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The Country Road: Stories by Regina Ullman

The Country Road: Stories (1921)

by Regina Ullman

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The Swiss writer Regina Ullmann was out of money and suffering from severe depression when she finally managed to get Die Landstraße published in 1921, mainly thanks to the support and encouragement of Rainer Maria Rilke, who remained one of her biggest fans. She had already had an interesting life – unmarried, with two daughters in foster care from two separate liaisons (one of them with the priapic psychoanalyst superstar Otto Gross), and she tried to make a home in Germany until the Nazis kicked her out for having a Jewish father. She returned to Switzerland and kept writing, with limited success, until she died in 1961.

And the Swiss landscape makes itself felt in these stories in all kinds of subtle ways. Hillsides spotted with woodruff and gentian. Cream that's called Niedl, even in the English translation. All of it somehow diffuse, though, seen through a dreamy summery Instagram filter. A style fit for childhood memories. There is something intense but also purposeless about the action, or rather lack thereof. Details are vague – ‘You could think of it as any time of year you pleased,’ she says, setting up one story; and elsewhere, ‘If I told someone about this,’ she admits, ‘he would probably have trouble saying at this point what it was about, since nothing had been thought yet, nothing had been done. It had only been felt….’

And indeed the writing is powerfully felt, despite the simple settings and plots. ‘Plots’ might even be too strong a word for most of them – mere descriptions of particular scenes or events, Alpine, quiet, villagey. One is about picking strawberries. Another about buying a cake when friends come to visit. Ullmann's fierce hypersensitivity to these vignettes is striking – you feel almost that she is on the point of tears over the simplest description of a room or a garden. This leads her to find some beautiful similes (‘The fog was moving in the fields like a herd of distant sheep’), as well as some others that are more baffling (‘There was a feeling in the air as if the whole world were one great marigold’).

Ullmann was a Catholic convert, and there is something religious to her intensity, though not doctrinal. It's more like a hint of the mystic Christianity of John of Norwich, or Catherine of Siena. Difficulties and disappointments are seen as ways to approach near-ecstatic visions of life's truth, so that ‘even if life is hard, still, in some invisible, unknown way, it is rapturous’. The Country Road is a quiet and interesting collection, very welcome in its first English translation – a strange, soft-focus meditation on those moments when the simplest detail of everyday life can suddenly take on huge emotional importance, and ‘imprint itself on our lives like a fine, archaic script’. ( )
  Widsith | Jun 26, 2015 |
Ullmann is a one-off, an original, a really deeply peculiar writer, when it should be enough to quote the beginning of a story or two from the eleven that make up The Country Road—less stories than prose poems, strangely concentrated dreamlike scenes, or even printed sermons (because it is all too clear that the flighty though oracular speaker has never ascended the short flight of winding steps to a pulpit, even though one can almost hear the “Brothers and Sisters” with which in her mind she begins):

"The value of our existence is by no means always a function of its weight. On the contrary, because our fate alone is frequently too light, there are stones, as it were, that we take on as counterweights. And the way that people use them… Some heap these stones upon what is dearest to them on this earth. And others have claimed that they had to swallow them. Ah yes, I know people who look as if they had swallowed stones."

What Ullmann has to say to us is somehow exemplary, uncomfortable, difficult, long-buried; it is from out of our midst, but also slightly from above, and also from below. It refuses distance, and in its designs on us doesn’t mind changing angle, direction, and even plane; most prose is anxious to find one, and then hugs it for dear life; whereas, in successive sentences, even in successive clauses, Ullmann will buff, then tunnel, then soar. We come away from her, as she dazzlingly puts it (and she is absolutely right!), “greatly enriched but slightly diminished.” It is always a quarter to twelve, always Sunday, and always sermon-time.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811220052, Paperback)

Although a famous Swiss author, Regina Ullmann has never appeared before in English: her oracular, strange, singular voice astonishes.

The stories in this volume are largely set in the Swiss countryside, and though resonant of nineteenth-century village tales and of authors such as Adalbert Stifter, Ullmann’s distinctive, otherworldly voice has inspired comparisons to her contemporary Robert Walser.  In her stories, the archaic and the modern collide. In one tale, a young woman on an exhausting country walk recoils at a passing bicyclist, but accepts a ride from a wagon, taking her seat on a trunk with a snake coiled inside. As Ullmann writes, “sometimes the whole world appears to be painted on porcelain, right down to the dangerous cracks.” This delicate but brittle beauty, with its ominous undertones, gives Regina Ullmann her unique voice.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:41 -0400)

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