When Linn Ullmann’s father was well over 80, he began to refer to the life he was living now as the “epilogue”. Lying in his bed in the morning, he recovered from his ailments, allowing himself one per decade: if there were less than eight, he would get up; if there were more, he would stay put. But these strategies denoted realism rather than appeasement, and his determination to continue the work has remained largely unwavering.
Ullmann’s father was the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, and the work he focused on in his later years was a collaboration with his daughter, a book that would capture something of his life and thoughts at approaching the end. Recalling the beginnings of the project when she told me about Oslo, Ullmann emphasizes the centrality of the creative process in Bergman’s life. “When it’s work, you know, then we know what we’re doing. We work: good. We had so much fun discussing when we were going to write the book, how it would take it, what shape it was. His favorite track, he joked, was “Laid & Slayed in Eldorado Valley,” a phrase he had always hoped to use for the name of a movie.
Instead, what emerged, more than a decade after his death in 2007, was Ullmann’s sixth novel, Worried, a powerful and disturbing hybrid of memory, fiction and meditation, braided together in a fragmentary structure that reflects, among other things, Bergman’s love for Bach Cello Suites.
It is, she told me, a work built on “the ruins of a book that I did not write”. While father and daughter happily planned their project in numerous letters, phone calls and meetings, Bergman “kept getting older”. By the time labor began in earnest, in the spring and summer before his death, the physical frailty had been joined by something else: “Things had changed a lot; just in a few months his language had changed, the memory loss was now very evident to him and to me. It was as if all the windows in his mind had opened for real things and imaginary or dreamlike things – he didn’t always have the ability to see the difference.
The six conversations between them, recorded at Hammars, Bergman’s home on the Swedish island of Fårö, form a vital part of Worried but for many years Ullmann didn’t even listen to them, feeling that they were part of “the huge fiasco” the unfinished project had become: “It was physically painful, almost, listening to these tapes. So I just put the tape recorder away… I mean, I should have started earlier, I should have insisted that we do it earlier, I should have asked different questions when we were sitting there, I should have must have had a better tape recorder because the tape recorder sucked. I shouldn’t have been so sharp. It was her husband, writer Niels Fredrik Dahl, who urged her to retrieve the recorder from the attic: “Don’t you just want to listen to it now that you’re writing this book?” And then I listened to it. And I transcribed it. And I translated it from Swedish to Norwegian. And it was simply delicious.
These early feelings, of course, are an acute form of the regrets that so often accompany death; the belief that if we had acted differently, we could have somehow lessened our grief or saved something more tangible from the loved one. But in Ullmann’s case, there is a sense of something particularly heightened – almost primitive – in the experience.
She was born in 1966, the same year as the famous Bergman film The person has been freed. Her mother, Norwegian actor Liv Ullmann, was the co-star of the film, in which she plays a woman – also an actress – who has suddenly stopped talking and is taken to a cabin by a nurse, played by Bibi Andersson. Bergman wrote the script – quickly, as he recovered from pneumonia – with the two women in mind; and it was filmed on Fårö, which he then made not only a home but also a kind of kingdom, adding endless buildings including a cinema and a writing lodge.
Bergman and Ullmann, who went on to collaborate on 10 films, began a relationship. He was 47, four times married and the father of eight children; she was 20 years her junior and was also married (indeed, her doctor husband was present at Linn’s birth). After the separation of the director and Ullmann, often considered one of his muses, he remarried. Linn, her ninth and last child, spent her summers in Hammars; the rest of the time she lived with her mother in Oslo and the United States, with her grandmother and a succession of nannies intervening when Liv was away. “I was her child and her child,” she writes in Worried, ” but no /their/ child, it was never the three of us; when I flip through the photos on my desk, there isn’t a single photo of the three of us together. She and him and me. This constellation does not exist.
The final form of the book gradually became clear; the first-person narration is interspersed with more romantic prose, in which “the daughter”, “the father” and “the mother” are in orbit. Their names – real or invented – are never given. At one point, when I refer to a “you” in the narrative, Ullmann gently corrects it to “the girl”. But she doesn’t intend to suggest that her life and that of her family are not the basis Worried; rather, she wanted to occupy a space between genres, she says. “I’m obsessed with that word between,” she tells me, and cites writers such as Rachel Cusk, Deborah Levy, John Berger, Edwidge Danticat and Emily Dickinson as helpful influences, as well as choreographers Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham and the composer John Cage.
If Bergman is the constant focus of the book, Liv Ullmann, who is now 81, inhabits its wildest margins. Where Hammars’ loneliness and introspection represent Bergman’s world, the Ullmann cannons between Oslo, Los Angeles, and New York, often accompanied by his daughter, whose experiences include getting her hair ruffled by Margot Fonteyn in a hallway in hotel in Manhattan and having a box of caviar sent by her mother’s Russian suitor. The different trajectories of her parents also reflect their different roles in culture: “A very traditional male artist, another female actress, one a viewer, the other watched.
As a child, Linn remembers his desperate love for his mother, which included immense distress if, for example, his mother rang just a few minutes late: “I was madly in love with my mother. Not just for her incredible beauty, and I write about this beauty: how vivid, strong and crazy beauty is and what it does to us, and lust. But when you’re a child and you’re struck by such incredible love, you don’t have the words for it. You don’t really have the words for it when you’re an adult either, but it’s hopeless, it’s lust, and it’s this realization that if this person goes missing, I’m going to die. I can not live.
When I say it must have been hard having a mother who seemed to disappear, quite often she is quick to point out that Ullmann was a working woman in the 1970s, as well as a single mother, and that she lived in an often critical public gaze. Linn herself hated the paparazzi photographs she appeared in and felt humbled by evidence from her own childhood, such as having to wear a plastic folder around her neck when she took solo plane trips to join her mother. : “I didn’t want to be a child. I didn’t know how to be a child. I was almost a little ashamed to be a child. I ask him what his mother did with the book. “She knows what it is,” she replies with a hint of irony. “I mean, she’s an artist. “
Towards the end of Worried, the 16-year-old girl leaves for Paris alone. What she meets there will underpin the second of what Ullmann envisions a cowardly trilogy. “The portrait of the young girl stops there,” she explains. “It does not go further and does not explore the mother or the daughter further. And you meet her again when she’s, you know, old. Forty years. Now i’m even older [she is 54]. Then I will write from the place of this seniority.
When Worried was first published in Norway, a reporter called her and asked if she could spend “five minutes” on what was fiction and what was done in the book. She laughs. Five minutes wouldn’t really begin to do him justice. In fact, it looks like it could be the work of a lifetime.
• Unquiet is published by Hamish Hamilton (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.