Tag Archives: Peirene Press

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Freidrich Christian Delius

Portrait of The Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius

Peirene Press, 2010, 125 pages, review copy.

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.

My rating:

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?

Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi

Peirene Press, 2010, 120 pages, review copy.

Glowing reviews from other bloggers brought this little book to my attention and in doing so, Peirene Press also which is a new independent publishing house whose mission is to bring gems of contemporary European fiction to monoglots like myself who can read only in English. The Peirene translation of Maria Barbal’s Stone in a Landslide was my first, very positive experience of this publisher and now I have read all three that have been printed so far. All are short – around 100 pages or so. The brevity of these books is not the only thing that they share however. I have found that each novella is written with a certain intensity which leaves me feeling slightly bereft on turning the final page. In this regard, Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi was no exception.

In Beside the Sea, a single mother takes her two little boys for a holiday by the seaside. How delightful, yes? No. From the outset the mood is subdued. The bus journey is late at night and it is too dark outside to be able to see the countryside as they pass it. The mother is conscious that her children are the only ones creating a disturbance. When they reach the hotel, they climb laboriously up the stairs to the sixth floor, to find a sad little room with torn sheets and a shared bathroom. When they go to the supermarket and to a cafe, people are hostile. On top of that it rains, and rains and rains.

It is clear that something is not right and that the narrator (the boys’ mother) is unsettled. References to missed medication and social workers hint at this, and an obvious lack of money suggests a deprived background. The narrative voice is at times soft and contemplative, full of love for her children, and at others veers towards anger at the world. One heartbreaking scene in the book is when they go to get a bite to eat, and the mother goes to pay with the few coins that they have:

“The owner looked disgusted, he looked at the scattered money like he’d never seen anything so dirty…”

It is hard to tell if people are really cold and cruel or if the mother, only perceives this to be the case. The mother’s internal reaction to her older son Stan’s actions seem out of proportion to reality. When they go down to the beach Stan runs off ahead in his own little world, and when she catches up to him “something terrible happened”. The little boy hits her and runs away, leaving her feeling  that a great chasm has come between them. Her language, while quite basic, is full of heavy-emotion and conveys a sense of desolation which permeates throughout the novel:

“I no longer existed. I had no voice left, no more words, nothing could reach him. I stopped shouting. Stan’s outsized clothes were moving all on their own in the wind, he reminded me of a boat. I didn’t know how to bring boats in.”

Beside the Sea, is a sad, sad novel. It is is also unique, moving and completely heart-stopping.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal

Stone in a Landslide, is a novella by Maria Barbal who, born in 1949 is considered the most influential living Catalan author and has written eight novels. Admittedly, I’d never heard of her but when this slimline volume popped through the post, I was drawn to the synopsis:

The beginning of the 20th century: 13-year-old Conxa leaves her home village in the Pyrenees to work for her childless aunt. After years of hardship she finds love with Jaume – a love that will be thwarted by the Spanish Civil War. Approaching her own death, Conxa looks back on a life in which she has lost everything except her own indomitable spirit.

The fact that she had won several awards and a quick scan through to get a sense of Barbal’s writing style gave me confidence that this story might be a little gem.

From the synopsis, I expected drama and a complicated love story. The drama is there, underneath the surface, but very subtly conveyed. The character is looking back on her life – at her departure from her childhood home at young age, the experience of falling in love and raising a child and of being caught up in events caused by the Spanish Civil War while not having much understanding of why it was happening. While there were many poignant memories and moments in the book, I felt that Conxa’s voice maintained a gentle detached quality which conveyed realistically, the perspective of a woman at the end of her life.

Barbal’s writing is simple but not simplistic, which makes for a fluid and enjoyable read. The best way that I can describe this style is ‘streamlined’ as the experiences, thoughts and impressions of the protagonist are captured in short chapters and images that provoke sympathy with the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the way that she describes her careworn mother;

“Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Female characters are important in the story and are a strong influence on Conxa, whether it be her hardworking mother, spirited aunt Tia or her friend Delina, suspicious of men and the “illusion of love”. Barbal explores the traditional roles of men and women in rural Catalonia and how a woman is so central to home-life when Conxa is dreaming of having a son:

“A boy will be a man. And a man has the strength to deal with the land, the animals, to build. But I didn’t see it so clearly. When I thought about the families I knew well, I saw the woman as the foundation stone. If I thought about my home, it was my mother who did all the work or organised others to do it. Not to mention Tia. The woman had the children, raised them, harvested, took care of the pigsty, the chicken coop, the rabbits. She did the housework and so many other things…”

I also loved the imagery of the environment, in particular one passage where Conxa talks about picking mushrooms – I could almost smell the earth and feel her joy in the simple pleasure of it all.

I only felt a little sad that the book didn’t paint a better picture of Jaume, who Conxa falls in love with. While the relationship forms an important part of the book at times I felt that I didn’t know him at all. This is why I would say that the women in Conxa’s life were more rounded characters and also more central to the book  than the love story.

Stone in a Landslide was a pleasure to read. I was  impressed at how the writing was emotive but restrained, and it was descriptive without being indulgent. I really heard Conxa’s voice. I felt I was listening to her experiences which were that of a lifetime covered in just a few pages. A wonderful glimpse into a life of beauty and of upheaval.

My rating:

8 out of 10

More information about Peirene Press can be found here.

What short books have you enjoyed lately?