Monday, 7 January 2013

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman: Friedrich Christian Delius

This is another of the wonderful Peirene Press novellas in translation.  Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, is from Germany, but set in Italy in 1943.  It isn't a coincidence that the author, Friedrich Christian Delius, was brought up in Rome, where his father was a Pastor, during the war.  He captures the atmosphere beautifully.

A young girl is stranded in Rome by the war.  Her Pastor husband has been posted to north Africa - a bare two days after her arrival - and she’s alone and in the last month of her pregnancy.  She lives with protestant German nuns, sharing a room with another woman whose fiancé has been interned in Australia.   The Italians are unwelcoming, and the war is going badly, but the girl has no desire to return to northern Germany and the frugal, evangelical territory of her childhood.  Instead she waits, for her husband to return, for her baby to arrive, and - the reader feels - for some kind of epiphany.

'…she should not allow herself to feel this longing, it was not appropriate for a German soldier’s wife, who ought to be waiting patiently at home, first for the final victory and then for her husband, but she was not at home, she was in a foreign place, and carrying a child, she had thrown herself into an adventure, left her home and parents and followed her husband, without realizing that God had another plan for her, and nobody could expect her to stroll through this place with a happy heart . . .'

The events of the story occur within a single day, and are narrated in real time while the girl takes her customary daily walk across Rome, on the doctor’s instructions.   It took me a while to realise that there are no full stops in this story, just a rhythmic prose, arranged in stanza-like paragraphs, that carries you forward on a journey through one of the most beautiful of cities, and through the mind and the life of the young girl.

‘. . . the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all those things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners . . .’

The ending is very moving and it leaves you wanting to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing again. It’s a beautiful, reflective piece of prose, as lyrical and perfectly structured as a poem.  Not surprising perhaps, as the author is also a poet and one of Germany’s finest contemporary authors.  It seems criminal that this is the only one of his fourteen novels that I can find in English, not to mention the five poetry collections.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
by Friedrich Christian Delius
Peirene Press

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