Book review: Unquiet by Linn Ullmann

In a 2014 interview with Vogue, the Norwegian writer and journalist Linn Ullmann was asked what she was currently working on. ‘I am writing a memoir’, she replied, ‘or at least I thought it was a memoir. But since my memory is both very vivid and not entirely reliable, it could just as well be a novel’. At the time, Ullmann, whose English-speaking readership include the likes of Lydia Davis and Rachel Cusk, was promoting her book Det dyrebare (The Cold Song) in America, and was in the process of writing her “memoir” De urolige, which was published in English last week as Unquiet in a translation by Thilo Reinhard. The book, structured around short transcripts of taped interviews with her aging father, was met with unanimous praise when it was first published in Norway in 2015, and is considered Ullmann’s most accomplished work to date.

Linn Ullmann. Photo: Agnete Brun.

It is both ironic and strangely appropriate for Ullmann’s autofictional account of childhood and family to be published internationally just a couple of weeks after the end of the Ingmar Bergman centenary, and little over a month after Liv Ullmann’s 80th birthday. I say ironic because as the child of an iconic Swedish filmmaker and his Norwegian muse, Linn Ullmann has always made an effort not to have her books put into context with the legendary careers of her parents. However, in Unquiet she is delving into this very material, and the result is a ruthlessly scathing yet loving portrayal of a child desperate to grow up, and parents who would like to remain children. There are no names in the novel; these are substituted with ‘the girl’, ‘the mother’ or ‘the famous director.’ However, there is a (blurred) photo of a young Ullmann sitting next to her father on the over of the book. She elegantly avoids the unnecessary clutter that comes with name-dropping her parents; instead, the book is about a family that was never a family. ‘I was her child and his child, but never their child. (…) She and he and I. That constellation did not exist.’

The book that eventually became Unquiet began as a shared project between Ullmann and her father; they were supposed to write a book about growing old. ‘Growing old is hard work’, the father would say, but by the time they got around to actually conducting the interviews that would go into the book, reality, dream and memory had all begun to merge and become elusive to the famous director. Soon he was too ill to continue their work, and for many years after his death in 2007 Ullmann did not touch the crackling recordings, which to her proved how their final, half-formed project had been a failure. In Unquiet, snippets from their wandering conversations intersperse long sequences detailing her summers with Bergman on the Baltic Sea island of Fårö, as well as memories of her intense longing for her famous mother, who as a single mother was swept up by her wildly successful career in the 60s and 70s.

Liv Ullmann with Linn in 1966.

Ullmann switches seamlessly between the first and third person, and allow her sentences to go on and on listing and repeating objects, people and places, just like the little girl of the story takes to writing lists: ‘My father has four houses, two cars, five wives, one swimming pool, nine children, and one cinema.’ The narrative does not take the form of a linear cradle-to-grave memoir; rather, Unquiet becomes almost Sebaldian in its fragmentation, intermingling stories from her childhood and her father’s old age with quotes from John Cheever and meditations on the art of Georgia O’Keefe. Lydia Davis has already been included it on the list of her favourite books of the year. When describing Unquiet, Davis puts the word ‘novel’ in quotation marks, emphasising how Ullmann’s book is part of a recent flourish of genre-defying literature that can best be described as highly readable amalgamations of fiction, life writing and memoir.

On the very first page of her ‘novel’, Ullmann notes: ‘If there were such a thing as a telescope that could be trained on the past, I could have said: Look, that’s us, let’s find out what really happened. And every time we began to doubt whether what I remember is true or what you remember is true or whether what happened really happened, or whether we even existed, we could have stood side by side and looked into the telescope together.’ By acknowledging that there is no such thing as an objective recollection of the past, Ullmann carves out a space and a form in which her project can breathe and pulsate. This is not to say that she has not written autobiographically before; readers acquainted with Ullmann’s authorship will recognise little details from Unquiet that have appeared in previous books.

Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman in 1968.

The author has stated that apart from the recordings of her conversations with Bergman, she did not go back to research her past. Instead she drew inspiration from Fellini’s Amarcord, whose semi-autobiographical depictions of the director’s own adolescence feels truthful because rather than despite its exaggerated nature. Ullmann may not have had as many simpering nannies as what she describes in Unquiet, but that is what it must have felt like at the time to the bony teenager. Her tone is both playful and straightforward, which Reinhard has done his best to preserve. His wise inclusion of the Norwegian ‘Mamma’ and ‘Pappa’ immediately brings us closer to the fragmented Scandinavian family. Sadly, Norton & Company have decided on a different, less defined layout for their English edition, which makes the different aspects of the novel, juggled so effortlessly in the original, appear rather confusing in translation. Nevertheless, Unquiet is extraordinarily well-written in its luminous simplicity, and would be of interest to all those who feel their childhood to be somewhat fragmented; that is, to almost everyone.

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August 2022
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