Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
by Friedrich Christian Delius
The third book in the initial offering from Peirene Press is saddled with a slightly cumbersome title that can't be said to have lost anything in translation coming from the literal German equivalent Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau. The format of the book is a single, 117-page sentence with paragraphs that break up the page mid-thought and punctuation limited mainly to commas; all of which sounds like a bit of a gimmick. This is Peirene Press however, whose two previous titles have been rewarding reading experiences and whose Director, Meike Zervogel, has a passionate attachment to the literature she is bringing into English translation that is borne out by adding her name to a small statement at the front of each book. With this book it was that structure that enthralled her but also the light it shed on a generation we can't help but want to examine by looking at the lives of 'ordinary' Germans during the Nazi era.
On a recent trip on the Eurostar from London to Paris I had the opportunity to really try out the reading experience that Peirene's titles are designed for. A single journey of just over two hours gave me a chance to read the book in a single sitting and it was a timely reminder of how much the reading of a book can be improved by the time and space to devour it uninterrupted. In fact if I were a bookshop in St Pancras I'd see a huge opportunity in a stand of novellas that can be read on the trip across to Europe (and how appropriate for them to be books that have already made the reverse journey, through translation, from Europe to England). Anyway, back to that format. Is the book really a single sentence? Not really. There are several moments when it cried out for a full stop and the supposed benefit or effect of all those commas - to create the flow of thought that mirrors the wandering journey of the book's narrator - could probably have been achieved just as effectively with something closer to standard punctuation. But it really isn't worth worrying about in the grand scheme of things, whatever techniques used Delius' writing has a fluidity that perfectly serves the book's purpose.
A young, pregnant German woman living in Rome during the Second World War walks through the city to attend a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. That is the plot in its entirety. As we follow her along her route we also follow the train of her thoughts and through this we learn personal details such as how she came to follow her husband to Italy and how they first met, and also gain an insight into the life of an ordinary German girl from Mecklenburg virtually alone in a country that may share fascist ideology as the machinery of the state but whose Catholic culture is in vast contrast to her Lutheran upbringing. In one section for example she passes a promenade of statuary, busts seem to adorn plinths everywhere she looks and
'she could not help thinkingThat man, Gert, her recent husband, had no sooner brought her to Rome than he was redeployed to North Africa. Through her monologue we realise that our narrator is naive in almost all aspects of her life and riven by the conflict of her upbringing, her love, her conscience and her loneliness. Gert has expressed in the past his standpoint on faith and power, something he is uniquely placed to comment on having been both preacher and soldier.
that so many die each day on the battlefronts, each head a life, each life a gift, each life at the centre of other lives, although she knew that every day it was thousands more than these men here, but with these heads, all so different from each other, it was easier to imagine what each individual life meant, just how many hopes, efforts, joys and pains, and yet she felt how narrow her power of imagination was, because in truth she was only thinking of one life, the one which influenced and affected her most,'
'our God, our Bible, our faith are greater than all reason, and also greater than all the figures of authority we include in our intercessionary prayers in church, so that they may act responsibly, but if the Fuhrer places himself above God and God's will, then we must not obey him blindly'
But all that eloquence can be punctured by the reality and confusion of the militarised citizen during Nazi rule
'even Gert wore God and the eagle and the swastika across his stomach, but he did not like to talk about it, it was all too difficult,'
That difficulty is a crucial thing that keeps returning, she doesn't want to compare her religious faith with her loyalty as a German for example, she doesn't want to think about those things that are too unpleasant. Quite often it means a return to the personal; she may be praying for victory but it is really only because victory would mean an end to the war and the return of her husband. That flow I mentioned earlier allows Delius to move seamlessly from thought to thought and in that way he is able to cover a huge amount of ground in a relatively small amount of pages. Perhaps appropriately for a publisher specialising in literature in translation this novel has a lot to say about the differences between cultures even at a time when you might expect war to break down those constructions by bringing everything down to its basest level. Cultures separated by history, religion and language prove to have an entirely different response to even the concept of war itself as is explained to our narrator by an elder fellow German.
'the war is going on too long for them, people only like war if it is young, and for the Italians the war is feminine, la guerra, whereas for us Germans it is masculine, people only idolize young women, do you understand what I'm saying,'
In my review of Stone In A Landslide I mentioned my surprise that a book covering such a turbulent period and containing such hardship could have such a gentle feel through it's own narrator. This book achieves almost the opposite with a very gentle set up and approach that contains some hard hitting moments and an elegiac denouement. That, coupled with its format, means that it may be the kind of book that would offer a very different read when approached again in a different setting for the reader. Peirene should be commended for these first three titles, all of which share distinctive and memorable female narrators. Their forthcoming releases are building on a solid foundation and with a new translation from Anthea Bell amongst them it is hard not to be excited about the future of another independent press with a genuine love for distinctive literature.