As it happens, the frustration of precisely such a desire — the unfulfilled longing for clarity and accountability from parents who are also artists — is one of the book’s most powerful guiding emotions. Slipping toward middle age as her father moves through his 80s, the daughter, now a successful writer, twice-married with children of her own, records a series of conversations with him. The idea is that their talks will be the basis of a book, a cross-generational collaboration on the subject of aging:
“He said that things went missing. He said that the words disappeared. If he were younger he would have written a book about growing old. But now that he was old, he wasn’t up to it. He no longer had the vigor of a younger man. This line of thinking prompted one of us, I don’t remember who, to come up with the idea of writing a book together. I would ask the questions, he would answer them, I would transcribe the conversations, and finally we would sit down together and edit the material. Once the book was out, we would take the jeep and go on a book tour.”
The rueful humor of the last sentence is typical of Ullmann’s prose, which is plain, succinct and declarative, with currents of intensity flowing beneath the placid surface. The effect, in Thilo Reinhard’s graceful English translation, is almost Didionesque, as the willed, witty detachment of the narrator’s voice at once conceals and emphasizes the rawness of her emotions.
“Unquiet” can be read as a grief memoir in the tradition of Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” a meditation on the way loss manifests itself in the life of the bereaved. By the time the father-daughter book project gets underway in earnest, it’s too late. The father is slipping away, and then he’s gone. “We made the recordings in May, he died at the end of July at 4 o’clock in the morning.” There will be no book, no tour in the jeep, and the tapes themselves — or rather the miniature recorder with its digital files — will drop out of sight for seven years. Its rediscovery brings back the father’s ghost, but the transcripts that Ullmann reproduces also reveal the extent to which he was already absent:
“SHE: Can you tell me about Mamma?
“HE: I have been thinking about Beethoven and how he goes right at you. Right at your feelings. …”
The narrator’s recollections confirm the impression of a man whose commitments to art, eros and self-exploration dictate a certain remoteness from his children. There were a lot of them — nine in all, with six different women — and he organized life on his island to defend its routines against their unruly energies. The women came and went. Which is not to say that her father was cold or cruel, but that the intimacies his daughter managed to find with him were built on a foundation of estrangement.
The narrator’s mother is a different story — more bluntly judged by her child and also a more vivid and complex presence in the book. She leaves the girl in the care of her own mother and, later, a succession of babysitters as she pursues her stage and screen career on two continents. The girl is envious of her mother’s beauty and resentful of her capriciousness, emphasizing without ever quite acknowledging the gender-based double standard that colors her feelings. The father is just exercising the prerogatives granted to male artists, while the mother’s creative ambitions are seen as a kind of betrayal. A father who is mostly elsewhere is a fact of life; a mother who goes away is a kind of monster.