Largely unheralded, the Swedish director's fiction was no less haunting than his feature films
A personal anecdote, if you’ll permit me: during one point in my college years, I was deemed angst-ridden enough to warrant not only twice-a-week therapy sessions, but also attendance at a weekly group for people similarly angst-ridden. It was during this period—and this is certainly unfortunate timing—that I watched Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona, the haunting tale of a cheerful nurse, played by Bibi Andersson, and her selectively mute ward, played by Liv Ullman, whose personalities begin to blend together in sinister, mysterious ways. I was just as captivated by the stark cinematography of Bergman’s longtime collaborator, Sven Nykvist, as I was by the existential struggle of Ullman’s character, an actress who has lost her luster for role-playing on stage and in life. It seemed as if a speech delivered by a psychiatrist early in the film (which contains such maudlin gems as “The hopeless dream of being—not seeming, but being”) was somehow meant just for me. I regaled the other group members with the lessons I had learned from watching the movie, using Bergman’s bleak rationales as a counter-argument to the group therapist’s insistence that we all try to lead happier, more productive lives. A few days later, my individual psychologist told me that the group therapist had called her because she was “concerned” about me.
“Watch out,” the group therapist had said, “she’s watching a lot of Bergman.”
Bergman’s name alone is a linguistic shortcut of sorts. To say that someone is “into Bergman” is to suggest that this person is also 1) preoccupied with a God almost certainly absent, 2) interested in the dynamic between genders, and what hope we have of really connecting with our lovers (spoiler alert: not much) and 3) desirous of self-knowledge, but not convinced that such a thing is attainable, and on and on. Bergman’s films are rarely action-packed. Instead, they are usually quiet affairs featuring characters wracked with metaphysical concerns and trapped in enmeshed, unhappy relationships, these conflicts communicated often via images bathed in natural light. Only two of his films really deal with subject matter outside the scope of the individual psyche—the rest, he said, were sculpted from memories of his youth.
* * *
“I have maintained open channels with my childhood. Sometimes in the night, when I am on the limit between sleeping and being awake, I can just go through a door into my childhood… I remember the silent street where my grandmother lived, the sudden aggressivity of the grown-up world, the terror of the unknown and the fear from the tension between my father and mother.”
Bergman told Michiko Kakutani the above for a Times Magazine profile in 1983, but I read the quote first in his obituary, which is where I also learned that, in addition to leaving behind nearly fifty films, he’d written three novels in his lifetime. At the heart of this trilogy—written between 1990 and 1994, after he officially retired from directing—is his parents’ tumultuous courtship, and the ensuing long but unhappy marriage. In the first installment, titled The Best Intentions, we are introduced to Henrik Bergman, a twenty-three year old divinity student. Things aren’t going so well for young Henrik: in the opening scene of the book, he refuses to make amends with his dying grandmother, then fails his oral exams, knowing that his mother cannot afford to pay for the extra six months of schooling incurred. On top of this, he has a sweet but simple fiancée, a big-bosomed waitress named Frida, but although they’ve been betrothed for two years and living together for almost as long, he hasn’t told anyone about her. All Henrik’s struggles might be looked on as surmountable by a normal fellow, but a normal fellow Henrik is not. No, Henrik is self-pitying, awkward, often unsympathetic, and moody. As the narrator puts it, “[Henrik] lived in a mire of his own constraints and other people’s expectations.” (It’s likely that the real-life Ingmar, who was estranged from his father for years, inherited his fader’s dyspepsia; in interviews, he often said he was a “humorless” child.)
Henrik is generally dismal company, but that doesn’t stop his choir chum Ernst from inviting him over to his family’s house for dinner, where he meets Ernst’s sister Anna, a “small and neat but well-developed” woman. She is also, we are told, the story’s main character, the future wife of Henrik the Dour and the future mother of Ingmar. Anna comes across immediately as Henrik’s opposite: warm, capricious, witty, and confident. From the moment these two meet, it is easy to guess what will happen to them: they have a few brief moments of bliss followed by a dramatic courtship. They will marry, and will be immediately plunged into a gloomy union. There will be gnashing of teeth and name-calling, abandonment and alienation. In Bergman films, it is not so much the story as the telling; in his writing, the words and sentiment trump the plot.
Early on, the reader realizes it will be virtually impossible to escape Ingmar Bergman’s narrative presence, especially as Bergman fils frequently announces the ways in which he’s controlling and fictionalizing the story. These cheeky narrative tics are some of the most interesting and yet the most aggravating things about the entire trilogy. As an example, early in The Best Intentions, he explains, or rather tells us why he won’t explain, the confusing name-swapping he’s done.
“… Anna, my mother, whose name was really Karin [his fictional grandmother’s name]. I neither want to nor am able to explain why I have this need to mix up and change names: my father’s name was Erik, my maternal grandmother’s was Anna. Oh, well, perhaps it’s all part of the game—and a game it is.”
Bergman continues to make his narrative presence known in more and less subtle ways throughout all three of the books. At one point, Bergman even goes so far as to tell the reader how he ought to be reacting to a certain event. He has a way of meticulously listing the details of a room that is reminiscent of descriptions in scripts. “The narrow sagging bed. The broken wicker chair with cushions, the rickety desk with its old wounds from the ravages of his penknife, the unmatched chairs.” Indeed, in The Best Intentions, a vast majority of the dialogue is separated from the descriptive text as if it were a screenplay. By way of explanation, Bergman offers in his prologue, “I wrote as I have been used to writing for fifty years, in cinematic, dramatic form.” The effect is slightly befuddling, and occasionally one wonders whether or not the text was really a means to a filmic end, if it had been meant to be a movie all along. It gives one the impression that Bergman was trying to backdoor his way into filmmaking after having announced his retirement, which casts a light pall over the reading experience—and in fact, the book was eventually adapted for the screen by the Danish director Billie August.
* * *
Fast-forward eight years to the beginning of the second installment, Sunday’s Children. The Bergman family is at their rundown summer cottage (the summer house is a basic necessity for all Swedish families regardless of socioeconomic standing, especially in Bergman’s rendering of his homeland). Ingmar, known as Pu, is eight. He has an older brother, a ruthless tormentor named Dag, and a fat baby sister Lillian. The house at Dufnas, which bears an architectural resemblance to Noah’s Ark, is a place of enchantment. Unhappy badgers, “sleepy flies,” and litters of wild kittens surround the house, and the grounds bump up against a wild forest full of small flowers, wild raspberries growing on prickly stalks, and the ghosts of the town’s infamous suicide, a clockmaker whose demise is the cause of much fascination for young Pu. Bergman sets these descriptions of pastoral charm aside hilarious, scatological scenes, including one that involves Pu escorting his wobbly obese aunt to the outhouse and listening to her noisily defecate and wail from digestive pain.
Of all the books, Sunday’s Children is the one that is the purest fun to read, and the most easily accessible. It’s more similar, one might say, to Wild Strawberries than to the abstruse and mystical Persona. It is also the one in which the difficulty between Erik and Karin—yes, Bergman uses his parents’ real names here, but then switches back to the original pseudonyms for Private Confessions—is sculpted in highest relief. This is because the story is told not from the point of view of one member of the unhappy married duo, but from the position of a child, an automatically more trustworthy narrator, as children lack the personal baggage and overly active Super Ego that makes adults such unreliable judges of their own troubles. This wispy novel covers but a few days in the lives of the Bergmans, but in it, Bergman manages to paint a breathing portrait of a household held hostage by tension. Indeed, though he is often accused of being willfully esoteric in his films, he is at his least pretentious here in Sunday’s Children, his choice of similes in particular wonderfully humorous and playful. Pu’s mother, he says, is “prettier than the Virgin Mary and Lillian Gish,” while a young parishioner’s lilting accent sounds like “uphill and downhill” and a hygienically-challenged shopkeeper’s breath “hovers like a sharp note of a flute above the aggregate redolence of other smells.” Reading this book, one can’t help but wonder if looking through the eyes of a sinless child helps to temper Bergman’s penchant for obsessive conversation and lets him instead rely on the small, wordless moments in the life of a family.
* * *
The final book of the trilogy, Private Confessions, is the most claustrophobic of the bunch. It’s 1925 now; the children are almost wholly absent from the story, as are the jolly maids and animal companions. Now, we are alone with Anna, who has damaged her already fraught relationship by having an affair with a young divinity student. She seems mostly resigned to the life she’s chosen, but she does eventually tell her husband of her infidelity. Henrik, usually so childish and prone to outbursts, reacts with an eerie acceptance, but soon thereafter has a nervous breakdown. The long and sad tale of Anna and Henrik Bergman ends with a visit to the elderly parish priest, Jacob, who is very close to death. Another priest, who has been asked to deliver communion, arrives at the house, so Anna, trapped, sits through the process but refuses the wafer. During the hymn that concludes it, Jacob seizes and vomits out the body of Christ.
It is fitting that the trilogy ends on a note about God, as God is the constant negative space in any Bergman creation, a father who was maybe once there, but left unceremoniously one evening, as though a deadbeat dad who disappeared on his way to pick up milk. For Bergman and his family—the real one as well as the fictional one—God’s absence isn’t just a hole, but a gaping wound, one that aches and bleeds. Even the clerics in this epic are surprisingly open about the doubts they harbor. Henrik, in The Best Intentions, goes so far as to declare, “I speak, and God says nothing.” Having a minister for a father—this type of oddly dispassionate minister, especially—was something that never ceased influencing Ingmar, and when you read the books and revisit the films, you see his childhood played out over and over again, just like he told Kakutani it had. There, in Through a Glass Darkly, is the warm, lovely woman grasping at lucidity, and there, in Fanny and Alexander, the large Swedish family grappling with faith and lifestyle. There, in Sunday’s Children, is the image on a church windowpane of death leading its minions to dance, as he does in The Seventh Seal. God and death—the two ephemeral constants for Bergman, the two horrors Anna sees as she watches Jacob spasm moments after he tells her, wearily, that “death takes its time.” Death—what Pu touches when he meets the ghost of the clockmaker in a dream and asks him when he, Pu, will pass on.
“Always,” the clockmaker says.
Affected, yes, and somewhat soppy, but haunting, true, and oh so very Bergman.
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