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A surrealistic plunge

Stella Descending, Linn Ullmann, Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland, Alfred A. Knopf: 250 pp., $23

August 24, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

On a warm August night in Oslo, the heroine of Linn Ullmann's second novel, a 35-year-old nurse named Stella, is playing one of the half-sadistic, half-affectionate games her husband, Martin, often orchestrates for them. (The game began with the creation of a videotape showing Stella nearly nude.) Now, fully clothed, Stella teeters with Martin on the roof of their ninth-story apartment. They embrace, or maybe grapple; Martin tries to save Stella, or maybe shove her away -- three witnesses below aren't sure. Stella falls to the street and is killed.

The police investigate Stella's murder -- if murder is what it was. Martin is interviewed by a detective who claims she gets an infallible "twinge in my stomach whenever I come face-to-face with a killer," yet she fails to reach a conclusion about Martin's guilt. Instead she says, "The story of what really happened was slipping through my fingers." This seems odd, but it proves to be only the first oddity of many.

"Stella Descending" is surrealistic -- not just in the vague modern sense of the word, as a synonym for "odd" or "weird" or "unsettling," but also in the original 1920s sense: as a work of art that blurs the borders between mundane reality and the reality of fantasies and dreams. This is a characteristic of Ingmar Bergman's films that Ullmann, an Oslo journalist and daughter of Bergman and actress Liv Ullmann, seems to have inherited, along with an interest in secrets festering beneath the placid surface of Scandinavian life.

In dreams, events seem meaningful even if we don't know what the meaning is. Things are connected, whether the connection makes logical sense or not. All three of the people who happen to see Stella fall are linked to her or to her family, but there is no reason why this should have to be so. In the 1930s, an actor jumped to his death from the same apartment building. If he hadn't, he would have appeared in a play seen by Martin's grandfather, who had left his pregnant fiancee in rural Norway to pursue a career in the movies. Instead, the grandfather was killed by a train. What does any of this have to do with Stella's fall? Nothing, really, yet it seems to mean something.

When Stella falls, her life seems to break into pieces, each of which is appropriated by one of the novel's narrators: the witnesses; the police investigator, who records Martin's testimony; Stella's rebellious teenage daughter, Amanda, whose father has run off to Australia; her younger daughter, Bee, whose father is Martin (and who, as a baby, inexplicably terrified him); and an elderly former patient, Axel, disgraced by collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, who loves Stella without hope of reciprocation, though in fact she is fond of him. Stella speaks on the videotape and has a number of things to say from beyond the grave. At her death, we learn, she was pregnant against Martin's wishes. Yet the pieces the novel gives us don't quite add up to a full life. Gaps and mysteries remain.

Ten years before Stella's fall, handsome, outwardly self-confident Martin, a furniture salesman, delivered a "magical" green sofa to her apartment and refused to leave, seducing her instead. A brawny plumber later came to fix her pipes and likewise moved in, living in the attic; Amanda seduced him (or fantasizes that she did). Stella also discovers that her unloving mother had an affair with another woman, which Stella's wretched father tolerated. In the same vein, Axel married a woman who loved another man, a Resistance hero. Axel's support for the Nazi collaborationist government of Norwegian Premier Vidkun Quisling was, at bottom, a futile attempt to spite his rival.

All this is dream stuff -- the repeating patterns, the strangers who come and make themselves at home in our lives. Ullmann, whose first novel was "Before You Sleep" in 1998, adds everyday Nordic gloom -- coldness, jealousy, sexual frustration or indifference, the aches of old age, the loneliness that inhabits even loving relationships. This, too, reminds us of Bergman movies. Where Ullmann differs is in her humor -- partly a product of the surrealism, the sheer unexpectedness of events but also a product of her snappy prose and cheeky attitude. Her characters may "descend," but they don't go gently -- not the girls, who compare Martin to a fairy tale sorcerer and disbelieve everything the minister says at Stella's funeral; not even Axel, who frets and grumps and relives old humiliations but can't ever seem to get around to dying.

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