The Pearl Fisher

The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography

by Ingmar Bergman, translated by Joan Tate
Viking, 308 pp., $19.95
Ingmar Bergman
Ingmar Bergman; drawing by David Levine

I don’t mind being wild and free
If Ingmar Bergman fancies me.

Ingmar Bergman is a rare breed indeed: a director who has had a popular song written about him. He has also written an extraordinary, turbulent autobiography, The Magic Lantern. It received a rather sniffy dismissal when it was published in England some months ago. Perhaps because of its densely emotional kaleidoscopic shape or, more likely, because of the downright seriousness with which he attempts to define his own creative impulse and process.

And, too, he hated London when he was trapped there directing Hedda Gabler for Olivier’s National Theatre. With Olivier sorely ill and distracted, and himself rehearsing in squalid, makeshift physical conditions, he was welcomed with general unease, an inedible Javanese meal, and an uncouth actor who informed him, as if it were company doctrine, that Strindberg and Ibsen were unplayable dinosaurs, which “simply went to prove that bourgeois theatre was on its way out.” Reviling the distinguished guest is no longer a cultural sport confined to Australia. America, most welcoming of lands, has its own charmless cities of the plain and none more stylish in their treatment of strangers than those of California. He didn’t have much time for the stars of Los Angeles, or they for him; he fled the joint when Barbra Streisand invited him to cool off at her pool party. Understandably, to Sweden: “It was past eleven o’clock and a mild evening, everything at its most beautiful and fragrant. And then the Swedish light!”

The Swedish landscape is his lifeblood; Strindberg his god. The country’s stark Lutheranism incites his demons; its scolding silences provoke him to wild outpourings. He may describe it as “our remote cultural landscape,” but he has insinuated it unforgettably into the minds of millions across the globe.

The Magic Lantern is not, far from it, a literary memoir. Bergman’s minute recall is essentially, astonishingly, visual. Description after description stamp out scenes from his films. The man, his memory, his work are one, hammered into the Bergman coinage as indelibly mint as the desert of John Ford. Take this:

It is always summer, the huge double birches, rustling, the heat shimmering above the hills, people in light clothes on the terrace, the windows open, someone playing the piano, croquet balls rolling, goods trains shunting and signalling…. There is the fragrance of lily-of-the-valley, and heaps of roast veal. The children all have grazed knees and elbows.

Or again, remembering his first love affair: “We rowed across the bay, straight into all that motionlessness, the glinting of the sun and the indolent waves.” It’s a long, long way from London and Los Angeles.

His father, Pastor Bergman, was a chronic depressive who threatened suicide when he discovered his wife was having a passionate affair with another man. They stayed together, as the homely piety has it, “for the…

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