By Dwayne D. Hayes – Managing Editor
STAND spoke with Swedish writer Ulf Peter Hallberg about his relationship with his father, writing a book about him, and the impact this relationship has had on him as a father.
STAND: Why was it necessary or important for you to write about your father?
When my father died, I felt my whole world was going to pieces, vanishing. Life as it had been turned dark, with no more loving eyes of a parent in my world. I loved both my parents very much. The death of my mother in 1995, for the first time in my life, made me understand how much darkness there is in the world and how much light she had shed on me. I miss Eva every day! She was a true worshiper of life, someone who just gave and gave to others. I have never met anyone like her! When my father died in 2007 I was older, but I felt I just could not take it! I suddenly realized I was the last one in a chain, no one else would remember our lives and our values. So I had to return to what our life together had been to have a future, actually to believe in life. I was very sad and I was devastated. All I could think of was remembering… From that moment on I was Proust’s ally, I was with him, I was learning from him, I was worshiping him and his project.
STAND: How did you decide to write it as you did, with a mix of memoir, fiction, and historical narrative, rather than as a straight memoir or biography?
Memoir or biography is not straight. It has curves and edges. Because life is full of that. Everything else is fake order. That’s why so many memoirs are ridiculous stories, bad lies. We should not and cannot be the heroes of our lives, especially not the way memoir writers fake it for us. If you want to learn from life and understand something, you have to find new ways of storytelling. Realists like Balzac and Flaubert felt that and therefore changed storytelling. Realism is not a mirror of the world, it is the sensualization of the world. In French nineteenth-century realism, the difference between the storytelling and the world is enormous. I wanted to liberate the storytelling of my father’s life from how other people see the world in order to tell the truth.
STAND: What did you learn about your father (or your relationship with him) through writing this book?
In retrospect, I became very close to him, understanding some important things while writing—and suddenly also seeing myself in him. How I became who I am. And then: how I battled to free myself from some things I did not like, and how all the good things he gave me on my road through life came from how much he cared, how much he loved us, and the private world we had composed together. He had turned our relatively small flat (I shared a tiny room with my sister until I was 16, when I moved out for a year) into an art piece, with every bit of wall space covered by paintings and art works. When my father was in his 80’s I worked in Malmö part time as artistic director for the theatre. I always stayed with my father, and not in a hotel. I think Ulf liked it a lot, and we had so much fun—though he never understood that if you have meetings at 8:00 am, you can’t drink coffee and eat scones at 2:00 am, like he often would propose. He was a night person, and I still am myself. The moment when I finished the book I wanted to return to it because I felt he came to life while I wrote it. The melancholy of having completed European Trash made me put my father in my next “art novel” The Meaning of Life and Other Stories. Just to be with him again.
STAND: European Trash is dedicated to your sons, Julian and Lenny. How did your relationship with your father influence your relationship with your sons?
My father taught me to be close to what you love. He was great with art, with dreams and illusions. Sometimes I feel I trained myself to be more robust. He relied on my mother earning the money, taking care of most of the practical things. I think I went sideways in life in order to learn to be robust and practical. I have worked a lot, when I was very young as a graphic designer and as a longshoreman in the harbor, and then for decades as a writer of work not commercially focused. But still I always took care of my family, though this choice of life was hard. I’m a bit proud of that, it was not always easy.
My father was moralistic and could punish me and my sister with silence if we had gone too far with our own beliefs, or with criticism (my sister handled it better than me!). I am funnier than my father, less self-assured and a bit immoral, perhaps, in the sense of reflecting on everything over and over again. As a general way to view things, it’s like I don’t believe in anything being preached or worshiped. I believe we are in the world to see it with our own eyes. But what was important in my father’s view, and this is something I hope I have in some way taught my sons, was that the essential thing is to learn to love and still have a somewhat clear head. To be true to those you love. Life is such a short moment in time.
STAND: What challenges have you experienced in transmitting these values to your sons?
Every human being fails when trying to be the example of what you believe in. But I am proud of how much fun we always have when situations or discussions turn existential. Also when things go wrong, like when I took them to Wimbledon’s Strawberry Fields this summer to queue for tickets all night—and it rained like hell. That night went from horror to salvation, because we fought for it. I hope my sons will find me true in retrospect, because of my ability to be a non-worshiper of myself and a total worshiper of others. I try to be honest in the sense of telling my sons what I really believe in showing both my strength and my weaknesses. My sons are so clever, so full of life. This is something I am extremely proud of.
STAND: What do you most want your sons to remember about you and your life?
Every I hope they will remember all the fun we had, and to feel I was good for them. I want them to love life, despite the troubles that go with it. I’ve wanted to show them that openness and generosity bring so many good things— it’s like the magic trick of life! And on the other hand: I have seen so many stingy people lose in life, because they never could give … I really wanted them to understand this through examples and situations; you can’t just talk about this and that. It’s how you live it. One other thing: I took my sons to my favorite cities, New York and Los Angeles, when they were eight and fourteen, and again a year later. I really felt they had to see these cities as early as possible. I came to New York when I was twenty-six and it changed my life. I also took them to Paris, Rome, and Naples several times when they were really small. This was important; they share my love for big cities and all the possibilities that go with that. What means a lot to me is to feel my sons like me. I am proud that they feel I have a number of really extraordinary, good friends all over the world. My proudest moments in life were always when people reacted to their openness and charm.
Maybe I could one day live on with their children through their recollections because I might not have the chance to see those guys—or girls!!!—but I can imagine them pulling jokes inspired by me, some day.
Or perhaps I am lucky and can race with Julian or Lenny’s children, the small ones running for their lives to beat me in a fifty-meter dash with their steady legs, while I am fighting for my dignity in a wheelchair!
That’s how things move on, I feel.
My father’s motto was taken from a bookplate he had collected. I feel it has become my motto too.
A picture on the bookplate shows a bookseller at the Seine in Paris with the following text written in heaven: Aime la vie, elle te le rendra.
Love life, it gives it back to you.
Ulf Peter Hallberg was born in Malmö, Sweden but has resided in Berlin since 1983. He has published many works including The Flâneur’s Gaze, Grand Tour, Legends & Lies, The Meaning of Life and Other Stories, and Strindberg’s Shadow in the Paris of the North (Norstedts, 2012).
Previously published on STAND Magazine