Though attached to the store, I like to think of this forum as a bit of the shop itself, in which book discussion happens, favorites are lauded, and I share some of the things of which I am excited and love. I will share comments about books that I may not carry for sale, post about favorite art or music, draw connections between disciplines…we shall see. So without further waiting, here is my first installment of Recommends.
In The County Road (New Directions, 2015) Regina Ullmann deploys a prose, which has a way of beguiling the intrepid reader (for this is the fine introduction to the American public of this unknown writer) into a lost land of atmospherics, dealings in gravity and light, oddities of imagery, and perceptive psychology. Her sentences continuously bring elements to rise and fall, scatter and move, contrast; dust and characters equally in motion. The paragraphs, comprised of direct and insightful sentences, lay out before the reader like a strange pathway. And the brilliance of this style of hers, full throughout with wonderful and unique turns of phrase, which presumably is in part what captured the attention and garnered such luminous praise as New Directions has reproduced on the rear panel, is that these paragraphs offer a quiet intimate kind of spirituality, with its varying aspects of personal crises and exaltations, visions and thoughts of God and Death. The tone of this incantation is set with the very first paragraph of the first story, and does not sway from her captivating spell throughout:
Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in year. True, I still wasn’t happy, not happy to my core, but I had to be in the way that everyone is. The sun set me ablaze…This long country road before and behind me…even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness…An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.
This first story reads like a fairy tale for the turn-of-the-century adult; the depressed traveler leaves behind a life for reasons not explained, and during the pilgrimage encounters along her way several strong impressions and visions that give the story its intense religious nature and illuminates the mental state of the wanderer. She reflects on paintings from her youth, but is than joylessly “cast out of myself,” realizing that this is only in her mind now, and has nothing to do with her present life. She watches several scenes of country life cross her path on the road, then is disturbed by a cyclist that rides by, her abhorrence to the scene irrational: “Oh, how unhappy I was about this strange cyclist. Not even if the love of mankind had reconciled me to him, forcing me to reconsider, not even then would I have been able to smile again. Had I slowly lost all my gaiety in life, all my confidence?” She joins a group on a wagon, and chooses a trunk that holds a snake, but is not afraid of the creature, but appreciates the symbolism of its coiled form. Later in a tavern, where she seeks refreshment, there is another diner that is an ill man that in her vision is repulsive as Death, and causes her to cry. Upon reaching her final destination, a rented room in a country house, she is kept late into the night by a dizzying tale of love, told by the zither-playing woman who tends the house.
The Mouse, a tale about a sleep-depriving mouse and the home’s human inhabitant, opens with the ominous, “Death was prepared in the form of a trap.” This story too centers on the encounter between man and nature, morality and loneliness. Even in this simplest of tales, Ullmann is always reflective, using the common encounter of dwelling woman versus the gnawing rodent to probe the inner portions of her own/ her character’s morality, at times in fear or awe of these emotions, other times, stating a general cosmic connectivity of a spiritual realm (living creatures, flowers, sun, dirt, dust.) A happy victory over the smallest pest, “But reflecting on my agonizing, sleepless night, I smiled with pleasure at the creature’s pain. Now its time had come” turns into a moment of forgetfulness and the trapped creature (she intends to release the mouse after sufficiently scaring it) perishes. The mouse turns to dust; dust which brings to mind the all-present dust in The Country Road, “Just peasant people, eating dust.” Dust and guilt:
And other things came to mind, too, for we are bound to all the suffering that occurs on our account. It is engraved into our lives. It clings to us like guilt. As if in passing, it magnifies our dealings with this vast nature a thousandfold. If we were guiltless, to be sure, it would be a beautiful, holy sight. Like a shower of stars, it would affirm our life.
Loneliness and spiritual life, or death, wind through these writings. Ullmann is not timid about addressing these heavy matters; reports from the inner world that in a less skillful writer’s hands usually become awkward and even embarrassing to read. Her views of the natural world are melancholic and wondrous in tandem, one or the other tipping the scale, complimenting the other in a complex dance charged with the fuse of deep and living emotions. The very push and pull of the seasons yield wonderful statements, such as the precarious balance of spring, when the frosts may still have a place in the mornings. “Then it is truly freezing. Every young blade of grass is edged in white. Nature thinks back on recent days, and its hair turns white.” And to extend this figuration into further complexity, a few sentences later, “A dream above all, is the living mountain of the soul in this otherwise deathlike state.” The final stroke of this extended alter-life of words, is when the character, “the old man,” reads the daily papers at a cafe, those dirty-white pages, and Ullmann writes of the “icy joy of others’ sympathy,” and then delivers her final withering assessment: “These daily papers are the snowball that weak men roll into the avalanches that they take for the life of their soul.”
This series of extended figurations illuminates the kind of thoughtful and clever writing Ullmann is capable of; she brings the imaginative and fanciful into full natural reality, weaving a layered tapestry provoking ideas and beautiful images. In the story “The Hot Air Balloon,” which puts the reader’s mind aloft (another realm Ullmann dwells in) she writes early on, “The green was already showing on all of the trees and shrubs, but only at the very tips – as if a green hand had brushed over them…” Either a giant has wandered by, or the airborne are reaching down with painted fingers. Her work allows for just this kind of imaginative speculation, so original and perceptive, that a reader has fun conjuring in their mind’s eye the picture.
In “The Christmas Visit,” one of the gentler and even uplifting stories, Ullmann’s philosophic thought does not diminish. The narrator’s family pays a holiday visit to a neighbor, a former typesetter. The mother tells her children, “He had such respect for his work that you had to admire him, even if they were all the same letters in all the same places where any other typesetter would have put them.” The author’s reverence continues when her narrator says, “…that he had the courage to draw his own breath between what was newly created and what was still evolving, this fact alone was enough to excite our minds…” Respect and admiration begets the same in others, the mother in this case, and by extension, her children, and this could be read as another form of holiness, a tone of reverence is set for the story and its jovial setting. Amidst the charmingly described holiday accoutrements, the Ullmannesque spins of language are present: “…a little Christmas carol began, like a small manger set into the moss,” and “The children’s interwoven melodies – like soaring proclamation – were gifts too, and we gathered the words from their mouths.” And flowers, which have been set off to the room’s side because of their strong fragrance “…pulled even further away of their own accord.” After a deftly described magic lantern scene, the visitors depart under the auspices of joy, but in Ullmann’s skeptical fashion, even this benevolent wonder has its suspicions, “It does with us what it will, indeed, many things…”
Ullmann is a pessimist of sorts. Her worldview is decidedly melancholic, but it is not the sort of hopelessness one cannot escape from, for there are countless wonders, mostly seen in the natural world, in a fine breakfast, or tenderness between people. Her sorrow is invested in the sub-surface, hidden away stories and private wounds people endure. Life’s many shortcomings, experienced by all in some capacity, and how those negative spaces in fact formulate one’s private landscape is where Ullmann reigns, in this case from the final story, “The Girl,” in which the character’s nature, or fate, responds to her self reflection on her wretched state:
You shall experience unto the end who you are and what you are, and who others are and what they are…All that will belong to you is poverty…This is my intention, to which you must be faithful. And this faith, if you will, shall be your only victory.
This quiet faith, not that in God, but in nature and the actuality of life, may be rewarded, because you are then awake to the experiences that are a part of your memory and spiritual undertow, and this seam beneath the film, is where much is happening. The quietude of the inner life and the impressions collected in a small world give these stories their gravity.
In reading through this at times charming and quiet group of stories, I thought often of the pictures of the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch. His often depicted empty or sparsely occupied roads and streets, his strange and symbolic coloring, the whirling landscapes, his figures engaged in solemn domestic scenes, mourning, figurative portrayals of dark emotions, and above all the modern affliction of alienation and loneliness. Many of Munch’s works were done twenty to thirty years prior to this book’s original publication, but I wonder if Ullmann was looking at or how aware of his work she was. If it can be said that her stories are often gradations of a self-portrait – and according to her unhappy biography they probably are – then they are equally as penetrating as those of Munch.
Despite having the adulation of those giants of German literature we think of as defining the modern era, she does not have a large standing reputation. The appearance of this slim volume should do much to rectify the situation. Yes, the work is bleak in many regards, troubles itself with those heavy questions that today many scorn as too much, or too anxious; certainly there is a determined strain of piety which the non-faithful may set aside as old world or quaint, and yet, she does it all uniquely, and she can craft sentences and images and metaphors along with the best of them. There is also deep love and delicacy and kindness and much beauty, and absolutely, it is a group of stories that fully rewards an unvarying, word-by-word engagement.