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Alexander Ahndoril, Regissören (The Director)

Albert Bonniers förlag,  2006. ISBN: 9789100114039

Reviewed by Sarah Death in SBR 2007:1

English Translation: The Director, translated by Sarah Death. Portobello Books, 2008. ISBN 9781846270482.

We are in the early 1960s. Rising film director Ingmar Bergman, married to his fourth wife, Estonian concert pianist Käbi Laretei, is writing the film Nattvardsgästerna, known in English as Winter Light. The film company bosses take some persuading to back it, but filming eventually goes ahead at the Stockholm studios and on location in Dalarna, with Sven Nykvist behind the camera and Gunnar Björnstrand and Ingrid Thulin in the leading roles. It’s an uncompromisingly gloomy Bergman chamber play of despair, suicide and emotional dependence. The central character is a self-doubting priest who has lost his faith, but for Ingmar it is an important project that explores what might have been, if he had heeded his father’s advice and followed him into the priesthood. So far, so biographical.We know this not least because Bergman has provided us with multiple auto- biographical sources himself, and Ahndoril acknowledges his debt to these in an afterword. An author who confesses a deep interest in the dialogue between fiction and reality, Ahndoril takes the self-reported biographical “facts” and deploys them in irreverent, startling ways. He shows us a childish, irascible, demanding man, prone to swearing, prey to irrational phobias, a compulsive liar, bad driver, chocoholic and hypochondriac. And yet – a figure that commands our sympathy, perhaps because the narrative seems to place us somewhere inside Bergman’s fevered brain. He is terminally insecure, craving the approval of an ailing, grumpy father who has always chronically disapproved of his sons.This Ingmar Bergman is haunted, almost paralysed, by disturbing, resentful childhood memories. The front cover lists the real people at the centre of the novel as “stars”, as if they were appearing in a film about their own lives. In the style of a Bergman film, the plot often flies off into sudden flashbacks, double exposures and excursions into the darker recesses of the film-maker’s mind (like the sightings of the sinister wet-nurse who loves seeing children drown).There are surreal interludes, like the gloominess of Ingmar’s parents’ flat, around which they grope their way with torches, and the tendency of the film actors to transform into farm animals.Women – wives, ex-wives, former lovers – are a constant distraction. The scenes on set provide a fascinating insight into the world of film-making, where Bergman is at his single-minded best. Ahndoril has drawn much inspiration from Sven Nykvist’s diary of the shoot of Winter Light. Filming is slowed by Ingmar’s perfectionist demands and dogged by a series of technical problems; the actors suspect they are making a dreary film that nobody will want to see. Pressure of time and lack of money threaten to sabotage the project right to the end, and Bergman is so nervous about the film's reception that he flees abroad with Käbi. She is the one who sows the seeds of doubt in his mind: is he really the clergyman figure in this film, or is his father the priest, and Ingmar in fact the snivelling, attention-seeking, childlike figure of schoolmistress Märta Lundberg? The language is precise, every word carefully weighed. Seventeen years in the honing, the novel created a furore on publication in Sweden, where Bergman vented his displeasure on national television, thereby doubtless generating some extra sales. It is a sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always surprising novel that constantly blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. Svenska Dagbladet’s reviewer wrote: “Is The Director satire or tribute, an artistic patricide or a love letter? It is all those things, of course. And that is what gives it such richness.”

Also by Alexander Ahndoril

  • Diplomaten (The Diplomat). Reviewed by Kevin Halliwell in SBR 2010:2.

Other reviews by Sarah Death

Other reviews in SBR 2007:1

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