Ulla Isaksson was a much-loved, productive and multi-faceted author. The three recurring themes in her writing are: the quest for God, the love between a man and a woman, and women’s love for their children.
Ulla Isaksson grew up in an upper middle class family in Stockholm. She gained a solid education at a girls’ school and graduated in the humanities in 1937. Her mother and that side of her family had strong ties to Svenska Missionsförbundet (the Swedish Mission Covenant Church) and Ulla Isaksson herself came to be an active member until her 30s. During her youth she was interested in art and she wanted to become a painter before she took up writing. Art remained an important source of inspiration for her writing. In 1938 she married her childhood friend David Isaksson. They had two sons together. However, after a long marriage they divorced. Afterwards Ulla Isaksson remarried to Erik Hjalmar Linder, a literature professor and critic.
Ulla Isaksson’s debut novel was Trädet, 1940, which is a tale of Christian conversion. It is centred on the young character Kersti who was paralysed as a child but learns to accept her fate and finds her peace in Christianity. The novel won first prize in Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen’s (the Evangelical Homeland Foundation’s) literary competition and was subsequently published by the foundation. Her following two novels, I denna natt, 1942, and Av krukmakarens hand, 1945, are also dominated by Christian themes. Although they are also romances, the overriding relationship is not that between a man and a woman but rather that between a person and God.
In Ytterst i havet, 1950, Ulla Isaksson’s fourth novel and her breakthrough, the quest for God reaches its zenith. The novel describes a crisis of faith as experienced by a young male preacher. Subsequently Ulla Isaksson revealed that although the story actually depicted her own religious doubts she, at the time, felt it was impossible to portray it as a woman’s - least of all her own – experience of a personal struggle with faith. During several visits to the Sigtuna foundation she had come to know Olov Hartman and authors like Lars Ahlin, Karl Vennberg and Werner Aspenström, and had been introduced to another form of Christianity from the one she had grown up with. This had awoken her doubts and the novel is laden with the existential doubts and anxiety typical of the literature of the 1940s. She lets the main character’s arrogance be destroyed and subsequently he learns – in accordance with Hartman’s and Ahin’s theology – to identify himself with the lowest of society.
Ulla Isaksson never dropped the ethical issues raised by the Christian faith but her writing came to focus on questions of love between a man and a woman, the emancipation of women, and women’s relationships with children. Her next novel, Kvinnohuset, 1952, is a novel which does not have one central character but rather reveals the fates of several unmarried and childless women in 1950s Sweden. Isaksson uses each section to attack the dominant position of the male in a heterosexual relationship. The novel was both a success and a scandal and led to Isaksson’s public breakthrough. The emotional intrigue of the story largely revolves around a love triangle between the young, good-looking aspiring actress Eva, the middle-aged Anna and her husband, a successful director called Tryggve. The other women living in the same house also play significant roles. The emphasis remains on the varying degrees of happiness in their relationships with men. The conscious – or subconscious – exploitation of women’s feelings by men is repeatedly shown to obstruct the women’s emancipation, and therefore also prevent an egalitarian society. The actual sin of lovelessness is, however, shared by both men and women. When Anna, once again, takes her man back and comforts him after yet another affair, she does it with all the care he is used to, but after a night of passion she kills him. On giving herself up to the police she doesn’t blame him but rather herself and her lack of love.
Kvinnohuset was almost immediately turned into a film directed by Hampe Faustman. The stars of the era played the lead characters, including Inga Tidblad, Eva Dahlbeck, Annalisa Ericson, and Ulla Sjöblom amongst others. In the late 1950s Ulla Isaksson wrote a screenplay, namely the manuscript for Nära livet, which marked the start of a successful partnership with the director Ingmar Bergman. This was followed by Jungfrukällan. Actors in the likes of Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson and Max von Sydow had roles in these films. The screenwriter, the director, and the actors all received international critical acclaim and were awarded prizes. The Cannes film festival of 1958 awarded Nära livet commendations for the screenplay, the directing, and the acting. Jungfrukällan gained an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 1960.
Both of the aforementioned manuscripts deal with vulnerable women. Nära livet brings three very different women together in a hospital room and, during the 24 hours covered in the film, these women’s mixed emotions about childbirth are exposed with almost scientific precision: their longings and fears, being subordinated in their lives and to men, being a victim while also carrying a new life within their bodies. In Jungfrukällan Ulla Isaksson looked back in time to depict the social impact of medieval rape murders. Her next novel, Dit du icke vill, 1956, explored the conditions of women’s love over time. When Hanna in Eden is accused of being a witch, God remains silent. She is saved by the love of a man. But in order for that to happen she has to fully accept her arrogance and that she is loveless.
For Ulla Isaksson the goal is total commitment, and she attributes an encompassing power to love which affects not just the individual but all of society. At the same time she does not ignore love’s sickly or megalomaniacal expressions. Her most well-known love stories include De två saliga, 1962, which was later filmed by Ingmar Bergman with Harriet Andersson and Per Myrberg in the leading roles. This is a sumptuous and intricately woven novel in which she explores the various forms of love that result from the male desire to conquer and female subservience. The soon-to-retire psychiatrist Christian Dettow revisits an unsolved case and through medical records, diary excerpts, letters and memories the reader gets to follow a classical case – as defined by Dettow – of “folie à deux”. As the story unfolds it becomes increasingly clear that the case study is serving as a reflection of Dettow’s own marriage to the recently deceased Elisabeth, whose diaries he is reading at the same time. In addition to these two pairs of lovers there is the refugee Sissi van Dorn, living in the cellar apartment of the doctor’s house, who also recounts her unhappy marriage to the doctor.
Ulla Isaksson focuses her next novel, Klänningen, on what would become her main theme in the 1970s: the relationship between mother and daughter. This novel, adapted into film by Vilgot Sjöman in 1964, is written from the daughter’s perspective. Toward the end of the 1960s Ulla Isaksson wrote two more socially relevant novels, Klockan, 1966, and Amanda eller Den blå Spårvagnen, 1969. The former focuses on secularisation and its impact on Swedish society. The latter portrays the issues of developing countries through the eyes of a frustrated Swedish aid worker. The novels seem to represent a sidestep in her writing. The novel Paradistorg, 1973, returns to the theme of motherhood, which had been a constant undercurrent in her previous writing and she applied the same sensitivity as before, as though she was reliving a trauma.
In Paradistorg, which was turned into a film in 1977 by Gunnel Lindblom, Ulla Isaksson discusses unloved, destructive children, “Aniara-children” as she calls them in reference to Kristina Brandt Humle’s thesis on criminal youth. The novel focuses on three older women: the rational, distant and well-functioning Katha, her best friend Emma, who is very obviously based on Ellen Key and always ready to lecture on children’s rights and the obligations of mothers, and the uneducated Sara, the servant girl who performs lowly household duties. Contemporary feminist reviewers saw Emma – who believed that women who left their children at the nursery were “worse than Lieutenant Calley in Song My and President Nixon at Christmas 1972” – as the author’s mouthpiece, and the novel gave rise to an intense and sharp debate. However, the author’s voice only shows limited sympathy for Emma, Katha, and Sara. Rather, Ulla Isaksson plays the three feminine characters off of each other: three beautiful facades who all collide during the summer as the novel unfolds.
The three female characters’ desires and state of bliss – the quest for God, a husband and children – which energize Ulla Isaksson’s writing come face to face with increasing complications and one by one they are pushed to their limits. In Födelsedagen, from the late 1980s, the theme of motherhood is expressed as a revelation in which the abandoned mother literally dies of anger. The good mother sees herself maliciously reflected in her daughter’s eyes and she is destroyed by her horrifying reflection. The autobiographical Boken om E, 1994, also finally severs what had been a hitherto unshakeable belief in the all-forgiving power of love. In the account of her husband’s gradual decline into senile dementia Ulla Isaksson shows how love can border on frustration, or even hatred. The story was filmed by director Billie August in 2001 and released as En sång för Martin.
Ulla Isaksson, together with her husband Erik Hjalmar Linder, also wrote a two-part biography of the author and journalist Elin Wägner, Elin Wägner amazon med två bröst, 1822-1922, and Elin Wägner dotter av moder jord, 1922-1949.
Ulla Isaksson died in 2000. She is buried at Kviberg cemetery in Gothenburg.