The following is from Thilo Reinhard's translation of Linn Ullmann's novel Unquiet. Seven years after her father's death, the author unearths taped conversations she had had with him and reimagines the story of her childhood. Linn Ullmann is the author of six award-winning, critically acclaimed novels, and her work has been published in more than thirty languages. Unquiet has received multiple awards and spent more than a year on top of the of Scandinavian bestseller lists. In 2017, Ullmann was awarded the Dobloug Prize from the Swedish Academy. She lives in Oslo.
When mamma could no longer stand all the ringing
When Mamma and Pappa were an item in the sixties, Mamma’s face was so naked as to almost not be a face. It was constantly falling apart and putting itself back together again. Much has been said and written about Mamma’s face, her eyes, her lips, her hair, her unsettling vulnerability and the way in which all great actresses channel every emotion to the area in and around the mouth, but no one has said anything about her ears. When I was little, I liked lying close to her and stroking her hair, I didn’t yet have words for beauty, or for love; like most children I was more concerned with the size of things, whether they were big or small, and Mamma had big feet and big ears. We would lie in her double bed with its golden bedposts and pink flowery sheets, and she would let me stroke her hair while she read a book or spoke on the telephone.
She often ended a phone conversation with the words Men—over and out. She said it with her face averted, as if addressing the walls. Men—over and out. Nanna also said Men—over and out. Once I heard Aunt Billy say Men—over and out and I always paid attention to what Aunt Billy said. Aunt Billy had red curls, a floor-length fur coat (which hung at the back of the hall closet in the house in Trondheim and was hardly ever worn), five children and a husband and a full-time job as store manager, she smoked something like two packs of cigarettes a day and read a new book every week.
Mamma had many suitors, but I don’t think she liked any of them. Like Penelope, she waited for the right one to come home. There was a white Cobra telephone on her bedside table. This was the one she always used. She liked spending time in her bedroom, lounging about in various stages of silk negligee. When I lay close to her and stroked all the hair away from her face, her ears came into their own. Mamma’s ears were big as conch shells, and if I had put my ear to her ear I would have heard the ocean. We had a telephone in the living room as well. A red Cobra. It rang incessantly. When Mamma could no longer stand all the ringing, she would pull out both plugs and stick the telephones, the red and the white, in the freezer.
When Mamma is away, I miss her all the time. I long for her from the moment she walks out the door until the moment she comes back. I miss her so much that I need an extra body: one body for me, one body for all the longing.
Before I was christened, my father wrote in a letter: I wish for you constant longing and hope, for without longing we cannot live.
What did he mean by that? Without longing we cannot live? He couldn’t have meant this madness. Not this hunger. This fear. I miss Mamma all the time. And now she’s gone away again. To America this time. Next time I’ll get to come with her, she says. But for now she wants me to stay in Oslo and go to school. Nanna will look after me. Mamma will be gone for several months. I’m scared of losing her, scared that she won’t come back, scared that she’ll disappear. But fear is not what Pappa means by the words constant longing. Mamma and I talk on the phone and before we hang up we always agree on a time for her next call. Which is today. Which is now, soon. Half an hour before the agreed-upon time, I’m keeping vigil by the phone, already sick to my stomach.
It rings, it’s three minutes early—but it isn’t Mamma. It’s a chipper lady who wants to speak to Nanna. Why isn’t it Mamma? Why doesn’t Mamma call three minutes before our agreed-upon time to save me from this fear. Constant longing. And why does the lady asking for Nanna have such a chipper voice? Doesn’t she know that my mother is dead? Nanna takes the receiver, exchanges some words, but ends the call quickly. She tells the lady that we’re expecting an overseas call from the United States. I sit on the straight-backed chair, squirming. Nanna hangs up the receiver and looks at me.
“If you sit there waiting for her to call, you’ll only start to worry,” she says.
“I’m not waiting on anyone.”
“It’s waiting for someone, not on someone.”
“I’m not waiting for anyone.”
Nanna looks at her watch. Why is she looking at her watch?
“Why are you looking at your watch?”
“I don’t know, I’m just looking at it. No reason.”
“Are you worried?”
“Absolutely not. There’s no reason to be worried. Why should I be worried?”
“Because Mamma isn’t calling.”
“She’ll call soon.”
There are countless ways to die. Airplane crashes. Murder. Embolism. All the clocks in the flat have now passed the agreed-upon time. People vanish off the face of the Earth. Mamma is fleeting, not entirely part of this world, maybe she has fallen off a cliff. I imagine her falling and falling and falling. It’s fifteen minutes past the agreed-upon time. Will Nanna and I sit hand in hand in the church when Mamma is buried? I begin to cry. For without longing we cannot live. What are the chances that Mamma would make me wait when she knows how scared I get? What are the chances that something has happened to her? It is now forty-five minutes past the agreed-upon time. I get up from the chair, I stand upright, I get up from the chair and stand upright, I get up, I get up, I stand upright and then I begin to howl.
“She’s . . . hysterical,” whispers Nanna.
I stand on the floor howling. I walk across the floor howling. Nanna clutches the phone, follows me with her eyes, she has called a doctor.
Now it’s one hour past the agreed-upon time, and I walk from room to room in Mamma’s big flat. I don’t want to stop walking, I don’t want to stop howling. I have walked like this for a hundred thousand years and can walk for another hundred thousand. You don’t need consonants to mourn. Only vowels. Only this one single sound. I’ll pierce the sky with sound. There is magic in this, in the walking and the howling, but only as long as I don’t stop. The flat is full of things. No one has as many things as Mamma. And then she leaves all her things and gets herself new things, and then she leaves those, and all across the world there are flats and houses and hotel rooms filled with Mamma’s things. Vases, bowls, dolls, photographs, big sofas, coffee tables, chairs with silk slipcovers, even more photographs, vermillion curtains, silk flowers, footstools, dresses, bedcovers, paintings, writing desks, dressers, suitcases, rugs, plates . . . we cannot live.
Two hours have passed since the agreed-upon time and no one can tell me that Mamma is alive. No one can promise me that. Nanna begs me to stop. She says:
“Mamma has been held up. Anyone can be late. She’ll call when she gets a chance and when she can find a telephone.”
“Can you swear that nothing has happened to her?”
“I can’t swear to anything, but I’m sure it hasn’t.”
Not good enough. I go back to howling and walking, and curse Nanna because she got me to stop.
When the doorbell rings, it’s the doctor, but I’m sure it’s the pastor coming to deliver the bad news. I’ve seen it in movies. It’s either the pastor or the police. God does not rescue. If I continue to walk from room to room in the big flat, howling, if I don’t give in, if I can prove that I can walk like this from room to room without ever quieting down, then maybe I can bring her back. I will not stop. Nanna has called the doctor, I recognize her, it’s the tall, skinny lady with the throaty voice, the one who’s lived a hard life and who always stands with her arms crossed and asks me how I’m getting on at school. Now she’s here, shaking her head, saying:
“This isn’t normal.”
Arms crossed. I don’t know what Nanna tells her. The doctor takes out her stethoscope and wants to listen to my heart and starts following me from room to room, but eventually gives up.
Can the doctor tell me when Mamma will call? Can the doctor tell me what God wants from me? Can the doctor tell me that Mamma is alive? The doctor puts the stethoscope back in her bag and tells Nanna that she sees no alternative but to give me something calming.
“But pills are not the answer here,” the doctor sighs, throwing her arms up in the air.
When the doctor has left, Nanna positions herself in the kitchen. I walk from room to room and will not quiet down, the expedition starts in the hallway, then through the kitchen, the dining room, the library and the TV room and then all over again. Nanna stands quietly in the kitchen and whispers my name each time I pass by. She doesn’t think Mamma is dead. Something must have come up, and she hasn’t been able to get to a phone. These things happen. But damn it, she may be thinking. You’d expect my daughter to call on time, knowing the kind of havoc it causes when she doesn’t.
“Come here, darling,” says Nanna, “come, I want to tell you something. Give me your hand.”
I give her my hand but carry on howling, albeit a little more softly. I’m exhausted from all the howling and walking.
Nanna pours a glass of water. She breaks the pill the doctor gave her in two and asks me to swallow one half. The other half she slips into her bag.
“We will eat supper now,” she says, “and Mamma will call soon, I promise.”
She looks at me to make sure I swallow the pill.
“Maybe she won’t call this evening, but if not, she’s bound to call tomorrow.”
Nanna strokes my hair, her fingers running into knots and tangles.
“I think we’ll have to trim your hair soon,” she says, but at that I start howling again. Nanna hushes me, holds me and hushes me, shhh, shhhh, shhhhh, the way you hush a baby. Gently, softly, repeatedly. We stand on the kitchen floor, her arms wrapped around me, until the crying subsides.
“There is a perfectly natural explanation for why she hasn’t called,” she whispers, and then she takes my hand in hers and squeezes four times.
That means do you love me.
And then I squeeze Nanna’s hands three times, which means yes I do.
And then Nanna squeezes twice, which means how much.
And then I squeeze Nanna’s hand so hard that it hurts, which means THIS MUCH.
“Ow,” she says and pulls back her hand, but she’s not angry. She prepares tiny little banana sandwiches and tells me to go get the Asbjørnsen and Moe book of folktales. I sit down at one end of the table, she sits down at the other. The kitchen lamp is blue. It’s long past bedtime.
“The sobs last longer than the tears,” she says and leans over the table and wipes away a few breadcrumbs from the corner of my mouth.
Twice, the father stages productions of Gombrowicz’s Yvonne, Princess of Burgundy, a play about a bored prince who out of sheer desperation (because he is so very bored) marries the mute and ugly Princess of Burgundy. The prince’s parents are shocked by this. The whole court is shocked. I don’t know what is most shocking, that the princess is ugly, or that she never speaks. In the end they kill her. I don’t think the girl’s father was happy with the Munich production, the reviews were bad, he didn’t quite pull it off, he had lost his touch, the critics wrote.
In Diary, Gombrowicz writes about the difference between men and women:
“She betrays herself all the time with her desire to please and so is not a queen, but a slave and instead of appearing like a goddess, worthy of desire, she appears as terrible clumsiness trying to conquer an inaccessible beauty.”
The mother appears like anything but terrible clumsiness. I would sooner say she appears as a goddess worthy of desire in her attempt to conceal her terrible clumsiness.
Appearances mattered to the mother. How things appeared. How she appeared. How everything around her appeared. She existed by appearing.
The mother is no goddess, but her beauty is of the sort that belongs to everyone and no one—like a national park. When the girl pictures her, she sees many different faces, one after the other or one on top of the other. She wonders whether the mother has a separate beauty—a separate face—just for the girl. How does the mother look (the girl wonders) when she looks at me without anyone looking at her looking at me?
When Mamma is sleeping, you are not allowed to wake her. If Mamma falls asleep and someone wakes her, she can’t go back to sleep again, and then the night is ruined, and not only that night, but the next day too, and the following night again, on and on.
I used to dream about her. It was always a variation of the same dream, which ended with us yelling at each other in such a way that she dissolved and disappeared. In the dream, I start looking for her. A frantic search through shelves and cupboards, underneath sofas and in the bathtub, is she hiding behind the curtains, maybe, the vermillion ones, or in Nanna’s sewing box, or among the forks and knives in the kitchen drawer?
Mamma is sitting in her bed reading Madame Bovary. She raises her eyes and looks at me and says that it is a novel by a French author.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a woman named Emma.”
I stand in the open doorway and nod.
“Maybe you could go outside and play,” she says, “or else find your own book and come up into bed and read as well.”
“But we have to be quiet,” she adds. “We can’t read if we’re not quiet.”
Her hair is down, and she’s all black around the eyes. Her eye makeup remover never removes all of her eye makeup. In the evenings and mornings, the area around her eyes is black and smudgy. Once I spat on my fingers and tried to rub it away. She didn’t say gross, even though it was a little gross, she only said I shouldn’t rub so hard.
Years later, when I myself read the novel and try to imagine what Emma looks like, I’m convinced that she too is all black around the eyes. I don’t think Flaubert mentions anything about it, but he does write that “What was beautiful about her was her eyes: although they were brown, they seemed black because of the lashes,” but not a word about the blackness that won’t go away even if you rub and rub.
From Unquiet. Used with permission of W.W. Norton. Copyright © 2019 by Thilo Reinhard.