Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander (1983)

I’m always embarrassed in bookish memes to answer the question: “what was your favorite childhood book?”. I don’t have that sort of accurate memory, and I would be hard pressed to select one title. Except perhaps Tolkien’s trilogy (another story). But as Little Smithereens grows older and takes a growing interest in bedtime stories and meal-time books (guess what’s more appealing, veggies or books?), I’m keen on looking back at books that impressed me as a child. Like “Fanny and Alexandre”.

Okay, this is a strange choice. No “Goodnight Moon”, I’m talking about my early teens I guess. My father clearly steered me toward unconventional choices, but fear not, I compensated with more traditional choices like Laura Ingalls Wilder’ “Little House in the prairie”. I was shown the movie “Fanny and Alexander’ first (I don’t know when), and I was so bewitched that I read the book soon later (it’s not the screenplay, it’s a movie-in-writing, or a novel-to-be-filmed, I don’t know which came first).

I had quite a good recollection of the story, even if most details were fuzzy or lost. Alexander Ekhdal is a young, sensitive, imaginative boy growing up in a small town at the turn of the century. His father is the local theatre’s manager and the family is a boisterous family of artists and theatre managers, whose life is turned upside down upon his father’s death and subsequent remarriage of his mother to a rigid and cruel Lutheran bishop. Alexander’s mother can’t leave his new husband lest she abandons Fanny and Alexander to him; so the Ekhdal family devises a plot to have them freed from this nightmare.

As a child I had overlooked the total amorality of this theatre family, where wives turn a blind eye upon their husbands’ affairs (I had missed that point), where having sex is fun and natural, where having a baby as a result is okay even out-of-wedlock, where being creative is more important than being bluntly honest. I had never understood what the mother could find in the terrible figure of the bishop, but I can see it better now, the relief of austerity and religion when her previous life seemed too agitated, the fallacious illusion that the bishop’s life is more real than the theatre’s world. I remembered the turbulent Christmas party at the beginning. You can’t help being enchanted by the joyful, generous family of theatre artists, where nobody takes themselves too seriously.

As a young teenager I had been terrified of the bishop and even more of the ghosts of his two drowned daughters that Alexander meets when confined by him in the attic after he had lied. Now I know why: I was shocked to realize that one of the ghosts has my name! What I love in the story as a grownup is that we have no way to know what is real and what is Alexander’s imagination. Is it meant really to be a fairy tale, a magical realist novel, where ghosts come and go and the bishop is the evil ogre? Or is it only what Alexander imagines in his young mind, nurtured by countless tales told by his father and his grandmother’s Jewish lover Isak Jakobi? We really have no way to know, but I chose to believe in the fantasy. As a child, I adopted it immediately. Now, I choose in total awareness to believe in the father ghost who follows his son, in the magical disappearance of the children from the bishop’s house. I choose to believe that the bishop had done the awful deeds that Alexander accuses him of, rather than believing that the accusations come from Alexander’s grief and anger against his mother’s remarriage. There are also parallels with the Hamlet play that is presented at the beginning, but I loved that this interpretation was offered as a possibility among others.

The book is as rich and magical now as it was the first time around. I’m not disappointed to have revisited it with grown-up eyes. I can’t wait to have my son read or watch it!

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