Reviewed by John Anspach
Regina Ullman, the Swiss-born contemporary of Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Rainer Maria Rilke, has finally made her English-language debut with a collection of haunting and beautiful stories published by New Directions. Kurt Beals, who has done a magnificent job translating these stories from the German, stories set in the far regions of the Swiss countryside, suggests in an essay for PEN America that Ullman’s continued obscurity is due to her being “a Swiss woman writer of short stories set in rural locales, in an era known for its male writers and their big city novels.” The Country Road, dark and ominous, fantastical and mysterious, reveals to us that there is much more to the world than what is represented in the “big city novel.”
Ullman delicately balances each of her characters’ emotions on a pinpoint, presenting both the beauty and fragility of every momentary feeling. In the story “Strawberries,” a group of children sneak into a forbidden garden in broad daylight to steal fruit. Walking home pulling a wagon full of strawberries, they do not fear being caught: “Someone looked down at us from a closed window, astonished and curious. But it was unthinkable that the strawberries did not belong to us, if we were pulling them home so openly in our wagon.” Yet their joy remains threatened throughout by a “judgment, hidden and waiting somewhere.”
“Susanna” sustains a bleaker and more despairing tone, as a young girl’s best friend, the eponymous Susanna, falls mortally ill, so that the beauty of a childhood friendship is set against the background of its impending end. When Susanna dies, her best friend’s sadness is mixed with the temptation of new opportunities to play with other friends, inviting a comparison between Susanna’s dead body and her friend’s old, discarded doll: “[Susanna] was lying in the coffin… My doll was lying by the wall of the house.” Just as the doll was discarded for a friendship with Susanna, relationships and emotions in The Country Road are of a transitory nature, a nature that can give life to dolls and take life from humans.
Just as individual lives and feelings in Ullman’s book are fragile, so too are the identities of the characters and the boundaries separating the stories. Hunch-backed old men appear in two separate stories (“The Country Road” and “The Girl”), and it would be nearly impossible to tell these characters apart were it not for their different occupations as swineherd and messenger. Multiple women are deaf and/or blind, still managing their household duties by using a sort of habitual memory to navigate towns they have lived in their entire lives (“The Old Tavern Sign” and “Retold…”). And then the children stealing strawberries in one story so closely resemble a group of children eating blueberries in the countryside in another story (“The Country Road”). In most instances, a clue like a blueberry or a strawberry, a messenger or a swineherd, or, in one particular case, a flower in a buttonhole is all the evidence a reader is afforded to distinguish between Ullman’s characters. The simplistic but decaying natures of these descriptors signify how each character’s individuality seems borrowed, plucked from another story, “as if it could easily wilt.”
Since nothing is constant in The Country Road except change, it is not surprising that many characters struggle to find a secure place in the world. In the titular story, a seamstress attempts to convince the narrator that she must enter the world—a world defined as “the mortar that holds together the building of humanity”—by acquiring either a trade or a husband, and warns that to persist in solitude is to suffer an isolated life devoid of pleasure. But just as the stories and characters are held together by a porous mortar, so too is the boundary that defines what is within the world and what is external to it, namely, pleasure and solitude.
In “The Old Tavern Sign,” a farmhand hides his love for a mentally ill woman, fearing that “anyone who did not think as the world thought must necessarily feel cast out from it.” In order to think as the world thought, he tries to marry a different woman, eventually leaving him fatally estranged from his own body. But in stories like “The Hunchback,” a strange balance is struck between being in the world and this kind of isolation. The world does not welcome the hunchback, Jakob, because of his disfigurement. By his trade, making and selling violins, he is able to afford to maintain a home that is not subject to the passage of time. His home is an “almost childlike world,” in which there are no mirrors, and his maid mimes the “tone and manner” of his dead mother, who appears in a photo above Jakob’s workbench, holding him as a baby. His solitude is his connection to a loving external world, even if that world’s time is now past.
The pain, loss, and isolation experienced by many of the characters in Ullman’s The Country Road is not to be envied, even though the passages concerning these emotional states are often incredibly moving and disturbingly beautiful. The narrator of the title story, experiencing a bout of loneliness while walking a country road, constantly returns to what it means to be in the world and outside of it. She describes her isolation as a room from which she can see the world: “If it was not there, this world, then we had only scenery, drafty scenery, and beyond the door was nothing, was the abyss. Our estrangement was there, our dreadful, self-inflicted isolation.” By focusing her vision on the decrepit and downtrodden, the isolated and alienated, the sick and dying people at the edge of the world, Ullman pries open her characters’ hearts, sharing the fullness of forgotten worlds that are much more than “drafty scenery.”
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