It’s tempting to adapt Tolstoy’s famous sentence about families and say that good books or good writers tend to be good in the same ways. Certainly, if you encounter something that is radically different you are liable to suspect, and perhaps to go on suspecting for a long time, that it’s different because it’s not good. I’ve seldom had a sense of having read something thoroughly odd, really quite unlike anything else I knew. Experiences with strong prose—not necessarily happy experiences for me—would include Céline, Wyndham Lewis, Platonov, Djuna Barnes. (For the record I think probably they’re all good—not that they help with Regina Ullmann, or resemble her in any way.) I’ve spent six months with Ullmann, reading her in translation and in her original German, and to tell the truth, mostly not reading her. It’s taken me that long perhaps to find her good.
Regina Ullmann (1884–1961) is pretty much off the map, even in her Swiss, Austrian, and Bavarian territories. I had heard her name, but only as one of Rilke’s innumerable female correspondents (she shares a volume with him and their mutual friend, the actress and, later, Ullmann’s first biographer, Ellen Delp); I had certainly never read anything by her. The critic Ruth Klüger says she is the sort of writer who is rediscovered every twenty years or so, only to need rediscovering again in another twenty. The group of German authors who praised her probably can’t be beaten, though they too are getting on a bit: Hesse, Rilke, Musil, and Thomas Mann. Each of their little phrases hints at a core of strangeness and otherness in her: “mystery,” “multiplicity of joys,” “genius,” and most striking of all, “something holy.”
But perhaps blurbs don’t work in that way, or indeed at all. Certainly, I’ve known Hesse’s admirable “if [Robert Walser] had a hundred thousand readers, the world would be a better place,” it seems, for decades; and all that seems to happen is that Hesse, quite without meaning to, puts on another hundred thousand himself. Anyway, it is greatly to the credit of New Directions that it was determined to give Ullmann her first publication in English, 130 years after her birth, and very nearly a hundred years after the original publication of Die Landstrasse (The Country Road)—which first came out in 1921—and that in doing so they gave an opening to a new and gifted translator, Kurt Beals.
So much reading, so much background, so many stifled comparisons and negative checks, basically to establish that 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.
That is from one called “The Old Man.” Or take this, from “Strawberries”:
And the same thing returns again and again, as if there were only one life in great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, in grandfather, father, and children.
Oh how bright it would be in us if one day we could work this off, if we could begin….
Readers will note that neither the old man nor the strawberries make any appearance in these distant, stately, and generalized preambles. Hence my word, sermon, for the moral earnestness, the freedom of address, and the willingness to cajole. 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.
The stories, mostly in premodern, rural Alpine settings, are in the main somber, even harsh. “Susanna” relates the death of a childhood friend. “The Old Man” is about a widower who spends his days at a local café, reading the newspaper and reflecting on the death of his wife, an older woman whom he seems to have sent to an early grave through his sullen mistreatment.
The longest, the title story, is about the narrator’s painful wandering through hot, dry countryside, then getting a lift on a wagon to a strange inn, and finally finding a room in a half-abandoned village house, only to be driven out of it by a neighbor’s compulsive telling of her own marital disappointment. It is like a variant on the last story, called “The Girl,” in which a heavily pregnant woman is taken in by a kindly old peasant. Endurance is all, making something of what we are given, which tends to be “hardship, like a garden on the north slope: the red turned to pink, the blue to light blue, the yellow just a hint of gold.”
Wisdom is indeed a recurring aspect of Ullmann’s writing, the accidental springing of it on the unsuspecting reader, the ready access to the universal-appreciative, the sometimes absurdly hortatory: “A wake like that is a serious thing. We never forget it as long as we live. And that is good.” (Another friend, and another member of Rilke’s “set,” Lou Andreas-Salomé, admired Ullmann and, laughingly, found her “unbearably moralistic.”) But there are other aspects of her, and indeed it seems wrong to link Ullmann with any kind of contrived effect; perhaps the wisdom is indeed accidental. Perhaps it’s just a function of surprise, spontaneity, folksiness, absence of organization, the “whatever next” that is Ullmann’s stock in trade.
Where things really happen is at the level of the production of sentences. Ullmann speaks with the full unpredictability of the long-silent, the in-turned, and the extremely shy. She makes an eccentric blurt, sometimes a downright embarrassing one: hence the defensive formality—the generations, the stones, the biblical “And”—of the beginnings I quoted, and the reader’s apprehension near the finish of her pieces. Begin anywhere, end anywhere, and for all that, somehow—inadvertently, almost—capture a story.
Ullmann writes as though she didn’t know how it was done, as though she had never read much of anything; the only obvious presences in her writing are the Bible, fairy tales, and Rilke. When they eventually met in 1912, Rilke, himself retiring, a virtuoso of absence, and not one to put others at their ease, was so struck by her tongue-tiedness—she says in a memoir that she could manage just two words, and was grateful for those: “yes” and “no”—that he suggested they perhaps read aloud to each other first, “perhaps Claudel?,” which they did, and became fast friends.
He wrote out her poems and at least one of her stories by hand, and told her off for occasionally trying to be like him. It was his idea, or instruction, that she go to live in the countryside, where she wrote the stories in The Country Road. She gave him the idea for a tower, and was the first person to stay at Muzot after his death in 1926. Ullmann would not have had a career (even such a limited “career” as she had), would not have been published, would not have been heard of without Rilke. And as for Rilke, he is never as attractive as he is in his dealings with Ullmann: an intelligent critic and a kind colleague, qualities I quite frankly didn’t know he had. I think he saw and respected, perhaps envied, her genuineness. Anything elemental, anything that arranged its being differently, as if it had no alternative, got his vote, whether it was Cézanne or a doll or an animal or children.
Solitaries both, she was a kind of pendant to him: he with his bogus aristocratic lineage and pretensions (such as a supposed “von Rüliko,” or the Danish blueblood Malte, or “Cornet” Christoph Rilke); she writing as though she came from hundreds of years of nameless rural poverty (to wit, from “The Girl”: “she was called Julia, and sometimes other things as well”)—uncontemporary and antimodern, 1900 going on 1300, Alpine, archaic, pagan-Catholic (although she was from a Jewish family), folksy, country-poor, naive glass painting or jolie-laide woodcut.
Sometimes, to get over the shyness of writing, she would dictate, to her mother or a female friend; silences occurred, of half an hour or more; suggestions were not welcomed. It is easy to imagine, even a hundred years later, even in print, even in English, the jerkiness, the severity, the pain, the unplanned hiatus or crisis. The elemental sensations she writes about—heat, solitude, pregnancy, a child without a father, or a wanderer in the properties of others—are like looking through different pieces of colored glass. The uncertain or broken lives: a hunchback, two hunchbacks, maids, maids galore, a widower, a laborer’s disorderly (by some lights, criminal) passion for a feeble-minded girl, a blind woman (in “The First Bath,” a story not in The Country Road) giving birth.
The stories like to find a balance. Rarely, rarely pleasure, and then paid for. Nothing is so rich that it can’t be a form of poverty; nothing so poor that it doesn’t at least end. Yes, there are strawberries in “Strawberries,” but the rest of supper is withheld; after the show, at the end of “The Hot Air Balloon,” the children, “like lizards, blinking, slipped quickly back under our rocks.” Always work, and never love, and always old work too, work of the hands. And the only love that is acknowledged or countenanced is that between mothers and children. “A kiss,” it says austerely—and it’s the last sentence of the book—“is something that belongs at the end of life.” The best we can hope for is kindness, charity, and the luck of perhaps being taken in somewhere.
Ullmann writes about rooms—repeatedly!—as though they were an amenity that had just been invented. Ownership, keenly and cannily observed throughout, is nothing short of a miracle, and not for her. In her typical village setting, “everyone can tell, even at three paces, if someone is an owner or a tenant”; the poor “have become too accustomed to sitting before the door of their own heart.” There is something breathless and on tiptoe about her interiors; no wonder, they all belong to other people:
God, what a room that was. How the sun ripened there, too. The sofa had spread out its flower garden. There was an order there, too, it felt like early spring. And some people are like that all the time.
Sometimes she endows things with an emblematic splendor that seems ridiculous or even parodic: “They were magnificent animals, well versed in beauty and idleness. They received the sort of generous attention that others lavish on their geraniums.” (The answer: a pair of domestic cats, belonging to a weaver.) Losing the thread, it would appear, she feeds herself cues, little planted rhetorical questions: “Oh, this woman was a wonder. Did she do anything? Indeed, she did.” At other times she does the opposite, and enacts a refusal. She brings herself to a point, and suddenly stops:
He walked down the street with the prettiest shop windows. He looked at all the things in them. I can’t be sure what he thought as he looked.
Or she is Pyrrhic—provocative and Pyrrhic: “‘He,’ or in this case let’s say ‘she,’ it normally amounts to the same thing, need only stop to rest….” She is capable of suddenly, quite disconcertingly, disappearing into some physical object:
A lamb came along. As it came closer, its outline growing clearer and sweeter, I could see that it wanted to be petted. Of course, it turned out that the lamb was not as soft as I had supposed. Its wool was piled up so thickly in spots that it had begun to form ridges; it only appeared as if it would be pleasant to touch. And its bare spots were cool.
Who would ever need or want to pet a lamb after that—or even think of doing so? The experience has been had for us.
And then there are things that we could not replicate if we tried, things for which one would actually have to be Regina Ullmann: metaphors and similes. A sewing machine: “It seemed to speak in short and long sentences, a whole apron in a single breath.” Or a performing greyhound in a circus:
But in the first moment that he was free, he yawned as if unspeakably bored; and he seemed to leap into the jaws of the little lump of sugar that awaited him as a reward for his performance.
“Into the jaws of the little lump of sugar” is not possible, I think, without Rilke—those magical reversals and compressions (those habits “that liked being with us,” the Rodin bust of the man with the broken nose, “unforgettable as a suddenly raised fist”)—but is absolutely as good. And somehow, I think, too, a kind of style pauvre. Not depending on detail of perception or richness of vocabulary, just a shift, made in the mind, from what little is available. Nothing imported or contributed, nothing that costs anything. As here, of children:
Those who lived further down the road only knew our name, they tried it out on each of us, the way people call young animals to them, which then go on their way once they see that this is not their master.
Sometimes—often at his best—Rilke is like that too, but I’m thinking perhaps he took it from her, or else it’s jointly held: clean and disenchanted and shut “as a post office on Sunday,” it says in the Tenth Duino Elegy. “The coffee, made in true Arab fashion, might as well have been set before a cliff.” That’s Ullmann. A love offering. A wooden coin.
It will be clear already to most readers that a writer like Ullmann will have been unusually conversant in her life with distress and desolation, and so she was. “Hardship is a razor-sharp science,” she writes in one of the stories, “we will treat of it no more.” (I like to think of her in some afterlife, keeping company with Elizabeth Bishop.) Her adventuring father died when she was four, when the family was still in Switzerland, where she was born. She stammered, and “her eyes,” as the German poet Peter Hamm writes in an afterword that might usefully have been adopted for this edition, “went off in different directions, so that it seemed as if each of them was looking at the world by itself. She had a squint.” (And incidentally, second sight as well.)
She failed school at seven, and when put in a sort of institution at eight, she was always the last, strikingly slow at everything. The one thing she showed some facility for was writing—rhyming. “Unser Vater ist gestorben,/die Freud ist uns verdorben” went an early couplet: “My father’s deceased,/all joy has ceased.” In 1902, the family left the town of St. Gallen for Munich, then quite a lively and bohemian place; her elder sister Helene took off, ultimately for California.
In 1905, at the age of nineteen, Ullmann became pregnant (the father was a future professor of economics), and gave birth to her illegitimate daughter Gerda on a farm in Austria, staying there for a year. A little later, she had a second daughter, Camilla, with a sinister, fascinating, and finally repulsive character by the name of Otto Gross, who will be known in psychoanalytic and criminological circles. Both daughters were put with foster parents. Regina—Rega as she was mostly known—lived with her mother. The year 1917 was when she took Rilke’s advice, and moved from Munich out to the countryside, as he exquisitely put it, to be among cows,
cows and people who don’t, when you touch them, collapse into a pile of words (as we in the city do), but resemble a cake-tin for a single word, that’s always the same, that’s baked into them on Sunday.
She published individual stories and small collections, but never a novel, and The Country Road remained her major publication. What you read is what you get. Rilke’s friend Lou Albert-Lasard painted three striking portraits of Ullmann, and wrote of her:
Regina Ullmann seemed to come from another time, another world. She sat there stiffly, with her hands folded like a peasant woman’s. With the intense, visionary stare of her asymmetrical eyes, she was like an old folksy wood sculpture. It seemed like prophesy, like imprecation when she stammeringly spoke of things that were greatly removed from those that ordinary mortals spoke of.
Another contemporary describes her:
She struggled with words like a twelve-year-old girl. But when telling a story—for which she had a true gift—she would sometimes flow, like a scald. Then she would dry again, and resemble a shame-faced peasant woman.
Rilke wrote to her: “Your soul was born blind, and trained by a seer.” And: “Your figures are often so slight one would take them for mute and simple-minded. You cut them a mouth, and they talk deathless things.” (For instance her “Rural Monologue of a Man in His Cups,” not included in The Country Road.)
She was hard up most of her life, trying by typically unregenerate and also luminous ways to get by: gardening, beekeeping, the making of wax figurines. When the war broke out, she—Jewish on both sides of her family (it makes one think again of her peripatetic life and heroines)—was lucky to find herself in Italy, from where she was able to return to Switzerland. She died in 1961, “the weary journey done,” as the poet says, and is buried near Munich.