Toward the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, a beautiful young boy wanders into a beautiful room. The room is located in a rambling Uppsala apartment belonging to the boy’s widowed grandmother, Helena Ekdahl, once a famous actress and now the matriarch of a spirited and noisy theater family. As the camera follows the boy, Alexander, we note the elaborate fin-de-siècle decor, the draperies with their elaborate swags, the rich upholstery and carpets, the pictures crowding the walls, all imbued with the warm colors that, throughout the first part of the film, symbolize the Ekdahls’ warm (when not overheated) emotional lives. Later, after the death of Alexander’s kind-hearted father, Oscar, who is the lead actor of the family troupe, his widow rather inexplicably marries a stern bishop into whose bleak residence she and her children must move. At this point, the film’s visual palette will be leached of color and life; everything will be gray, black, coldly white.
But for now, vivacity and sensuality and even fantasy reign. On a mantelpiece, an elaborate gilt clock ticks, its golden cherubs preparing their mechanized dance. Nearby, a life-sized white marble statue of a nude woman catches the boy’s eye. When he blinks, she seems, Galatea-like, to come to life, one arm moving as if to beckon him to pleasures he has not yet even imagined; he blinks again, and the statue is just a statue once more. At that moment a violent rattling wakes him from his reverie: the maid is pouring coal into a stove.
The tension between the fantastical and the mundane, imagination and reality—symbolized above all by the difference between the aesthetically and emotionally extravagant Ekdahls and the tight-lipped bishop and his dour household—is one with which Bergman’s film is deeply preoccupied, from its opening shot of Alexander staring into a toy theater, to the scene a few moments later with the magically animated statue, to its final seconds, during which the grandmother recites the first lines of Strindberg’s A Dream Play: “On a flimsy framework of reality, imagination spins, weaving new patterns.”
To those familiar with Bergman’s life as well as his work, the opening of Fanny and Alexander is likely to provoke musings on the patterns that the imagination weaves on the framework of reality. For the room we see in the film is a version of a room that Bergman knew as a boy, which he describes in his 1987 autobiography, The Magic Lantern:
I can see the shimmering green of the drawing room, green walls, rugs, furniture, curtains, ferns in green pots. I can see the naked white lady with her arms chopped off. She is leaning slightly forward, looking at me with a small smile. A gilt clock under a glass dome stands on the bulging bureau with its gold fittings and feet.
This room—so clearly the model for the one in Fanny and Alexander—was part of the luxurious Uppsala apartment of the director’s widowed maternal grandmother, Anna Åkerblom, the matriarch of a noisy, comfortably well-off, emotionally colorful clan that, just as clearly, was the model for the fictional Ekdahls. The apartment, along with Anna’s summer house in Dalarna, would become places of refuge for the young Bergman as the marriage between his parents—Anna’s high-spirited and willful daughter Karin and Erik Bergman, the impoverished, “nervous, irritable, and depressive” Lutheran pastor whom she married against her family’s wishes—disintegrated.
Bergman would recreate both the setting and the family in film after film, from early masterpieces such as Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries (in both of which we find avatars of the refreshingly unsentimental grandmother; the beautiful, headstrong, confused mother; the severe, humorless father; the rambunctious relatives) to Fanny and Alexander a quarter-century later. But as he entered old age and grew increasingly exasperated with filmmaking (in The Magic Lantern he writes dismissively of the “perfectionist restriction” that, he felt, characterized his later work), the director turned to another medium, one that would allow him to revisit one particular “framework of reality”—his parents’ lives and doomed marriage—and weave an entirely new kind of pattern from it. That medium was fiction.
The Magic Lantern oscillates, sometimes uncomfortably, between family memoir and career retrospective. With its summoning of old ghosts, it seems to have freed up some new creative energies in Bergman; he wrote the three autobiographical novels that followed in a remarkable creative rush between the ages of seventy-three and seventy-eight. The Best Intentions, a dramatization of his parents’ improbable courtship and troubled marriage that’s punctuated by conversations (real or imagined) with Erik and Karin (referred to in the novel by the pseudonyms “Anna” and “Henrik”) in their old age, came out in 1991; Sunday’s Children, which focuses on a precarious moment in the young Ingmar’s relationship with his forbidding father, in 1993; and Private Confessions, a series of six brief stories, each featuring his mother at a crucial moment in her emotional and spiritual life, in 1996.*
The Best Intentions, the longest of the three, is the most theatrical. A good deal of the novel consists of stacked chunks of dialogue, presented as if in a script, and embedded in passages that feel more like stage directions than expository prose. Here, for example, is a moment from the first few pages of the book, when the young divinity student Henrik Bergman—already set in his self-righteous ways—confronts his elderly grandfather, who has sought the youth out on behalf of his dying wife, who wants to make amends for the way she and her husband have treated the boy and his widowed mother. (We learn that, upon the premature death of Henrik’s father, the Bergmans abandoned his widow, Alma, and young son to poverty—a circumstance that warps his character, as he himself later acknowledges, leaving him able to function only when he is in a state of “privation.”) This crucial early moment tells us much about Henrik and indeed all the Bergmans—and much about the author’s stylistic and thematic ambitions:
Fredrik Bergman: Your grandmother and I have been talking about you over the past few days.
Someone out in the corridor laughs, then walks quickly away. A clock strikes three quarters past the hour.
Fredrik Bergman: Your grandmother says, and has said for a great many years, that we wronged you and your mother. I maintain each and every man is responsible for his own life and his own actions. Your father broke away from us and moved elsewhere with his family. That was his decision and his responsibility….
Henrik (suddenly): Grandfather, if you have summoned me here to clarify your attitude toward my mother and myself, then I have known that as long as I can remember. Everyone is responsible for himself. And his deeds. In that we are agreed. Please, may I go now? I’m actually studying for my exams. I’m sorry Grandmother is ill. Perhaps you would be so kind as to give her my regards.
In The Magic Lantern, Bergman describes his parents as people whose “beliefs, values, and traditions [were] of no help to them.” In The Best Intentions, he dramatizes that failure—the ways we are often confined as well as defined by our understanding of who we are; the tragic grip that history and character exert on our ambitions and desires—in every branch of his family, as Åkerbloms and Bergmans of various generations, not only Anna and Henrik but also their various relatives, repeatedly come together and make one another miserable. The novel’s slightly distancing “dramatic” style, which allows us to witness these interesting, intelligent, and often wrongheaded characters as they go about their lives, letting us hear what they say and see what they do without (as is possible in a certain kind of novel) making us privy to thoughts or motivations that aren’t revealed in dialogue or action, accentuates our sense of the “tragedy of character,” of a dark fate moving inexorably to its conclusion.
This hybrid style, deployed across the novel’s nearly three hundred pages, allows Bergman to track his doomed protagonists’ fates in great detail and with considerable sweep. Take Henrik, whom the story follows from youth to old age: he is revealed as someone who, over the course of that eight-decade-long arc, could never break out of the straitjacketed assumptions of his paltry background. Fearful, awkward, smothered by his needy mother, Alma (“You’re all I have, I live for you and you alone”)—in a word, “eclipsed” by life, as his more self-aware wife will one day sum it up—he is all too clearly a man who uses the rigor and strictures of organized religion to prop up a hopelessly crippled inner self.
As such, he’s the worst possible match for the vivacious, spoiled Anna Åkerblom, a young woman who is shown to be driven by confident ideas about how things ought to be, by preconceived notions about, rather than by the realities of, life. “Do you understand what an unbeatable combination we will be,” she excitedly tells young Henrik soon after her brother introduces him at one of the Åkerbloms’ lively dinners. “You a priest and me a nurse…. You bandage the soul, and I the body.” Anna blithely sees life as a grand play in which everyone has roles; on the day of her wedding she’s “rather like an actress just about to go onstage in an incomparable, brand-new part.” When her headstrong fantasies encounter reality, only disaster can result. Bergman’s novel is the record of that disaster—of the “life catastrophe” (a recurring phrase in all three novels) that results when imagination weaves its webs in life rather than art.
The only character who successfully distinguishes between imagination and reality, who has a clear vision of the tragedy in the making after Anna and Henrik meet, is the girl’s mother, Karin Åkerblom. Practical, strong-minded, competent at managing her two children and three stepsons, deliciously lacking in sentiment or romanticism, coolly sensible when everyone else is befuddled by self-interest or self-delusion, she is clearly an incarnation of Bergman’s maternal grandmother. (As are her cinematic sisters: Desirée Armfeldt’s crisply realistic mother in Smiles of a Summer Night, the frostily matter-of-fact mother of Isak Borg in Wild Strawberries.) Karin stands as a figure of reality, of the world as it is, while, in their different ways, both Anna and Henrik are figures of a twisted “art”—of the attempt to impose imagination or fantasy on an unresponsive world.
This familiar Strindbergian theme is underscored in The Best Intentions by an ingenious device to which the author turns more than once: the juxtaposition of some ostensibly documentary evidence from the “real life” that he’s fictionalizing—a photograph he has found of this or that relative or an entry in someone’s diary—with his novelistic reconstruction of the person or incident in question. This technique can shed ironic light on the characters. A passage, for instance, when Bergman quotes a diary entry by Henrik’s mother, Alma, after she meets her future daughter-in-law for the first time: “Henrik came with his fiancée. She is surprisingly beautiful and he seems happy. Fredrik Paulin called in the evening. He talked about tedious things from the past. That was inappropriate and made Henrik sad.”
This text is cited, pointedly, at the end of a long passage that has dramatized the moment that Alma so tersely summarizes in her diary: the visit by Anna, the interruption of the family friend, Fredrik. But what Alma neglects to mention—or rather, what Bergman the novelist has her neglect to mention—is that one of the “tedious things” that Fredrik talked on and on about was the conflict between Henrik Bergman and his guilty grandparents. Fredrik reveals that the grandmother has, in fact, died, an event about which young Henrik, all too characteristically, shows no emotion. This passage brings us back to his novel’s opening scene, the dialogue between the unyielding young man and his unyielding grandfather, and thereby serves to remind us, at the very moment Henrik is to be married, of his crippling flaws—just as the citation of the diary entry sheds light on the self-involved silliness of the smothering mother, who fusses over the beauty of her future daughter-in-law while remaining blind to the faults in her son that will, in the end, bring down their marriage.
Karin Åkerblom, needless to say, has no illusions about her daughter’s intended. Quite early in The Best Intentions, she tries to talk sense to Henrik, who persists in his courtship of Anna out of a helpless conviction that he can somehow transform himself into someone who fits into her and her family’s life. Karin dismisses Henrik and his delusions like someone swatting a fly away:
I believe a liaison with you, Mr. Bergman, would lead to catastrophe. That is a strong word and I know it may seem exaggerated, but nonetheless, I must use the word. A major catastrophe. I cannot think of a more impossible and fateful combination than between our Anna and Henrik Bergman. Anna is a spoiled girl, willful, strong-willed, emotional, tenderhearted, extremely intelligent, impatient, melancholy and cheerful at the same time. What she needs is a mature man who can nurture her with love, firmness, and unselfish patience. You are a very young man, Mr. Bergman, with little insight into life, with, I fear, early and deep wounds beyond remedy or consolation. Anna will despair in her helpless attempts to heal and cure.
This is, of course, precisely what happens, from the courtship itself through a near breakup to the early years of the marriage—a wretched arc that The Best Intentions relentlessly traces, leaving us, at the end, with the picture of an uneasy truce, of a husband and wife who are horribly aware of the colossal mistake they made and yet seem powerless to repair. (A quarrel in a church over whether to have a tiny or grandiose wedding, which almost shipwrecks the engagement, makes it clear—at least to the reader—what the problems in their relationship will be, but by this point the couple are too attached to their illusions about each other, and about what their life together will be, to change course.)
Against the delusion stands the lone figure of Karin, a marvelous fictional creation—one of those appealing realists you encounter from time to time in European fiction, from Count Mosca in The Charterhouse of Parma to Aunt Sarah in Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy, memorable secondary characters who perceive the emotional folly of the protagonists but can do nothing to stop them. As indeed they mustn’t, since without the folly we wouldn’t have the novel—or, in this case, the novelist.
Without the folly so meticulously autopsied in The Best Intentions we wouldn’t have Sunday’s Children or Private Confessions, either. Each of these short books can be read as a freestanding work. And yet like moons drawn into the gravitational field of a large planet, they are irresistibly attached to their more ample predecessor, shedding light on its characters and themes even as they slowly illuminate fascinating landscapes of their own.
In contrast to the fervent and verbose drama of The Best Intentions, Sunday’s Children evokes with an almost Jamesian subtlety—you think of What Maisie Knew—a young child’s growing consciousness of his parents’ marital distress. (The title refers to the fact that, in fairy tales, a “Sunday’s child” is thought to have clairvoyant powers.) It is the summer of 1926, and Bergman’s fictional alter ego, Pu, and his older brother sense that something is wrong between their parents (who, rather confusingly for those reading all three of these novels, are here given the real-life names of Bergman’s parents, Karin and Erik), whose attempts to mask their true feelings don’t deceive their sensitive child: “He doesn’t like listening when Mother and Father use that particularly friendly tone of voice.”
The plot, such as it is, is gossamer. Early on, we learn that Erik has been invited to preach in Grånäs, a town some distance away, and has asked the eight-year-old Pu to accompany him, which throws the troubled young boy’s conflicted feelings into high relief. On the one hand, Pu, who along with his brother has suffered from Erik’s physically violent outbursts, dreams of killing his father, of making him “pray and weep and scream with fear”; on the other, he craves Erik’s attention. The tentative interaction between the father, who is all too aware of his son’s ill-concealed reluctance to be with him—a reluctance justified by a moment of violence aboard the ferry taking them to the town where he will preach—and the son, who can barely account for his incoherent feelings, is the achievement of this slender work, at once delicately rendered and deeply moving.
Delicately rendered, because Bergman has the good sense not to press his themes and characters too far. Much of the novel is given to the ephemera of that long-ago summer, the meals and the outings, the confused encounters with adult sexuality (at one point Pu hears his older brother masturbating in the next bed but isn’t quite sure what’s going on), the elderly relatives with their endless talk of bodily functions gone awry. This, as well as the crises and the real dramas, the fear of catastrophe and death, is also the stuff of life: another recurrent Bergmanian theme. “While we talk, life passes,” the narrator muses, quoting Chekhov.
But the novel derives additional force from our reading of The Best Intentions. Among other things, it vividly depicts the side effects—“collateral damage” may be a better phrase—of the doomed union shown in the earlier work: the damaged children reenacting on each other the parents’ cruelties, the fearful atmosphere, the tensions always simmering just below the surface so agonizingly that some kind of explosion would, like a storm on a muggy summer day, come as a relief. There is in fact a storm in Sunday’s Children, and it does come as a climax, but whether it provides any relief is open to question.
When the confrontation does come, it is fifty years too late, and one of the aggrieved parties isn’t even there to fight. In a flash-forward to the 1960s, the fifty-year-old Bergman visits his now-widowed father, who has recently discovered and read his late wife’s diaries, in which she refers to her marriage as a “life catastrophe.” (That fateful phrase again.) Reading them, the narrator’s elderly father declares, is a “hell on Earth.” These are strong words from a Lutheran pastor; but who is the punisher, and does his suffering have meaning? Or do we create our own hells? These are old questions for Bergman the filmmaker, but in his novel he refuses to show his hand. The past is the past, its pleasures and pains all dust: Sunday’s Children holds that past, with the pleasure and the pain, gratefully in its hands. The embrace of an exquisite ambivalence gives to this work a persuasive reality—nowhere more so than at the very end, when an accident resulting from that summer storm appears to give young Pu what he has dreamed of. Whether he really wants it is, of course, another question.
What we want and what we sacrifice to get it is the theme of Private Confessions. The title of the novel is an allusion to Martin Luther: as one of the characters reminds us early on, Luther didn’t abolish confession, he recommended replacing it with “private conversation.” The novel proceeds as a series of six such conversations, each one focusing on a pivotal moment in Anna’s spiritual life as she navigates the disintegration of her marriage to Henrik. (In this novel, Bergman resumes using these pseudonyms for the parents.)
Four of the six conversations take place in the 1920s, when Anna is in her late thirties and carrying on an adulterous affair with a young musician, Tomas. In the first, she seeks out a family friend who’s a pastor, Uncle Jacob, for spiritual advice about her crisis, which she describes in terms that will, by now, be familiar to the reader of these novels. (“We are moving close to a catastrophe,” Anna desperately says of her life with Henrik. “A life catastrophe.”) In the second conversation, we see that she has heeded Jacob’s advice to tell her husband the truth about her affair: a scene that, like similar moments in the previous novels, only confirms Henrik’s inability to be other than he has always been—terrifying in his self-righteousness, incapable of yielding on even the smallest points. An argument that the two have over some spots he notices on a tablecloth, which escalates and ends up serving as a metaphor for the entire marriage, is one of the most unsettling scenes of marital discord I can recall reading.
Subsequent conversations provocatively disturb the chronology. The third, a charged encounter between Anna and her indomitable but ineffective mother, is set a few months before the one in which she approaches Jacob for his advice—suggesting that she has turned to the old pastor as a last resort, hoping to get from him support that she can’t get from anyone else. The fourth, set two years earlier, relates a botched assignation between Anna and Tomas, in which the young man’s limitations, and the improbability of their affair, are made uncomfortably plain. Once again, we understand, Anna has set her sights on an inappropriate man. What the warped chronology reveals is that Anna, being Anna—she is, after all, the same headstrong woman we first met in The Best Intentions—proceeds anyway.
Anna’s ambiguities have already been evoked in an early passage that shows Bergman skillfully wielding a traditional technique he’s avoided in the other novels—free indirect discourse. Here she tries to decide whether to reach out to Jacob or to her callow young lover:
What if she tried to get hold of Tomas instead? Just to find out what mood he is in, not to tell him about confessions or press him to say anything consoling or meaningful…. She stands with her head lowered, her finger to her lips as if requesting silence. No, not Tomas, not at the moment. Not later, either; perhaps never. Confession presumably entails something shattering and final. Anyhow, something mysterious, which she does not dare include in her vision. There are short moments that muscle into life when she grasps the content, the exact content, of her situation. Then she reaches out and grasps the back of a chair and for a moment is utterly aware of the chill emanating from the sculptured white wood.
Once again, knowledge of the earlier novels fills out the picture: in the woman who, quite literally, grasps at concrete realities in a moment of emotional crisis, Anna reveals herself to be very much her mother’s child. And yet, unlike her mother, she has never been able to tame her fantasies of what life ought to be like, to adapt the role she yearns to enact to the play she finds herself in.
The conflict evoked in this passage—between the abstract, spiritual world represented by the word “confession,” on the one hand, and the concrete realities of life, on the other hand, here symbolized by the hard, carved wood of the chair—haunts all of the conversations in this work, the most overtly religious of all three novels; but nowhere more strikingly than in the fifth part. We’re now in the mid-1930s, and the middle-aged Anna has a final conversation with the dying Jacob, who is curious to know how her life turned out. But even this deathbed scene offers no pat resolutions, gives no obvious answers. In a scene that is wholly consistent with the Bergman aesthetic, both cinematic and literary, juxtaposing as it does the mysterious and sacred with the deeply mundane crudities of physicality, a solemn moment—Jacob and his wife take Communion together and ask the doubtful Anna to join them—is suddenly shattered when the elderly pastor vomits out the wafer and the wine.
Bergman is right to subtitle the last of these “confessions” as both an epilogue and a prologue. For even though it is set decades before those earlier conversations take place, it brings us full circle to the beginning, not only of this novel but of the entire cycle, of the tragedy of character, self-delusion, and belated self-awareness, that lurks behind all three novels. Once again, Anna is talking to Jacob, but this time we get to overhear the conversation that set all the others in motion, providing crucial insight into why those others had to take place.
It is 1907 and Anna is seventeen and about to be confirmed, but on the eve of the ceremony she seeks out the kindly pastor to express her reservations. The two have a long conversation about religion, during which Jacob reveals the “factual basis” for his belief in the miracle of Christianity. (He sees the remarkably swift growth of the early church as a miraculous historical proof of the validity of the church’s message.) Anna, who, Jacob can’t help noticing, is wearing a hat far too grown-up and sophisticated for her, appears to be unmoved, and the two leave the church and stroll in the strong wind along the water for a while. Suddenly the girl lets the wind whip the hat into the water, and in a moment of “astonished appreciation” Jacob realizes that she’s done it to please him. In that moment, the whole of her future life seems to be laid bare. If she does decide to be confirmed, we understand, it will be for a trifle—because she doesn’t want to disappoint Mamma and her guests or have her “lovely confirmation dress” go to waste. Or perhaps because she wants to please this man whom she has decided she likes.
In the tormented young mother who appears in this and the other novels, Bergman has created one of his most memorable characters—one not quite like any of the women familiar from his cinematic work. In Fanny and Alexander, we know strikingly little about Alexander’s mother: why a woman who’s been married to the sensitive and charming actor-manager could choose the cruel bishop, why she so readily accedes to his bizarre demand that she strip herself of her family, her friends, her clothes and jewels—and that her children do the same—before entering his household. (“Naked,” she jokes when he asks her; but he’s not laughing.) You could argue that we don’t know because the film unfolds from the child’s point of view, and that to Alexander, as to all small children, his parents, their motivations and actions, are opaque.
But once you’ve read Bergman’s autobiographical novels—works dominated by his mother’s “life catastrophe,” to which he so obsessively returns, a mystery whose decipherment requires him to imagine, among other things, his mother losing her virginity, his mother making love to her lover—it’s hard not to think that it was only in fiction that he could allow himself to fully reanimate the real-life Anna Åkerblom Bergman, to weave a bold new portrait of her. “The theater is my wife,” he is said to have declared, “and the cinema is my mistress.” In order to go back to the beginning, to explore with such startling intimacy the archetype of all those other women, this great artist has to find a new mode of expression—one that was, so to speak, neither wife nor mistress. A virgin medium.
If this is so, then it is fitting that the final scene in Private Confessions, a novel whose closing lines conjure the image of a girl in her white confirmation dress, brings not only the book but the entire trilogy to its close. At the end of his life, it was perhaps inevitable that Bergman should evoke this primal moment, from which everything would evolve. Earlier in the novel—this is during the second conversation, when Anna confesses her adultery to Henrik—the author self-consciously intervenes in his narrative to opine (tongue in cheek, you have to think) that the concept of a “decisive moment” in a fictional narrative is just a figment of dramatists’ imagination, something that rarely happens in real life:
The truth is probably that such moments hardly exist but it just looks as if they do…. If looked at carefully, the moment is not at all decisive: for a long time, emotions and thoughts have consciously or unconsciously been flowing in the same direction. The actual breakthrough is a fact far back in the past, far back in obscurity.
Anna’s decisive moment, at the end of the novel that her son devoted to reanimating her, seems to be a whim, but says everything about her that we need to know. Whatever our intentions, however clever or clairvoyant we feel ourselves to be, however great our yearning to confess and start afresh, character, for all of us, is destiny. The unfolding of that destiny, the delving into the obscurity whence it proceeds, is the work of artists—filmmakers, playwrights, novelists. But the hidden logic that connects our end to our beginning is also the province of priests. Who better than the son of a pastor to know that the alpha and the omega are one and the same?
A version of this essay appeared in Norwegian as the introduction to Romantrilogin: Den goda viljan; Söndagsbarn; Enskilda samtal, published by Forlaget Press in February. ↩