann drily explains that she never liked her name. She – who was actually named Karin after her paternal grandmother, hated hearing her name – and seeing photographs of herself.

“That was not out of shyness. And I don’t think it’s quite as bad now. But my most abiding memory as a child is that I didn’t want to be a child. I wanted to be an adult while both my parents wanted to be children and were always talking about games. So I wanted to find out what happens to a child who doesn’t want to be a child.”

“The father and the girl had an agreement. It was recorded in his diary. The diary lay on his desk. Everything had its place and everything happened at its proper time. Two hours had been allotted for the girl and the father to have a conversation,” Ullmann writes.

In the book, death is the only acceptable excuse for unpunctuality. You can still set your watch by Linn Ullmann in the real world. Just as Henrik Ibsen arrived at the Grand Café on the stroke of 12 for a beer and snaps, Ullmann is a regular sight at Voldsløkka sports arena where she goes for her daily run. Always the same time. Always the same place, with the same playlist on her phone. She doesn’t want to experience new runs. She just wants to run here. Again and again and again. One step. And one more step, the Jeff Galloway workout app keeps repeating in her ear. “One step. And one more step. There is a great deal of wisdom in that,” Ullmann says.

When Oslo is covered in slush and cloaked in winter gloom, she switches to the indoor track under the stands at Bislett Stadium. Same time. Same place. Same playlist. Going round and round.

Ullmann never imagined she would start running. But that’s what she did. It’s good for her. It clears her Photo: Tor G. Stenersen / Aftenposten / NTB scanpixhead.

“I didn’t have a bad childhood,” she says, in case there was any confusion about this.

“Most people are torn up in one way or another. They feel uncertain, vulnerable. We all have our wounds. But that is part of being human. At one time or another in our childhood, we have to acknowledge that we are fundamentally alone, that one day we’re going to die, that our parents are not perfect and they are afraid. At one time or another, our hearts will be broken. At one time or another, we’ll fall in love and see all of the possibilities life offers. All the good and the bad starts at an early age. And who said the aim in life is to be happy all the time?”

She leaves us as the clouds start to clear. Ullmann apologizes for not fully answering all our questions. She can’t say everything with certainty.

People stop her in the street. Seek answers to things she has written in the book. “Did things happen exactly like that?” they ask.

“Nothing is certain. It all depends on where you stand. A novel is not verifiable. There is no reason to trust me,” Ullmann says. “I am a bluffer by profession. As Joan Didion once said: We tell each other stories in order to live.”

Text: Kristin M. Hauge 

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