Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third of three in the Peirene series 'Female Voices' - the other two are Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi and Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal - and as you can probably see, it is the first and only book of the three actually written by a man, and also the first published in German, in 2006.
The story centres on a young German woman who is stranded in Rome in January 1943, having travelled there from her parents' village to meet her young husband who is stationed there having been sent back from Russia 'lightly wounded' to preach in the German-adopted Lutheran church on Via Sicilia in Rome, the Germans and Italians of course being WWII allies at this point. She is heavily pregnant and alone in the city but is well-looked after by German nuns in a sort of hospital cum boarding house, so for her this is a oddly comfortable yet nightmarish time, her husband serving in Africa and her about to have her first child.
Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk (p9)says her doctor, so through the course of this novella we follow her as she walks through the Eternal City from her boarding house to the aforementioned church on Via Sicilia, which is holding a Bach concert at four 'clock on a sunny afternoon. It is a picturesque and timeless journey through some of Rome's most beautiful vistas and alleyways, so the scenery of Rome is described evocatively and idiosyncratically to us, woven tightly within her taut, meandering thoughts, reminiscences and dreams. Hers is a fascinating mind: it is so ordinary and typical, you could say, but from a modern perspective it is fascinating as she lets us in on all the influences that would have invaded and coloured the average German mind by 1943. As one might imagine, they are not straightforward.
The experience of reading this book is particularly special because of one unique structural quirk: the entire novella, all 125 pages, is written in one epically long sentence that uses commas and paragraph indents liberally, but only has one, final, full stop. The effect is...unsettling, frantic and compelling, and it means it is very difficult to leave her as firstly she is always straight into the next thing, and secondly because there are no page or chapter breaks. She talks and talks and then we leave her forever, listening to Bach, sat in a pew. It is amazing but Delius pulls it off. I can't even imagine what a nightmare it must have been for Jamie Bulloch to translate.
and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in her hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as "the girl" and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta,
while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircase... (p10)
So, my thoughts. I almost have too many. This book is AMAZING. I read it in what seemed like a moment but was actually a few hours. This girl...my heart broke into tiny little pieces, and by the end I was sobbing as I knew what was happening and I couldn't stop it and there is no pausing for breath; and then it's over. This book turns on a sentence, a sentence of epic, weighty proportion, and I felt it approaching and when it did I could barely bear to read it, but what can you do? I actually hugged the book (I know) for quite a while after closing it, and was almost despondent with sadness for the main character until at least the following day (but still now, really, writing this.)
I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but to explain my review I perhaps need to open the door a little more and say that I loved this girl because I understood her. And this is because...my own husband got sent off to Iraq just after we'd married and been sent to Germany to live by the British Army, right at the moment when winter began to close in and the nights got very, very long. Now, it wasn't anything like as bad as in this book, but then I was still only learning the very basics of German at that point and didn't really know that many people, so can vouch for the truth of this girl's forging of an artificial and lonely routine for herself to shield her mind from the worst of the worry of a husband at war.
I mean, you can only stay in bed and cry for so long before you have to do something, but you don't know anyone or the place you're living, so the small things you do know - for instance, the concerts at church on Via Sicilia - get put up on a pedestal of wild importance and become entrenched in your experience of a time and a place. Then, once you've established a routines of sorts, the completing of that routine becomes a comfort to you and almost a talisman for your husband's safety...and so you can spiral, if you're not careful. All is fine now lol, but, suffice to say, I felt every word she said. On a very personal note, it reminded me once again how liberating and devastating it is when a unknown writer accurately details shades of your own experience, and how important and life-affirming it is that they do.
So, read this book. It's my undoubtedly my favourite Peirene book so far, and that is impressive.
Other reviews in the Peirene Press Readathon series:
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Title: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
Author: Friedrich Christian Delius, translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch
Series: Female Voices
Date: Original 2006, translation 2010
Format: Paperback, 125 pages, and this is actually a copy I bought long before this readathon was even thought of, namely for the title because all my friends are having babies and if I have a question about life I, you know, read... :)