In the opening, title story, throughout its three parts, we do not learn why the main character is on the dusty road but once she stops at a house, we hear a tale told by a minor character, the narrator’s neighbor talking about her family and background, the most detail of any character in the book. In “Retold . . .” Ullmann seems to answer the reader’s question of whether these minor and, for the most part, unnamed characters are worth the effort: “We can’t just go and say: ‘I don’t want to put in too much effort for this man. Much less for that one.’ At bottom, everyone is worth endless effort, and that goes for us as well as for them.”
The quality and effort of writing (and translation) is immediately evident in the book’s first paragraph:
Summer, but a younger summer than this one; the summer back then was no more than my equal in years. 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. It grazed on the green knoll where I sat, a knoll with an almost sacred form, where I had taken refuge from the dust of the country road. Because I was weary. I was weary because I was alone. This long country road before and behind me . . . The bends that it made around this knoll, the poplars—even heaven itself could not relieve it of its bleakness. I was ill at ease, because just a short way into my walk, this road had already dragged me into its misery and squalor. It was an uncanny country road. An all-knowing road. A road reserved for those who had been, in some way, left alone.Though these glimpses into rural life are not linked, there are some echoes like the repetition of a hunchback, though not the same one. And the first and last “stories” work like bookends since they both have to do with a girl on the road who does stop but then later continues on, the last one, however, returning to pick up her life in the town.
The only short story with beginning, middle, and end is “The Old Tavern Sign,” which has to do with a beautiful mentally impaired young woman who attracts a young man who can’t get her out of his head. To distract himself, he starts to woo another young woman, but on his way home, veers off the path in order to encounter the “beautiful, feeble-minded girl.” Unfortunately, the story takes a tragic turn when he runs into rutting stags in the woods. This tale is meant to explain a tavern sign with its design of a hunter and a stag, the only story with a clear explanation.
In “Strawberries” the author reveals her reluctance to tell what the story is about:
It’s a strange thing about human thoughts. If I told someone this story, he would probably have trouble saying at this point what it is about, since nothing has been thought yet, nothing had been done. It had only been felt.Ultimately, Ullmann’s prose is felt. The most beautiful sections and most joyous stories occur in the middle of the book involving children’s sense of wonder. The most enchanting of these children vignettes “The Christmas Visit” traces the wonder of children while singing “of the news from heaven,” looking at an atlas to see “how the land suddenly stuck its tongue out into the sea,” marveling at whipped cream called “Niedl,” smelling the two strong hyacinths “which shot their white roots from the water like flames.” The culmination of their sensory experiences makes their joy palpable, their joy captured in the last paragraph. In another story of childish wonder, “The Hot Air Balloon,” we see the kind of beauty Ullmann presents: “sometimes the whole world appears to be painted on porcelain, right down to the dangerous cracks.”
Taken on its own terms, this book is a unique and glorious experience, both for those trying to escape contemporary fiction and for those just wanting to enjoy Ullmann’s insights and beautiful prose.