... how can you hope to die with grace? That's the dilemma of Johan Sletten, a man in his 60s who has been diagnosed with an incurable disease, presumably cancer, and warned that he will die a nasty death within six months. Johan's life, as he painfully reviews it, has been largely a failure -- a mediocre career as a journalist, capped by a scandal that forced him into retirement, a miserable first marriage, a loveless fatherhood and a son he's ashamed of. The only grace he can claim for his life is the love of his second wife Mai, whom he literally calls his "grace". Now that he must live through the horror of dying, his most agonizing fear is the disgrace of losing control, of dying disgustingly, as his own father had died. Mai is a doctor, and it's with Mai whom Johan pleads for help in his assertion of a graceful death.
This is not a first person tale; supposedly Johan is a 'friend' of the narrator, but the course of his death and the scenes from his memory are all told from Johan's viewpoint. I think that's one of the limiting factors of this novella; the 'words' are not really Johan's, and Johan lies on his hospital bed just beyond our psychological credence. Mai is an unknown hovering presence, an object of Johan's mental perception, but perhaps it was the author's intention to imply that "another person", even one's sole beloved object, can never be depended upon to be 'known'.
One of Johan's happier memories is of his childhood, of picking wild strawberries with his mother, yet even that memory stirs a fear of abandonment and isolation in him. Wild Strawberries? Haven't we encountered such a scene in another work of art from Scandinavia? Another tale of the approaching death of an old man? Linn Ullmann is the daughter of actress Liv Ullmann and film-maker Ingmar Bergmann, whose film "Wild Strawberries" is among the most poignant portrayals of aging and death ever produced. I can't deny that I sought, bought, and read this novella because of my interest in the artistry of the author's parents. And I have to wonder, reluctantly, whether Linn Ullmann's parentage didn't play a role in the success of her writing career. Would this novel have convinced a publisher to risk money on releasing it if the author's name had been Jana Jonsen? Well, it's not a bad novella ... a little thin at times and awfully doleful. Honestly, it reads like a scenario for a film (and guess who the director might be) in which the characters would develop curves - dimensions - and evoke more empathy simply by being flesh rather than print-face. The director would allow the actors and actresses to improvise their lines, to speak from their own inhabitation of their roles. That was Bergmann's method in his later films. Appreciating this novella requires just that sort of collaboration between the author and the reader.