On Friday I was at The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (yes, I did pose proudly by my name on the Bloggers’ Book of the Month stand) to hear Kim of Reading Matters interview both Friedrich Christian Delius, author of Peirene’s latest book Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (2006), and Jamie Bulloch, the translator. Kim did a fantastic job; Herr Delius was very interesting; I confirmed what I already suspected – one year studying German in 1999 did not stand me in good stead when a section was read from the novella.
I’ve been promising a review for a while, and Meike from Peirene more or less threatened to stop sending me books, and start sending hate mail and letter bombs instead, if I didn’t actually make good on my promise. She needn’t have worried, because Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is my favourite of Peirene’s titles so far, and possibly the most convincing narrative voice I have read for a very long time. I certainly can’t think of a man-writing-a-woman or a woman-writing-a-man which has been more believable or evocative.
I’d better kick off my thoughts by mentioning the ‘gimmick’ behind Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – that it is all one sentence. All 125pp of it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that at all, because if you’re anything like me it will make you a bit nervous. Especially if you were forced to read Ulysses in your first year of university, with its 100pp. at the end sans punctuation… and there’s that hint of James Joyce in the title of Delius’ book (in the English, at least) but wait! Somehow the absence of full stops along the way doesn’t hinder the novel or make it difficult to read – rather, it enhances the beautiful flow and, with the structure of paragraphs and clauses, makes it feel a bit like a constant walking pace.
Which is precisely what it is. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman follows a young pregnant woman as she walks through the streets of Rome in January 1943. Indeed, the first line is “Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk” – the advice given to the woman by a doctor. She certainly takes up his advice – in terms of plot, there is very little. Instead we follow her path through Rome, sometimes inside her mind and sometimes panning around her instead. It isn’t really stream of consciousness or even in the first person, but it is still a novella entirely captivated by the woman’s mind and personality. She is kind, perhaps naive, perhaps simply someone with very human and empathetic priorities – ‘she prayed to be allowed to bring her child into the world during a night without sirens and without bombs falling on the world’. She misses her husband Gert who is in Africa; she looks towards the future as a wife and mother; she is interested in everything she passes by, without letting her curiosity hold her in one place for too long. The war is not something she feels keenly as an international affair – only where it crosses her path; where it interrupts her happy images of past, present, and future. Which is, I imagine, the most honest portrait of a young German woman’s experience of war.
Most beautifully, to my mind, is her perspective as a young Christian woman. I don’t know whether or not Delius has Christian faith (I don’t like the word ‘religious’ because it covers so vast a territory, and is a barren, emotionless word) but he certainly knows how to portray the beauty of this woman’s faith in its calmness and simple vitality. Especially moving is the conflict she feels between Christianity and her wartime national identity – complicated further, perhaps, by being in Rome.
the Fuhrer himself who, as her father and Gert sometimes cautiously hinted, made the mistake of placing himself above God, or practically allowing himself to be venerated as a god, and so exaggerated the belief in race and the superiority of the German national community,
You are nothing, your people is everything!, that the racial theories contradicted ever more sharply the obligations of humility and brotherly love, and repeatedly gave rise to fresh inner conflicts in young people like her,
without the Church and her devout parents and several courageous preachers she would not have been able to cope with the daily conflict between the cross of the Church and the crooked cross of the swastika
This woman, by the way, is not simply any mother – but is heavily based on Delius’ mother. I had a bit of a oh-gosh moment at the talk when I realised that the baby she is carrying, thinking so much about, and planning for, is Delius himself.
As an exploration of a woman’s life, this is a beautiful novella – but as an exploration of his mother’s life, it somehow becomes even more beautiful. I feel that this might be a novella I will return to in a few years’ time, and a few years after that – so much to glean from its pages. Jamie Bulloch is to be strongly commended for his translation – I can’t read Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman in its original German, but the English has such a lovely lilt and continual flow to it that I can only assume nothing was lost in translation.
Books to get Stuck into:
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf: this is the obvious comparison, I think, similarly taking place within one day (though not so short a timescale as Delius’ novella). Her journey through London and this woman’s through Rome are equally striking.
Stone in a Landslide – Maria Barbal: it might see lazy to mention another Peirene title, but I kept thinking about this novella as another moving account of a woman living through momentous times.