- The Country Road by Regina Ullmann
Regina Ullmann's writing was highly praised in her time by writers of impressive stature—Herman Hesse, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil ("Genius."). Yet only now, nearly one hundred years after it first appeared in German, has this valuable collection of stories become available in English, lucidly and sensitively translated by Kurt Beals with what seems to be close faithfulness to the original. The reason for the delay is not really clear to me—it is probably, as so often, due primarily to the unpredictable play of chance. True, these are not obviously "easy" stories. But other remarkably individual writing has found its way into English much sooner.
A few facts about Ullmann which are interesting without explaining how the flower of her writing came to blossom: she was born in Switzerland in 1884. Her birthplace, St. Gallen, was a town familiar to another Swiss writer and fellow eccentric, Robert Walser. Her Jewish-Austrian father was in the embroidery business. She was wall-eyed and squinted, slow in school, slow at everything. She [End Page 318] lost her father when she was four. As an adult, she attempted and failed to earn a living at writing, and took up beekeeping.
I am trying to imagine how her background and life produced such an unusual and fine sensibility, along with the strength of character to write in direct response to her odd way of seeing the world. One commentator has drawn a connection between her conversion to Catholicism in 1911 and her habit of looking closely and patiently at real or imagined life and finding within each thing a kind of sacred mystery. The scope of the stories is not wide, yet their subjects somewhere between worldly and otherworldly—children's theft of strawberries, a dying wife who lies there "like a distant ancestor," a pregnant and vagrant girl kindly adopted by an old man. The writing goes at its own pace, pausing for reflection. In this, it has something in common with Proust's long novel: we cannot expect to be seized by any quick action, as from the first sentence of a Patricia Highsmith crime romance. An apter comparison might be to the stories of Brazil's Clarice Lispector. In the experience of reading Ullmann, one's expectations change, within the rarity of her vision and the precise beauty of her prose.
Lydia Davis received the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and, from 2003 to 2008, was a MacArthur Fellow. Professor of creative writing at the State University of New York, Albany, she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Her books include a novel (The End of the Story) and seven story collections, as well as translations of Madame Bovary and Du côté de chez Swann.