Linn Ullmann: Unquiet


Why do we crave to know our fathers? After all it’s the mother who grows us and births us and then keeps us alive. But so often one hears of the adopted child’s search for the father, the sperm donor child’s search for the father, the child of divorced parents’ search for the father. In Linn Ullman’s latest book, Unquiet, called a novel, but very close to memoir, she tells the story of her attempt to record the story of her father’s life, which, it becomes clear, is her way of trying to find some closeness with her father and of trying to discover what her significance was in his life.

Her father was Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director and she was one of nine children he fathered. Bergman was married five times, but Linn Ullmann was the only child whose mother he never married. Liv Ullman, her mother, had a relationship with Bergman in between the concert pianist Kabi Laretie, to whom Bergman was married for ten years, and Ingrid von Rosen to whom he was married for twenty-four years.

Liv Ullman acted in some of Bergman’s most highly praised films; Persona (1966) The Passion of Anna (1969) Cries and Whispers (1972) and Autumn Sonata (1978) Her daughter Linn was born in 1966. She gave birth very much on her own, and then Bergman told her to stop breast-feeding after two weeks because her body belonged to him.

The mother and the father could not decide what to call her. Time passed. Other decisions were made. When the girl was a few weeks old, the father decided that the mother should stop nursing, tuck the breast back in the blouse, give it back to him so the two of them could go away to Rome together. p115

The parents make an agreement,

Six weeks on Faro every summer as a family.

That’s not how it went. Not her. Not us. Not family. But I went to Hammars every summer and stayed for several weeks, not six exactly, but more than a couple… p294

She spends long summer days there with her step-brother, with a few carefully- controlled meetings with her father. Everything runs to his time, the whole of everyday life is organised so he can be kept happy. Then she returns to her mother, who is searching for she knows not what in life. Career and relationships, all seem to take a higher priority than her daughter, who is mostly looked after by nannies.

Later, when she has children of her own, the girl comes back with her tape recorder to ostensibly record her father’s story, but it is obvious from her questions, she is trying to get some kind of admission of love for her and her mother. But it is too late. The old man has become feeble and his mind is wandering. It is heartbreaking to read,

She Can you tell me about Mamma?

He I have been thinking about Beethoven and how he goes right at you. Right at your feelings…feelings…

She Okay ?

He There was an orchestra rehearsal in Malmo, and Kabi was the soloist…it was the G major Concerto. I had never met Kabi before.

She But I was asking about my… p110

Later she writes this:

You are loved, you are not loved, you could have been loved, you were loved, you are the most beloved. If Pappa had been a song, it would have been – thinking of all the women, all the breakups, all the regrets and all the words – a song with more than a little dash of country and blues, two genres of music he himself didn’t care for much, or know much about. p356

Linn Ullmann never writes with anger or blame, but her words to this reader were an indictment of the complete self-preoccupation of the highly talented man who, incidentally, was her father.

His last words to her, when he was close to death and she spilt water on him while trying to help him drink water, ‘You f…ing bitch.’

10 thoughts on “Linn Ullmann: Unquiet

  1. After reading this I had to go out and spend a few minutes with the evening spring bird songs, and take pictures of how the aspen branches and buds curve around and enfold each other in gracious spaces. Whew. Life goes on, and nature provide balms when nothing else will suffice. It is a problem that we haven’t resolved — what to do with beautiful things created by people who are also not very good people, sowing cruelty in many places. Sounds as if Linn Ullman has made some sort of peace with herself about both of her parents.

    1. I thought it would be interesting to have another look at Bergmans films. They were largely about women and several of his key players were also his lovers.

  2. To say this sounds like a powerful, heartbreaking read is probably a gross understatement. Such resilience in the face of a challenging upbringing…

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