31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 17: “The Old Tavern Sign” by Regina Ullmann; Kurt Beals, trans.

May 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Country Road

The_Country_Road_Regina_UllmannThe stories of Swiss-born author and poet Regina Ullmann do not appear immediately familiar to a twenty-first century reader. Her settings are rural, her language abstruse, her characters frequently grotesque, and her poetic sensibility more characteristic of symbolism than straightforward naturalism. Of Jewish heritage but a convert to Catholicism, Ullmann also includes a streak of religious imagery running through her stories: in “The Hunchback,” there is a mirror in a door in which an observer “could glimpse a Christ child under a glass dome,” and the collection’s title story ends, “For what is God’s will, but that we should be reconciled to ourselves.”

Reconciliation with oneself is the theme that gets taken up in the following story, “The Old Tavern Sign,” which translator Kurt Beals suggests is “perhaps the masterpiece of this collection.” It is also, Beals asserts, the story that prompted Rainer Maria Rilke to comment, “[T]his was what I had been waiting for, this final emergence of the power of her artistic will.”

First published in 1921 – and, remarkably, never before translated into English – The Old Country Road precedes by one year the modernist breakthroughs of The Waste Land and Ulysses, though Ullmann’s work unsurprisingly shares more in common with fellow German-language writers Rilke, Mann, and Hesse than it does with Eliot or Joyce. In the place of modern urban decay and anomie, “The Old Tavern Sign” hearkens back to fables and fairy tales, right from its opening lines: “Some years ago, in a hidden corner of Styria, there stood an old tavern. There it stood, where no one would ever have hoped to find it.”

The story focuses on a young farmhand who falls in love with a “feeble-minded” girl. The young man is troubled by the strength of his feelings for this addled lady, whom he has known since childhood; in an attempt to divest himself of his lust, he rides off to a neighbouring village to search for an alternate marriage prospect. Unable to slough off his love for the young woman in back home, he sets off to return, but encounters a stag on the road and is trampled to death.

A simple synopsis of the events in Ullmann’s story conveys the strangeness of the piece, but not the extraordinary care with which the author unifies the various elements in the narrative. Central to the work is the young woman’s condition, which is not specified. “In the city,” we are told, “her affliction might have been accounted a mental illness. But here in the country she was feeble-minded, simply feeble-minded.” As the child of a wealthy farmer (that she is illegitimate is heavily implied), she is treated with respect by the villagers and not forced into hard labour, which has the effect of maintaining her innocence: “[S]he was not pressed into service, not forced to acquire a consciousness she didn’t have: that consciousness that so terribly transforms young beasts of burden, and makes them into something quite unlike animals – something truly low.”

That consciousness is seen as separating humans from animals – with the former being “truly low” – is significant; equally significant is the extent to which Ullmann goes to insist upon the correspondence between the young woman and the natural world. Nature is a pervasive presence in Ullmann’s stories; it is here, more often than not, that a condition resembling Godliness is located. In the case of the girl, she is explicitly pictured in communion with the natural world, though her condition renders her oblivious to its presence:

To be sure, it was soon clear that she didn’t actually look at anyone, she didn’t even look at the animals as they passed by with their billowing manes. And she could not have missed them, if she’d had a soul at all. But the animals knew her and loved her. First one, then another enjoyed the company of this senseless, idle nothingness. When the child drank from the artesian well, animals liked to come too, to quench their thirst alongside her. And often the girl lay between two horses as they joyfully rolled in the flowers. Other times one of them would come from behind and press its head against her back, as if to push her up the mountain, and yet another time one of them thoughtfully touched its mouth to the girl’s head as she sat with her hair undone, staring blankly forward.

For Ullmann, this connection to nature is akin to a knowledge of the divine; the girl is pictured as not having “a soul at all,” yet she remains capable of communing with the world around her, and the animals respond to her purity and innocence with affection. Writing in The Quarterly Conversation, Rosie Clarke posits that Ullmann’s “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.” This seems to be the dynamic at work here, especially when it is counterpointed by the young farmhand’s violent encounter with nature at the story’s end.

The meeting with the stag on the road back to town is depicted in dreamlike, hallucinatory language: the stag is pictured leaping over the farmhand “as if engaging the man in a wicked joust.” Later, he imagines (or perhaps not) that other stags materialize to join in the attack: “He felt their hooves, light but hard on his jacket. He could almost count them. They seemed to be releasing all their rutting fury upon him.”

The explicitly sexual imagery here is redolent of the young man’s agony at the thought of his lustful feelings for the feeble-minded young woman; there are implications that these feelings arise out of an impurity that sets the man apart from nature and from the object of his affection. In the scene on the road, the young man thinks of the stag, “It must have known that he was a man, and not a beast. Didn’t it know who he was, that this was him? He was the hunter. He might have a gun, or a scythe. Why wasn’t it afraid of those things?”

Yet Ullmann’s story contains multiple instances of nature remaining unafraid or unharmed in the face of human intervention. The story’s title refers to a sign that hangs outside the village tavern, depicting a stag fleeing from a hunter’s gaze. The stag in the image is “magnificent,” while the hunter is described as being “small and insignificant.” The scene, we are told, is “meant to depict the power and grandeur of the animal,” while the hunter is rendered impotent: “He aimed and aimed, as if it had only belatedly occurred to him, when the stag had long since leapt away.”

The echoes with the farmhand and the girl are obvious (and in case we missed them, Ullmann returns to the tavern sign in the final lines of the story). Here the theme and action of the tale come together and are given meaning. Which is not to say that the story is explicable, even after a second or third reading. Yet as with the best short fiction, it leaves its reader with a sense of something ineffable, as if the reader, too, is adrift in the dark woods, liable to fall prey to whatever forest denizens might pass by.