The Country Road by Regina Ullmann (trans. Kurt Beals). $15.95, 147 pp. New Directions
The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.
―Henry David Thoreau, Walden
On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau took residence by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, where he lived for two years, two months, and two days in a tiny, self-built cabin. Ten years later he would publish his quasi-memoir Walden, or Life in the Woods, a reflection on his experiment on simple living and consequent spiritual enlightenment. Thoreau’s hope during his time in Walden was to develop a deeper, more objective understanding of society through forced introspection; to “live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”
Divided into somewhat thematic chapters, Walden explores nature’s seasons, animals, solitude, cultivation of crops, the sounds of the wild, and the possibility of transcending primitive human desires. Thoreau emphasizes finding comfort in loneliness, practicing self-reliance, and regaining closeness to nature. He presents a connection between spirituality and the natural world, with nature paralleling human behavior and emotions. He was eager to simplify his life, and live with self-imposed “impoverishment” of possessions, luxuries, and human contact. However, it is clear that there was no poverty of experience or feeling during this time, as the wilderness delivered nourishment for both his writing and spiritual fulfillment.
Despite over 3,000 miles and 75 years setting them apart, his reflections on the human condition bear many similarities to those made by the Swiss-German writer Regina Ullmann in The Country Road. This collection of short stories, her first to appear in English, counters material poverty with a fulfilling and deeply spiritual relationship with the natural world. Ullmann herself was no stranger to hardship. A depressive, she was plagued by personal and professional crises. Financial constraints forced her to send her illegitimate children to the countryside to be raised by farmers, while she desperately sought publication in order to provide for them. Such adversity is clear in this collection, which involves a series of downtrodden characters that suffer the rough of life more frequently than the smooth.
Despite destitute situations, Ullmann’s sensitive writing soars. Difficulties are opposed most distinctly by the richness of her descriptions of nature. While the stories are peppered with references to religion–Ullmann converted to Catholicism in her 20s–these are often made in relation to natural elements: in “The Old Tavern Sign” a church organ “began to flow like flowers . . . richly swelling garden flowers,” and a doe’s body evokes “holy nakedness.” In “Strawberries,“she imagines “angels that lived on fruit alone . . . angels whose incense would be the fragrance of flowers and fruits.” In her metaphors, religious imagery comes second to the natural, not the other way around. This implies holiness is founded in nature, rather than nature mimicking holiness.
Thomas Mann described Ullmann’s authorial voice as “something holy,” and religion infuses her work like dappled sunlight filtered through the leaves of trees. While traversing the collection’s titular country road, the narrator
knew that God’s name was engraved in every animal. Every blade of grass bore his sharp inscription. Even the flower held him in their curves. . . . I claimed to have no God. But there I was once again, holding the woodruff blossom in my hand. I was touched by the goodness that this blossom exhaled. I fell silent and watched.
The man is moved not by a sermon but the quiet hymns of the natural world. Ullmann suggests even the faithless can find solace and reflection when confronted with the discreet splendor and balance of nature. This devotion to nature gives her writing a pantheistic undercurrent, and a sense of awe of nature’s ambivalent beauty in the face of human sorrow.
However, Ullmann’s faith often appears challenged by existential anxiety, and a fixation on death. Many of her characters cannot find their way in a world that seems designed to hold them back, taking roads that lead nowhere, such as the titular “uncanny . . . all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.” They are not like Thoreau, who saw that solitude can allow us to become more deeply in touch with ourselves. In “The Hunchback,”solitude
may be the only thing that can chasten a man who lacks humility, and bring him back to himself. It widens the space around him, lifts the heavens up like a gigantic banner, and lowers the earth beneath him.
By embracing our singularity, we allow ourselves to be humbled in the face of our insignificance. By contrast, solitude alongside poverty is forced upon Ullmann’s characters; we, her readers, may realize that seclusion and lack need not mean we cannot see the transcendent beauty of our world. Her stories are founded in a question of life’s worth, and they end with some resolution of purpose.
With one hand, Ullman offers celebrations of life, and the invigorating effect of nature in counteracting poverty, while with the other she emphasizes mortality, reminding us that however we live, death is inevitable. A consumptive is “death himself,” the spirit of a dying man is “one human sun slowly, slowly setting.” “The Old Tavern Sign” ends with an attack on the nameless protagonist by wild stags, their “joyous wrath” puncturing his body, while the indifferent sky observes and “the forest and the fields lay still, as if they weren’t there.” Scenes like this are reminiscent of The Stranger’s Mersault looking to the stars on the eve of his execution, opening his heart to “the benign indifference of the universe.”
Ullmann’s inclination for morbidity is frequently communicated through youthful characters, most evidently in the collection’s final stories, Susanna and The Girl. In Susanna, a mere handful of pages chart the illness and death from scarlet fever of young “Susi,” seen through the eyes of her neighbor and friend. Ullmann skilfully captures the girl’s first experience of grief, her “soul in disarray,” learning that “we don’t say dead, we say she passed away.” The narration jumps from season to season without an accurate sense of the passage of time, just as a child may distinguish months more by their look and feel than by name. Death and sorrow are felt sharply, but so are joy and love, without the numbing consistency of adulthood.
The collection’s final story, “The Girl,” explores the lives and deaths of the poor–one woman, her master, and her daughter. Julia, alone and pregnant, waits by a road, passed by many people who make silent judgments, until she becomes a “scarecrow of curiosity” for what she represents to the better off. Finally she is taken in by a “grandfatherly” man, becomes his housemaid, and is treated kindly and with patience. She learns, grows, and becomes content. Although her life is sparse, it is not defined by lack, for she once had nothing–a recurring theme in these stories, when poverty of existence is alleviated by momentary glimmers of, if not joy, then contentment. But the woman, in the eyes of her master, was “lacking something”–“a certain and ungrateful joyfulness. . . . It was as if a soul only inhabited this body by chance. And each lived separately, for itself.” Initially, Julia is akin to the “feeble-minded” girl in “The Old Tavern Sign”;“free of sadness, of pain, of joy and devotion,” inhabited only by “soulless splendor.”
“The Girl” is perhaps where Ullmann’s female voice is strongest, in her depiction of motherhood, how “through birth we have the crucifixion and the resurrection.” The baby Maria is “almost a symbol of holy poverty,” symbolizing redemption and new purpose, for both Julia and her elderly master. Despite the strong biblical reference, Ullmann again delicately condenses religion to nature and human experience, by stripping away commitment to God in favor of devotion to one another: a “covenant” of love. When we love we feel the pain of loss more deeply, but for Ullmann this is necessary: “those who have not seen death up close are only halfway human, because death too, is a part of life.”
Regarding love, Ullmann presents numerous iterations of this complex and difficult emotion. In “The Old Tavern Sign,” she presents a “soulless” girl, described as “neither person nor thing,” embodying a curious lure for the protagonist. Depicted as vacant but nymph-like, utterly unaware of her surroundings, she is “senseless, idle nothingness.” The story’s protagonist becomes obsessed, seeing her as an empty vessel to fill with his love. Unnervingly expressionless, and probably mentally ill, she represents the “ideal” woman—she is completely available, like a warm and fleshy marionette. The effect is unsettling, with Ullmann describing her as a creature requiring “feeding. . . . Otherwise she would have grazed from her plate, just as she drank from the trough.” Yet perhaps the man’s love for her is as simple and underdeveloped as she is, rather than threatening. Ullmann repeatedly takes us back to our first experiences with love: “in its earliest stages [it] is deaf-mute and dull-witted. . . . Such a love doesn’t want to hear or see. Being asked about love for the first time is like being thrown into a river.”
Her portrayal of youth also expertly communicates the seemingly insignificant experiences that age one unexpectedly. In “The Hot Air Balloon” wonder is contrasted with uneasy revelation through a child’s memory. The titular balloon has a timeless magic; more serene than a plane, less aggressive than a helicopter, it transports us back to childhood–perhaps a county fair at sunset, watching hundreds of illuminated globes rise into the clouds. However, the fledgling narrator’s intuitions often seem mature beyond their years:
Children certainly believe that it is possible to see everything beyond death. There is a place inside them that is not like a picture just drawn on paper. If we could hold onto that love that feels so alive in childhood, we would be the truest sort of magicians. We would learn: never to die.
It is this innocent, childlike love that Ullmann seeks to represent most often in The Country Road. Such love is sometimes naïve, often chaste and wholesome, occasionally obsessive. The young people in her stories navigate the cusp of adulthood, with its promise of desire and pain, joy and struggle. But for the children waiting for the hot air balloon, life’s capacity for cruelty is captured by the poor who “stood by themselves, along the line so carefully drawn by hardship.” Witnessing poverty strikes a chord deep in the narrator, reverberating into a sense of shameful privilege but, more importantly, “great compassion.” Ullmann’s talent for directing childlike memories through the wisdom of age evoke nostalgic recollection in the reader of a similarly life-shaping event.
Originally published in 1921, Ullman’s prose is remarkably timeless, in part due to an absence of explicit period and location. A lack of named characters furthers the work’s universality, with most known simply as “man,” “woman,” “boy,” or “girl.” Through this, we are given the impression that identity is not an important factor but rather the personal experience or journey. In The Country Road, characters are receptacles for Ullmann to decant her morally vague tales into, and we see her concept of the world through their opaque exteriors. Thoughts and feelings are malleable enough for most to identify with, regardless of personality, for she captures the many-sided nature of human disposition. That is not to say her characters are featureless; unlike the uncanny girl of “The Old Tavern Sign,”Ullmann adeptly captures the mind’s interior, and much is revealed about her characters through introspection rather than conversation.
Aside from escaping the trappings of society, Thoreau moved to the woods to “see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For Ullmann, man must “retain at death the happiness of having lived.” Both share investment in life for life’s sake, forsaking–whether willingly in Thoreau’s case or unwillingly in Ullmann’s–prosperity in favor of a wealth of experience, grounded in appreciation the natural world. Nature doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor, and perhaps some of those who lack the comfort of an easy life are more able to appreciate what is free to them in plants, animals, the sky, and the earth. In The Country Road, Ullmann seems to probe the idea that maturity can be reached by or living in poorness, but with all the innate human experiences of love, loss, desire, and mourning, that are universal to all.
Rosie Clarke is a London-based writer and editor. She currently works for Asymptote and is a commissioning editor for E.R.O.S. Journal.
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