A Puzzling Heroine of German Literature

Regina Ullmann; painting by Lou Albert-Lasard, 1915

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…

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