“Time for the Eyes to Adjust”
by Linn Ullmann
translated from the Norwegian by Thilo Reinhard

from the December 17, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

Linn Ullmann has certainly forged her own reputation independent of the giant reputations of her two famous parents, Liv Ullmann and Ingmar Bergman. An influential literary critic, she’s been publishing critically acclaimed novels for twenty years, several of which have been well received in English translation as well.

Because the first thing in so many articles about Linn Ullmann start with her famous parents, and because I assume she gets enough of that, I’d normally try not to make too big a deal of those biographical details. On with this story. But that is not possible when looking at “Time for the Eyes to Adjust.” In the first paragraph, Ullmann mentions the “first time I came to Hammars,” which is Ingmar Bergman’s estate on the Island of Fårö. In the third paragraph, Ulmmann goes further and references her famous parents, making it clear this is at least a somewhat biographical look at the relationship between Liv and Ingmar:

I organize, catalogue, and number. I am the same age now that my father was when I was born. Forty-eight. My mother was twenty-seven; she looked both much younger and much older than her years back then.

Ingmar Bergman and Liv Ullmann worked together for the first time in 1965 on Bergman’s Persona (see my review here). The next year, the author was born, just a few weeks before the film premiered. Ingmar was forty-eight; Liv was twenty-seven. Shortly after that, her parents were not romantically attached, but their relationship was famous enough to live on.

Indeed, I have explored it many times. Persona is one of the greatest films every made, and I have watched and rewatched it. I love to talk about it. Just last week we posted an episode of The CriterionCast about the film (see here). When The Criterion Collection released Persona a few years ago, it came with a lovely documentary about this relationship called Liv and Ingmar. Because Liv and Ingmar continued to work together even when their five-year romance was over, there are plenty of other opportunities to look again at their relationship. I am certainly not the only one who finds it interesting, even though I had nothing to do with it. How, then, must it be for someone who was a child of the relationship?

I have seen pictures and read letters and heard them talk about their time together and heard other people talk about it, but the truth is you can never know much about other people’s lives, least of all your parents’, especially if your parents have made a point of turning their lives into stories that they then go on to tell with a God-given ability for not caring the least about what’s true and what’s not.

The story, such as it is, goes on to look at this relationship, but also to look at Hammars and Persona itself, all part of Linn Ullmann’s heritage. But mostly “Time for the Eyes to Adjust” is about her questions about her own relationship with her parents.

And then there’s this: I was his child and her child, but not their child, it was never us three. When I browse through the pictures spread out on my desk, there isn’t a single photograph of the three of us together. She and he and I.

That constellation doesn’t exist.

She talks about the last film she watched with her father, and then she goes back to the earliest days of her memory, after her parents had split up, when she was trying to navigate her time with them.

Because I have interest in this subject beyond this particular exploration, my first read-through was just looking for the details, getting only slight feel for the structure and themes of the piece itself. I’m curious what you all think, both those who care about Liv and Ingmar and those who do not!

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By |2018-12-10T14:44:18-04:00December 10th, 2018|Categories: Linn Ullmann, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |7 Comments


  1. David December 10, 2018 at 5:32 pm

    So it’s non-fiction? I will probably pass on it then.

  2. Trevor Berrett December 11, 2018 at 3:46 pm

    It’s definitely non-fiction, but it’s the exploratory, essay type. There’s still a lot going on.

  3. Larry Bone December 12, 2018 at 12:57 am

    If it is really good non-fiction like a Joan Didion piece, then she easily could just as well have written it as fiction. A good non-fiction story can have the impact of fiction depending on how it’s written. Essay type can distance the reader from what’s going on but maybe not if done really well. Hope Reader weighs in on this one.

  4. Samantha Neugebauer December 16, 2018 at 8:24 am

    I think we still need to call it fiction as the author intended; as Milan Kundera has said, ‘fiction is alchemy’. I did not know anything about the author’s family on my first read and enjoyed the story; the father figure actually reminded me of Picasso’s life with his children and wives/non-wives in some ways. I am not sure if this enriches the story or not, knowing the truth of her parents. I need to chew on it some more.

  5. David December 16, 2018 at 3:00 pm

    No, it’s not fiction. It the nonsense people get when they try to make something that both is and is not fiction, is and is not memoir. For me the question as to whether it is fiction is: Suppose I knew nothing about the authorship of the work, did not associate it with the real lives of real people, and had no interest at all – before or after reading it – in how much of this is true and what it does or does not tell us about the lives of real people (living or dead), would it then still be a good read? If yes, it’s fiction and I’m ok with it. If not, then God knows what this is. If it’s not intended to be 100% true, its not non-fiction. But then it becomes the kind of work where all discussions equivocate about whether it is interesting for its non-fictional elements or for its fictional ones and a criticism of one type of writing is met with a reply that it has to be viewed as the other type. And in the end people pretend that they learned something about real people when they really have no idea which bits are the true ones and which bits are the made up ones.
    This type of writing strikes me as an author’s alternative to therapy that celebrity gossips and armchair psychiatrists like to read. Oh yeah, and to top it off, turns out this “short story” is actually just a novel excerpt. (And by “novel” I mean the kind that is neither fiction nor non-fiction nor both nor neither.)
    Was that too harsh? Sorry, but I spent part of the morning reading (or trying to read) Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. It’s from the same “genre”.

  6. Ken December 19, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    The harshness is appreciated. I read it instantly aware of who it was about so I found it interesting because of the subject matter–a director who I admire and an actress I admire–it’s hard to say what I’d have thought if I didn’t know it was based on real people because I can’t “go back” to that state of non-knowledge. That said, this was pleasant enough but it doesn’t really seem like “fiction” and it seems better to have published it in the middle of the magazine along with the articles and called it a memoir, but then Ullmann may not have liked that. In which case, tell her to send it somewhere else. And yet…am I being churlish? I enjoyed this better than “fiction” the New Yorker has published. I feel equivocal.

  7. Larry Bone December 22, 2018 at 1:48 am

    I like the title, “Time for the Eyes to Adjust” which refers to the beginning; the time in a dark theater before a film begins.  It could also faintly suggest the time right before birth when one’s story (life) begins.

    What sort of life will one be born into?  In what sort of family or group social unit will one find oneself?

    Some readers might find this a keen and interesting first premise.  Others might think,
    “so what?”  What is sort of off-putting about it is so much somewhat superfluous detail, all the detail that a child of a somewhat wealthy family might have time to observe.

    The other thing is that the father is not politically correct for our times and the wives probably suffered after their time frame or individual years long scene finished.  The children seem unaffected by the shuffled moms.

    It’s not the easiest think to relate to if one is more middle class.  The only saving grace for the wives, is that they seem independent enough to do well independently of the father.

    So it seems an ode to the best case of a childhood with one father, five or 5 1/2 different mothers and 8 other half brothers and sisters.  So I can see the so what? about it beyond the celebrity but it is a good sketch of an out of the ordinary growing up.

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