A brilliant meditation on time, mortality, and the limits of memory.
Ullmann is a journalist, a literary critic, and the author of several novels—most recently The Cold Song (2014). She is also the daughter of the actor Liv Ullmann and the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This memoir in the shape of a novel—or novel based on memoir—began as a series of conversations the writer had with her father shortly before he died. While much of the book is devoted to her early life—when her father was fit and commanding—a sense of loss permeates the narrative. Ullmann recounts the precise instant when it became clear that the man she knew was gone: The studiously punctual Bergman is late to meet her for a movie showing, a daily ritual that has been part of his life for decades. Ullmann is shocked in the moment, but it’s only in retrospect that she recognizes it for what it is. The recordings Ullmann made—which appear in transcript form throughout the book—function more as talismans than as documentary evidence of the man her father was. The sound quality is poor. The conversation is halting, and there are gaps in Bergman’s memory. What Ullmann wants to capture is already in the process of disappearing. So, she’s left with her own memories. Certainly, her memories are singular. Bergman had multiple wives and mistresses and many, many children and grandchildren, all of whom come and go on the isolated island where the director has made his home. Ullmann’s situation is exceptional, but the emotional experiences she describes are poignant and accessible. When she recounts scenes from her childhood, she sometimes speaks in the first person and she sometimes calls herself “the girl,” underscoring the sense in which past selves are constructions we create in the present. And, of course, her memories of her father as a younger man may be vivid, but they are no more reliable than those garbled digital recordings of her father in his decline. Ullmann’s prose is elegant (her translator deserves some credit for this), sharp, and occasionally funny. But the mood of this work as a whole is elegiac. “Can I,” she asks, “mourn people who are still alive?”
Gorgeous and heartbreaking.