Linn Ullmann was born in Oslo in 1966. She graduated from New York University in 1988 and began work on her PhD the same year. In 1992 she permanently moved to Norway. After a few years as a radio reporter and co-editor of the literary journal ‘VAGANT’, she began her career as a journalist and literary critic for the daily newspaper ‘Dagbladet’, in which she later had her own column. Since 2000 she has been writing a regular political and cultural column for the daily newspaper ‘Aftenposten’. Ullmann’s first published work was an anthology of contemporary Norwegian literature which she edited: ‘Men jeg bor her ennå’ (1997; Engl: But I Live Here, Still). She co-wrote two books on social studies for classroom use in primary education (1996 and 1997) and also published a small book on the life and films of the Norwegian director Arne Skouen: ‘Yrke: regissør’ (1998: Engl: Profession: Director). Her three novels to date, ‘Før du sovner’ (1998; Engl: Before You Sleep, 1998), ‘Når jeg er hos deg’ (2001; Engl: ‘Stella Descending’, 2003) and ‘Nåde’ (2002; Engl: Grace, 2005), have all been international bestsellers and have met with a high level of critical acclaim. In 2002 she received the norske leserprisen for ‘Nåde’. Her latest novel, ‘Et Velsignet Barn’ (2005; Engl: A Child Blessed) tells the story of three half sisters, who trace an old family secret; while doing so, they remember the last summer of their childhood.
The inconstancy and fragility of human relationships, the perpetual solitude of man, the connection between truth and lies – these are the themes which run through Ullmann’s novels. The author is not interested in stories about heroes, but observes instead how fully ordinary people handle agonising and unusual situations and attempt to recover a lost sense of equilibrium by telling stories. Karin, for instance, the narrator of ‘Før du sovner’, waits – apparently in vain – with her small nephew for news of his travelling parents. While they wait, she tells him the story of her family, revolving around his mother’s wedding. Disjointed – as the (mostly female) characters are – the narrative itself is not linear, but rather jumps between temporal planes. The fact that Karin of all people is the narrator – the German title ‘Die Lügnerin’ (Engl: The Liar) refers to her – and therefore is a highly questionable source of knowledge, lends the novel an ever hovering uncertainty. A similar thing happens in ‘Når jeg er hos deg’: a couple are embracing on the roof of a house; at the very next moment the woman plunges to her death. Whether it was murder, suicide or an accident remains open. Like the reader, the policewoman carrying out the investigations gets to know many different versions of the truth. Portraits of the dead woman and the narrators themselves emerge – at once conflicting and incomplete – based on the individual voices of the dead woman’s teenage daughter, her very old friend and on video extracts of the couple. In her novel, ‘Nåde’, Ullmann depicts the ambiguity of human existence in a particularly poignant way. When Johan Sletten learns that he has only months to live, he bids his wife, a doctor, to put him out of his misery when his end approaches. However when the time comes, he changes his mind but can no longer articulate his thoughts. Without passing any moral judgment and in the same clear and unsentimental, yet likewise musical, tone in which her first novels were also written, Ullmann tells the story of a man who tries to maintain control over his life even in death. The novel is told as a series of flashbacks and traces Johan’s disruptions which even before this last big decision of his life pervaded his personality – however confident a character he considered himself to be.
Linn Ullmann, the daughter of Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann and the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, lives in Oslo with her husband, writer Niels Fredrik Dahl, their four children and a dog named Brando.
Translator: Ina Kronenberger
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