On page 158 of my edition of Ingmar Bergman’s novel, ‘The Best Intentions’, Bergman quotes a short note from his paternal grandmother’s diary, Sept. 1912: ‘Henrik came with his fiancée. She is surprisingly beautiful and he seems happy. Fredrik Paulin called in the evening. He talked about tedious things from the past. That was inappropriate and made Henrik sad’. This is preceded by an eleven page scene which is built, imagined, from this note giving substantial proof, if any were needed, of Bergman’s great powers of dramatic invention. And so the entire novel. As Bergman explains in his prologue, he was compelled to write ‘The Best Intentions’ after coming across a box of old family photographs. This, with a few diary entries, is the basis of this recreation, or reclamation, of his parents’ early courtship and marriage. But despite the biographical frame, Bergman, as in his films, does not hold back, freely showcasing a sequence of vivid and intense scenarios that may or may not have corresponded to what really happened, but I suppose, in the faith that he delivers to the reader, and presumably to himself, the general truth of the business.
Bergman often wrote novelistic treatments prior to making a film but he also states in his prologue: ‘This book has not been in any way adapted to the finished film’, an award winning feature for which he wrote the screenplay but did not direct. He wants us to accept the book as it stands which we probably would not do without his comment, not only because of the later film, but also because the way this story is presented. Firstly, there are the authorial intrusions, such as above, which give a partial post-modern effect, the text commenting on itself. Fortunately in these Bergman does not offer alternative versions, which I feel would damage the integrity of the story he tells, although he and we are always aware that this is only one possible telling and events could not have occurred exactly this way. Secondly, much of the text is presented as a play script, with the various characters’ names in bold before their speeches and directions for delivery of those speeches in parentheses. Personally, I did not find this disruptive, but quickly accepted it like subtitles in a foreign film. In accordance, the prose passages are in present tense and with the combination here, the story often ‘leaps’ from the page. Although this is probably more due to content than form.
The content. The opening scene sets the pace with a tragic and irreconcilable stand-off between Bergman’s father and his father. Both are shown as impossible passionate men, although later in the novel we do see some reason for what seems to be Henrik’s unreasonable intransigence. And this is largely Henrik’s story, Bergman trying to understand and come to terms with his own father, and this first impression, not contradicted but developed throughout the novel, is of a man whose innate high principles act as a kind of obsession. He is such a dominant figure not because of any overweening or charismatic personality, but simply through the depth of his own spiritual and personal convictions. You can’t get around them and neither can he. For a man of God, he finds it very difficult to forgive, and throughout the novel one gets the impression that Bergman is trying very hard to forgive him. Maybe that is the reason for the book.
For novelistic balance, it’s just as well that his wife, Anna, proves to be pretty much of the same mettle. The couple’s coming together, their fierce clashes and harmonies and deep love for one another makes for an extraordinarily intense and dramatic experience. With so many fatuous and crappy ‘great love stories’ forever around in book and on film, it is something of a revelation to come across the real thing.
Subsidiary characters, the individually realised scenes and surroundings, times and places, are all intricately wrought, although Bergman does tend to focus almost exclusively on individuals. He takes us back into another world, of religion and duty and tradition, but we note the various ways in which that world still impacts on our own. And no matter how different all the rules and regulations, we also note how much human passions are an abiding constant.
All up, I thought ‘The Best Intentions’ a great read and I recommend it unreservedly.