‘I Don’t Want My Writing to Be Charming’

Late one November evening in her Oslo apartment, the Norwegian novelist Linn Ullmann told me a terrific story. We had been speaking for four days — in the apartment; in her writing studio; in restaurants and taxis; on the streets of Oslo — about her life and her art. We had surveyed the 20 years she has spent writing novels — the latest and sixth, “Unquiet,” appears in the United States this week — novels that have made her a household name in Scandinavia and are published in 35 languages; we had traced her winding path from birth in Oslo to a succession of schools in New York City (Juilliard, when she was dancing; Professional Children’s School, when she was modeling; New York University, when she was pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature), a city where she supposed she would make her life; and we had discussed Ullmann’s return to Oslo, where, now 52, she has lived for 30 years, and raised four children with her husband, the poet, novelist and playwright Niels Fredrik Dahl. The terrific story she told me that evening involved her late father and a phone call he made toward the end of his life. Ullmann’s telling of it was occasioned by a question I asked about long marriages, what she thought helped them flourish and endure. She and her husband, married nearly 20 years, have a gentle way with each other: Dahl’s hand would briefly come to rest on Ullmann’s shoulder; Ullmann’s feet would find Dahl’s lap at the end of a dinner party. The terrific story Ullmann told about her father and the phone call spoke sweetly and, I thought, meaningfully to that question. And yet it was also — Ullmann made clear, when she came to its conclusion — as far as she was concerned, not a terrific story: rather, an anecdote, one of many she has accumulated across her long, unusual life. But it was not the sort of story that she tells in public. More important, it was not the sort of story she exploits in her fiction. “I can’t stand anecdotes,” Ullmann said, cross-legged on her couch beneath a framed Alexander Calder lithograph, her voice rising at the end of her sentence as if to chase the final word away. “How do you define them?” “A story,” she said, “that’s good for dinner parties. I have thousands.” Such stories can be charming, I offered. That, Ullmann made clear, was the problem. “There was an old Danish poet,” Ullmann said, her fluent English inflected with round Norwegian vowels, “whom I interviewed in my early 20s. He and I talked about up-and-coming Danish writers. What about this writer? What about that writer? ‘This one,’ he said, ‘would be good if she wasn’t so charming. A writer ought not to be charming.’ ” “He was speaking of the person or their prose?” “The prose,” Ullmann said, pausing. “I […]

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