Daddy, I hardly knew you

Linn Ullmann’s novel Unquiet interweaves her childhood with conversations with her father Ingmar Bergman — a work of both memory and imagination

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A  fractured family life: Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman (© BETTMANN / GETTY IMAGES)

The Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann, the star of many of his films, lived together at his home, Hammars, on the island of Fårö for four years. Their daughter, Linn, was born in 1966, and the two separated in 1969. Bergman wrote to Linn, his ninth and last child, at her christening: “I have the feeling that one day you and I will understand each other.”

In Unquiet, translated from the Swedish by Thilo Reinhard, Linn Ullmann puts words to this understanding. Part memoir and part novel, Ullmann’s sixth book interweaves her memories of her childhood with six conversations with her father for a book the two planned to write together before his death in 2007.

“Growing old is work,” Bergman says in one of his first interviews with Ullmann. His youngest daughter has returned to Hammars with a new tape recorder and a meticulous programme for writing the story of her father’s life. The two have long planned this, earnestly and despite their many reservations, following Bergman’s rule for his personal and artistic life: “Never improvise.”

The 40-year-old Ullmann wonders how this dedication to his work and this personal distance relates to his many and passionate loves — five wives, six mothers, and nine children — and especially about Liv, the “devastatingly beautiful” woman he fell passionately in love with in 1965.

“I’m trying to understand something about love here, and about my parents, and why solitude played such a significant role in their lives, and why they, more than anything in the whole wide world, were so afraid of being abandoned,” Ullmann writes.

The first interview does not go well. Linn is nervous and shrill, and Bergman is “incredibly unsure” about the whole plan.

Still, staying at Hammars calls up memories of the place Linn knew as a child, when she lived with her “old father” (as he called himself) in the summer. She recalls her former self in simple, detailed prose that perfectly fits her memories of childhood innocence and intensity. The young Linn was a skinny girl with knobby knees who loved to swim and practice ballet. Ingmar was somewhat formal as a father, a tall man in a green wool sweater who rode around the island on a red bicycle and kept rigid working hours when he was not to be disturbed. But they often met at the cinema on his property and watched films together.

While the centre of the novel is Linn’s conversations with her father, Unquiet also reveals how little Bergman was around; Linn largely grew up without him when he was writing at Hammars, or directing films in Munich, or producing plays in Stockholm. In Unquiet, Ullmann attempts to reconcile her fractured family life. Both Ingmar and Liv, very much artists and very much in love, “wanted to be children”. Rules can be useful discipline, or they can be a game created to control a life tenuously held together.

But Linn is a difficult child herself. Her later life is not untroubled, and this becomes part of their bond: Many years later, after she has divorced and his last wife, Ingrid, has died, they “stumble upon each others’ loneliness” and spend a Christmas at his home in Stockholm.

Yet even when Linn returns to live at Hammars in the last summer of Bergman’s life, there is a sense of distance. “I’ve never taken death seriously,” says the filmmaker whose works are perhaps most associated with death (think The Seventh Seal, 1958, and Wild Strawberries, 1959). But now he is losing his words and deeply ingrained routines. So he begins the “work of dying”: He eats his daily omelette. He labels his slippers so he can remember which is which, and his caregiver hints that Linn is disturbing her father, that he should be left in peace.

“Displays of emotional brouhaha shall not, under any circumstances, be tolerated,” Bergman insists as he plans his funeral as meticulously as he planned his theatre productions. Unquiet, despite its sentimental subject, achieves that with its lucid prose: perceptive, bright with detail, yet respectful of that northern austerity that makes Bergman’s films so powerful.

A novel about one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and the actress he loved has, paradoxically, a wealth of material and a lot of ground to clear before reaching its subject. Bergman’s fame and his famously diffuse family have been become legends, with documentaries like Trespassing Bergman (2013), a film Liv & Ingmar (2013), and his own enigmatic memoir, The Magic Lantern (1987). Liv, too, devotes much of her 1985 autobiography, Changing, to her life and work with Bergman.

But though many have tried to see inside the lives of Bergman and Ullmann, their private lives and their families have remained elusive, somehow abstract. Even Unquiet, written by the closest of insiders, is a novel. The genre makes sense: It is a work of both memory and imagination, a recreation of the book that she and her father never wrote.

It is in the way Ullmann finds Ingmar and Liv in herself, so partially and yet so powerfully, that she reveals them as parents and as people.

“You are like this because of her; you are like that because of him,” Ullmann writes. This devastatingly beautiful book brings us closer to Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullmann, and their daughter Linn than anything else has, or could.