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‘I Don’t Want My Writing to Be Charming’

Category: Art & Culture,Books

When Ullmann began publishing novels, she stopped writing literary criticism. But her books, instant best sellers in Scandinavia, spoke in a deep way with other writers, in translation.

“I felt a sense of kinship with her generationally,” the novelist Rachel Cusk, born a year after Ullmann, told me by phone. “I also felt a quality I would identify as her permission to express herself, having come from, weirdly, a place that I felt rather familiar with even though, you know, I’m not the child of internationally renowned artists. Looking back,” Cusk continued, “I wonder whether what I identified with in her voice was the feeling of the dominated daughter, a woman under parental authority, which is very much my persona whether consciously or unconsciously as well. I guess what I feel in my own work is that I, too, have, by a very different route, come to a position of authority and got out from under upbringing. And I don’t always hear a note of upbringing or don’t often hear it in the writing of my female contemporaries.”

Ullmann’s latest book marks a departure. Her precise, lean, cadenced sentences remain. But gone are the metaphorical narrative frameworks that defined her earlier work, gone the furniture-selling or book-editing or gynecology-practicing fathers, gone the devastating instances of externalized violence. Rather, and for the first time, Ullmann has formed a book out of the explicit landmarks of her lived life, her childhood as the daughter of “those people,” looking at them through the prism of what Ullmann can recall of her complicated upbringing. If the backs of her books always hid from view any mention of her family past, the new book foregrounds it. In Norway, the cover of the novel featured a photograph of Ullmann, age 12, sitting next to her father.

The form of the book, however, isn’t documentary, but, rather, fragmentary, the way memory is, moments rising up, seemingly unbidden, and then sinking, only to rise into view again, to be looked at from another perspective, in time. At the beginning, Ullmann writes:

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.

Ullmann’s “you” applies equally to the book’s parents as to its child, three beings lost to time. Within that textual attempt at seeing, remembering and comprehending are a curious set of found artifacts: the transcripts of a series of recordings that Ullmann made of conversations between her and her father very late in his life, conversations during which she and he were to explore the matter of growing old and, once completed, and using the tapes as source material, father and daughter were to have collaborated on a book. But, owing to the father’s decline, they became something else: a reckoning with loss while her father was alive. Ullmann’s other books are filled with voices, with shifts in point of view, but the voice of the father in “Unquiet” feels different, not a creation so much as a kind of visitation. Thus the book became in part about her father’s death, a death that allowed her to write the story of her life, of her parents’ love and of her own for them.

“It’s a subject,” Gulliksen told me, “she has been avoiding ... denying herself the possibility of even thinking about because she always feels that she has to tell people: ‘I’m a grown-up person and I’m a writer. I’m not the daughter of anyone.’ ”

In “Unquiet,” the parents have no names; rather, designations — Pappa, or sometimes the father, a filmmaker; Mamma, or sometimes the mother, an actress — Ullmann alternating freely between first person and third, sometimes saying “I” but at other times writing about “the girl,” as here on her father’s home, Hammars, on Faro, an island in the Baltic Sea:

Lots of things were dangerous. All the usual things, of course, like putting a plastic bag over your head (death by suffocation), walking around in wet underpants, swimsuits, or bikini bottoms (death by bladder infection), twisting a tick the wrong way when detaching it from the skin (death by blood poisoning), going swimming less than an hour after eating (death by cramps), accepting rides from strangers (death by kidnapping, rape, murder), taking candy from strangers (death by poisoning, possibly kidnapping, rape, murder) — but there were also other dangers specific to Hammars: Never touch the flotsam that washed up on the beach below the house, liquor bottles, packs of cigarettes, shampoo bottles, tin cans with labels in foreign languages, foreign lettering, don’t touch, don’t sniff, and for God’s sake don’t drink (death by poisoning), don’t sit in a draft (death by catching a cold), don’t catch a cold (death by expulsion from Hammars), don’t sit in the drying closet (death by suffocation, possibly electrocution), don’t be late (if you showed up late, death would be a consolation, death was, if anything, the only valid excuse for a lack of punctuality). Give this girl a map and she’ll follow it — she doesn’t break a single rule, except the one about not sitting in the closet. Ingrid had told her over and over again, but still the girl sneaked in to be enveloped by the warmth. Until the day she found a sheet of yellow notebook paper taped to the closet-door on which the father had written in big block capitals:

WARNING! IT IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN

FOR SWIMMING CHILDREN TO FREQUENT THE DRYING CLOSET!

The 184-word runaway train of a sentence at the heart of this passage tracks the path of parental prohibitions through “the girl’s” mind. Though the threats are grave, the touch is light, and the accumulated effect is one that believably conveys the feeling — dreadful, delightful — of a child’s point of view. The clarity and lack of fetter is characteristic of Ullmann’s way of seeing the world in prose and, in this case, of seeing the self as a third person.


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