The Forgotten Modernist: ‘The Country Road’ by Regina Ullmann

ullmanncoverThe forgotten Swiss poet and writer Regina Ullmann, whose story collection The Country Road has just been published by New Directions, was born in St. Gallen, Switzerland in 1884. She was “a dreamy, slow, difficult child” — according to one of only a few biographical entries in English — born to a comfortable family of Jewish origin. When her father died, Ullmann and her mother relocated to Munich, where she came to know a circle of avant-garde poets and thinkers, including Thomas Mann, who claimed her authorial voice to be “something holy,” and Rainer Maria Rilke, whose literary sponsorship helped keep her afloat in dark times.

The darkness appears to have been inflicted, in part, by the anarchist psychoanalyst Otto Gross — recently portrayed in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method by Vincent Cassel — under whose analytic “influence” Ullmann apparently fell. She eventually had his child. Financial (and social) constraints forced Ullmann to relocate her children to a country house where they would be raised by farmers, although she “visited regularly and took charge of their education.” In order to raise money for her children, she needed to publish her work, which is where Rilke came in. Beyond this we know that Ullmann converted to Catholicism, although this did not stop the Nazis from expelling her from the German Writer’s Association in 1935. After relocating, first to Austria, then back to Switzerland, Ullmann took up residence in a home run by nuns, where she lived for the rest of her life.

I begin with this biography because I feel like readers should know something about a writer whose work, if this collection is any indication, is on par with much of Hermann Hesse, who called her a “pure and noble poetic talent,” and the short fiction of Robert Musil, who admitted that her work has a “touch of genius.”

The Country Road, translated by Kurt Beals, reminds me a little of all of these writers, although it probably has more in common with Ecclesiastes: it’s as if Ullmann takes biblical wisdom literature, strips it of all moral judgment, and then spins it with rotating moments of natural bliss and existential fear. Imagine a world where a strawberry can trigger childhood abandon and the sound of a mouse, well, may cause you to believe that your skull is filled with mice. Here, from “The Mouse,” is what Ullmann does with a single candle:

So once again I lit my candle, the bane of all four-footed creatures. But the candle didn’t spread its angel wings as it had in other nights, arching them over the dark abyss of fear, becoming a spirit of the shadows, the better to offer its light … Instead it suddenly betrayed me to my enemy, becoming a sort of gnawing creature itself, there in its candlestick. It ate away at my sleep, and the mouse did not fear it.

The book is evenly split between these moments, which make you feel as if you are roommates with the creature from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and flashes of startling wisdom, as when she compares waking up on a new day with the expulsion from Paradise:

The way that it begins now, every day, with each new human life, it is the affair of a single person. (Not a chosen one. You mustn’t misunderstand me.) It can be a woman going about her own small business somewhere, it can be a poodle, a tree. Something must fight its way through to that childlike state of “solitude.” A certain humility must be learned, a lowliness that ends in nothing. And paradise? Paradise is uncertain.

“And paradise?” Ullmann’s prose has a beautiful cadence that hearkens back to the King James Bible, a parataxis that Robert Alter describes as the legacy Hebrew has given to English: “And then, with effusive eagerness, we covered the empty bottom of the wagon with leaves. And there was one strawberry and then another and soon it was red upon red.” Then, as if by some kind of magic, this lilt resolves itself in unforgettable moments of self-knowledge:

And within me I heard a voice, as if I had not recently spoken these words myself, as if someone else were comforting me with my own words: “I was myself, and even if I had wanted to be better, more beautiful, it was from myself that I would begin.”

The book does bring to mind our only description of Regina Ullmann the child: “dreamy, slow, and difficult.” But it is beautiful. And as the narrator of “Strawberries” reminds us: “There is even danger in such beauty.”