– This story has hung over me, says Linn Ullmann about the novel that came out this week, “Girl, 1983”.
– I have tried to write this book since I started as an author in 1998. I have started writing about the same event many times, in completely different forms, but those books have suddenly become something else. So, this summer, I found the shape I needed. And then I suddenly wrote the book very fast.
A pale November sun shines its faint afternoon rays between bare trees somewhere along the Akerselva, in the district where much of the book takes place. Linn Ullmann is safely wrapped in a hat and gig scarf, and seems happy and relieved to have finished the novel that has taken a whole life to write.
For this drug has roots far back in time. In 1983, 16-year-old Linn struggled to go to Paris alone, against her mother’s wishes. She had been invited to a photo shoot in the fashion mecca by a well-known photographer. In a strange way, the young girl ended up in the bed of the middle-aged photographer the very first night.
This event is briefly depicted in Ullmann’s previous, award-winning novel “The Restless” (2015). But finally, the 16-year-old girl has got her own novel, and critics both praise the book and crying a splash.
NRK’s reviewer: Linn Ullmann balances elegantly on the knife edge
Reveals trilogy project
Ullmann’s last two novels stand out by having a stronger autobiographical expression. Among other things, “The Restless” has a picture of children-Linn and father Ingmar on the cover, while it is a teenage-Linn who sees the reader right in the eyes of “Girl, 1983”.
Now Ullmann reveals that she has had long-term plans for a larger project:
– These two books are intended as part of a planned trilogy, says Ullmann.
– I did not dare say that when “The restless” came out, in case something should go wrong. But the three novels will each have their own main theme: memories, desires and rage.
It is not free for the three different themes to mix with each other in the different books. Memories, for example, are also important in “Girl, 1983”, and, it should turn out, rage:
– I have had a violent rage against the girl, who got lost, who has no sense of place, who did not fix those situations. No of the situations she is faced with, she fixes, says Ullmann with emphasis.
– It has been some of the difficulty of writing this book, because I have been so pissed at that girl, But I think that when I turned the rage into openness and curiosity, the story became much easier to tell.
– Rage? Did you not realize that you may have been abused?
– Synes of it’s an abuse?
Suddenly it is the author who asks the journalist questions:
– Because I want it to be up to the reader to decide what it is. I do not own this book anymore. But the story has changed in me. It’s milder in “The Restless,” it’s more brutal here.
16-year-olds also have existential stories
Ullmann is not looking to simplify the girl of 16 and hang out the man of 44. She is quick to emphasize:
– 16 year old girls are complicated. People like to automatically resort to the idea of a victim when talking about young girls. But I want to show that the stories of 16-year-olds can be as acutely existential as books about older men strolling around and pondering in a foggy landscape, she says, referring to male writers she holds very high, such as WG Sebald and Thomas Bernhard.
So who is this girl with the blue coat and red hat who got lost in Paris? Why does she do as she does? The narrator does not escape the fact that the girl is a driving force in her own life. A teenager who sees his beautiful mother get attention, and longs to be seen, and to find out who their is. It is a girl full of lust, both sexually and in life.
– She is full of desires that come and go, which she has no control over, so she almost gets sick of it. But what I have wondered for almost 40 years is whether it was arranged for her to end up with the photographer, whether it was systemic.
To take power over the gaze
Ullmann weaves in quotes from other authors. The book opens with an epigraph, a quote from a fairy tale, about Kvitebjørn king Valemon:
In Kvitebjørn King Valemon, there are three sisters who are allowed to sit on the bear’s lap. But only the youngest thinks it is delicious and exciting. The fairy tale is about desire. The bear robs her to his castle and forbids her to look at him at night. But she has a small candle that she lights, and discovers that he is human at night. There are complicated ties between the two.
In the novel, the candle has its parallel: The girl in Paris in 1983 wakes up at night in the photographer’s bed and lifts the sheet. The heat of lust has subsided, and now she sees an older male body, limp and snoring. While the adult star photographer during the day has observed and assessed her through his camera lens, it is now the girl’s turn to look at and judge him. This scene is central, says Ullmann:
– Who owns the gaze? Who decides what we are going to look at? The girl experiences it almost as obscene and overwhelming and liberating, all at once. Looking at a naked sleeping person gives enormous power. Who owns the gaze in this story? It was wonderful to write these scenes and give the girl that look, after almost 40 years.
Memory images from a trauma
In the novel, the book begins with the adult author suddenly being haunted by one shadow sister. She drives the author to grasp these fragments of memories of the event, some real and some fake, and make a story out of it.
– But how can you write truthfully about something that has happened in real life, but that you do not remember?
– It is often the case with traumatic experiences that you do not remember the whole incident. Memories of a trauma will come as small flashes of images or smells or words that you do not manages to make a story around. I have tried to see oblivion as a possibility: as a water and not a wall. This book is about an author who tries to remember in order to write.
The relationship between the photographer and the girl is multifaceted, but among the supporting characters in Paris, there are plenty of classic assholes, who paw and take care of the pure young girls. One named Z in the book has since been convicted of several sexual assaults, it says.
– Have you ever considered using real names? Wouldn’t it be a little nice to fight back against such behavior?
– No, I changed both names and initials. In my memory there is a real man who has a real name. But it is another girl in the book, and that is another man. I had to write them again. But I think it’s nice that now I’ve used the incident for something.
– What if someone still recognizes the photographer you call A when the novel is translated into English and French?
– It should not be so easy, but I have to take it then, in that case. It’s strange to think that I’ve been walking around thinking about this man all these years, while he may not even remember me. But I say like Annie Ernaux: I’m writing this book.
– It has finally happened from narrative?
– I’m proud of the book. I got to tell that story in the end.