Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is the third publication from Peirene Press. Translated from the original German novella by Freidrich Christian Delius (published 2008), the book charts one afternoon in the life of a young German woman during the Nazi era. The young woman is pregnant, and living in Rome in 1943 in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns. Her husband is a soldier posted in Africa.
The narrative structure of the story is unusual. The whole book is told in one long sentence. While the story is not written in the first person, the long sentence makes it feel like a stream of consciousness. This unusual structure works well. It is surprisingly easy to follow, as the paragraphs indicate where one observation moves to another, and actually makes the story flow quite beautifully. I felt as if I was right there with this young pregnant woman, in a warm haze, walking along on a bright afternoon.
What the author does quite cleverly is to create a mood where time feels suspended. Also, the woman’s thoughts feel almost unconsious, as if she is absorbing what she sees and feels around her into her thought process, and these things trigger other ideas in her head. To begin with there is an atmosphere of orderliness – fresh flowers, nurses with starched bonnets and a sense of the connection that the woman has with her own pregnant body. Throughout the narrative, worrying doubts seem to enter the woman’s mind at the edge of her subconsciousness. She considers that bombs ‘never drop’ on Rome. This is repeated throughout the book with an assertion that the allies would never think of destroying such a historic an beautiful city. It feels as if she is assuring herself ‘they wouldn’t would they?’.
The woman is portrayed as naive, although the author hints that it may be a sort of chosen innocence. She notices the newspapers posted up for all to see, but cannot understand the Italian words:
“…she was happy that she was unable to read, any of it and did not have to, even in Germany she had not read the papers, it was better not to know too much, not to ask too much, not to say too much, one always heard bad news soon enough…”
Later she considers whether an Italian and German victory is really assured. She wonders about whether there are any Jews in Rome:
“…she could not recall having seen any, maybe wearing yellow stars on their coats, and she had not heard the thorny word Jew uttered by any of her Roman acquaintances…”
At times her thoughts about what she has been taught in in the League of German Girls, and the morals that she has been brought up with by her family are conflicted. She wonders whether Hitler could be wrong to be seeming sometimes to be putting himself on a par with God. She thinks of her friend Gert’s comment that “if the Führer places himself above God and God’s will, then we must not follow him blindly” but comments how it ‘was all so difficult with GOD WITH US stood on the soldiers’ belt buckles, above an eagle on a swastika, God and Führer were united on every uniform”.
I would normally expect to find such seemingly forced naiveté frustrating or irritating, however I found that I couldn’t help but empathise with this young woman, who was going through a momentous period of her life, missing her husband posted thousands of miles away. The author’s descriptions of the relationship between the woman and her view of her own body are very tender, and the courtship of husband and wife are equally moving, making her seem like just a very ordinary kind of person, and making her easy to relate to.
Delius should be congratulated on producing a rather beautiful descriptive work, and also managing to find the fine line between trying to show how an ordinary German woman could shut themselves off from the awful realities of the Nazi regime, while avoiding crossing over to being an work of apology.
This was a review copy that I was really looking forward to receiving, and I wasn’t disappointed. I hope that Peirene Press can continue to introduce me to these lovely works of European translated literature. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a beautiful, elegant and thought-provoking piece of writing.
8 out of 10
What novellas have you read recently and loved? Can you recommend other publishers that highlight more unusual or otherwise less easily accessed works of fiction?