Friday, 17 March 2017

Book Review: The Country Road by Regina Ullmann few people life is a bed of roses and even if it appears to be just that in one moment, in the very next moment it can turn to be the complete opposite. It depends on our attitude if we accept the challenge and keep our eyes open for the good and the beautiful surrounding us or if we give way to despair and drown in depression when we realise that nothing in our existence is permanent except change. Set against the backdrop of rural Switzerland and in one case Styria (a province of Austria) in the early twentieth century, the almost forgotten Swiss writer Regina Ullmann shows in her volume of short stories titled The Country Road people who have got to know the ugly side of life all too well and who despite all haven’t lost their ability to see the beauty of the world that makes their being not just bearable but even worthwhile.

Regina Ullmann was born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, in December 1884. With her mother she moved to Munich, Germany, in 1902 and began to correspond with Rainer Maria Rilke who later became her literary supporter and mentor. She had two illegitimate daughters who lived with foster parents. As from 1907 she brought out three volumes of poetry, but it was only her first collection of short stories titled The Country Road (Die Landstraße) that in 1921 finally made her known as a writer. Several other narrative works followed in the 1920s and 1930s. None of these has so far been published in English translation. When the writer could no longer bear the discrimination and harassment because of her Jewish descent, she left Nazi Germany in 1936, lived in Vienna where her mother committed suicide until the annexation of Austria two years later and then returned to her native St. Gallen in Switzerland to stay until shortly before her death. In the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s she published more stories and a collection of letters titled Erinnerungen an Rilke (1947; Recollections of Rilke) that haven't been translated either. Regina Ullman died in Ebersberg, Germany, in January 1961.

Eleven stories full of musings on nature, life and death make up The Country Road. In the original German edition from 1921 the title-giving first and longest of them is split into three parts focusing each on a stage of the first-person narrator’s vagabondage. In the first part she walks through picturesque Swiss landscape until she is given a ride on a carriage where she stretches out on a chest containing a sleeping snake. In the second part she stays in a village inn with only one other guest whom she identifies as Death in person and observes an ancient swineherd at work. And in the third part she lives in a cottage that is her temporary home shared with a seamstress who tries to break her reserve. The following story, The Old Tavern Sign, is about a young man fighting against his infatuation for a beautiful, but deaf-mute and mentally-handicapped girl. In The Mouse a first-person narrator passes a sleepless night waiting anxiously for the noisy rodent to go into the prepared trap. The protagonist of The Old Man is a widower who frequents the café of a woman tired of being alone. The next three stories – Strawberries, The Hot Air Balloon, and The Christmas Visit – tell childhood memories surrounding the neighbour’s strawberry garden, a man going into the air with a balloon and Christmas joy with friends. At the centre of Retold… is a cake that the lady of the house must admit to have bought. In The Hunchback the first-person narrator watches a bent man who makes and repairs violins. Under the title Susanna the first-person narrator evokes a childhood friend of the name who died. The final story in the English edition is about The Girl and her unmarried mother who found refuge in the cottage of a kind-hearted old messenger.

The narrative perspective of the stories combined in The Country Road alternates between that of an “I” bearing unmistakable resemblance with the author herself and the third-person view of an unconcerned teller of tales. Admittedly, the plots are rather commonplace and lack unexpected twists and turns, but Regina Ullmann clearly preferred to evoke emotions and atmosphere instead which she did with amazing skill and without slipping into inflated sentimentality. One way or another all characters are struggling and suffering creatures, even the children in the memoir-like stories. They are poor, alone or stigmatised by hunchbacks, pregnancy out of wedlock, age, illness or just an insignificant, though shameful faux pas in housewifely virtues. But there’s also beauty all around that makes life worthwhile after all. The English translator switched the last two stories of the original German edition putting The Girl instead of Susanna at the end. Probably he wished to close on a less gloomy note although the tone of the stories is generally quiet and melancholy. Befitting a poet praised by literary icons like Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Hesse or Thomas Mann, the author’s language is very lyrical and flooding over with powerful as well as most beautiful images.

To cut a long story short, The Country Road by Regina Ullmann was an immense pleasure to read. I particularly enjoyed her often unusual and at the same time unpretentious as well as vivid descriptions of nature that pervade the entire volume. Although the author wrote in German and enjoyed some renown after the release of this collection of short stories, I can’t remember ever having heard of her until I stumbled across her name in search of a classical female Swiss writer apart from Johanna Spyri. Of course, her Jewish descent didn’t actually help her career in the 1930s and 1940s! Her difficult living conditions and her penchant to severe depression certainly weren’t favourable to it, either. Somewhere I read that Regina Ullmann is one of those authors who are rediscovered every twenty years. Maybe it’s time for it again. At any rate, I warmly recommend the short stories that I just presented.

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