Fiction – paperback; Peirene Press; 115 pages; 2010. Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
It is rare for me to read a book more than once, so it must be exceptional for me to read it three times. But with Friedrich Christian Delius’ novella, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman — which won the 2009 Evangelical Book Prize — that’s exactly what I did. And it got better and better with each read.
The story is a simple one. It is January 1943 and a 21-year-old German woman, residing in Rome while her husband is redeployed on active service in North Africa, takes a stroll from her accommodation — a guest room in an old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns — to a concert at the church on Via Sicilia. She is eight months pregnant with her first child.
During the walk, which takes roughly an hour (a little shorter than the time required to read the novel), she admires the beauty of the Roman streets, thinks about her unborn child, reminisces about her courtship with her husband, Gert, a preacher-turned-solider, and tries not to worry about the future because it is out of her hands and, in her view, up to God’s will.
There is little plot or action of which to speak, because the novel works primarily on the basis that you are inside this woman’s head and privy to her most intimate thoughts. It’s not exactly stream-of-consciousness, but her inner monologue feels incredibly authentic as it leaps about from one subject to the next and keeps coming back to the issues that most concern her — how much she misses her husband, for instance, and how she cannot bear the stares of Italian men wherever she goes.
But during her walk, there’s a real sense that Margherita is trying to come to a crucial understanding of what it means to be German under the Third Reich and how her strong evangelical belief might be blinding her to the harsh realities of war. On more than one occasion she admits that “it was better not to know too much” but she is conscious of the need to pray for victory, although, somewhat tellingly, this is not out of pure national duty, but because it might bring her beloved husband home much sooner.
While she seems alarmingly naive — she believes that “no bombs would fall on Rome, that was certain, it was obvious, the English would not raze the Eternal city”, nor can she understand “why there is not enough bread in wartime, and why it is getting even scarcer” — there’s a real sense that maybe she’s keeping her thoughts in check because to do otherwise might prove too confronting to her sense of national identity.
Indeed, national identify is a recurring theme, as Margherita constantly mulls over her foreignness and the foreignness of her surroundings and the people she meets.
Other themes include her thankfulness — for food, shelter, safety — and her unwavering faith in God. It’s clear she is very religious, but there’s a telling passage, towards the end of the book, where she recalls how her father, a preacher, tried to lead workers, communists and Nazis “away from political ideas and win them for heavenly salvation” . And later still, she comes to realise that the Nazis subverted religious symbols, in particular the eagle of John the Evangelist, for their own propaganda.
For such a “gentle” book there are some very hard-hitting ideas about politics and religion in it.
Of course, I can’t conclude my review without mentioning the book’s “selling point”, which is largely that it comprises one very long 117-page sentence. It’s not quite as off-putting as it might sound, because it is written in bite-sized stanzas, with plenty of commas, to guide your eye. In fact, it has an incredible rhythm, with a gentle, lilting, almost musical quality to it, making it a joy to read.
And finally, if you’ve ever wanted to travel to Rome, this book will have you itching to book your flights. Delius writes so evocatively of its streetscapes and architecture that it feels very much like a love letter to a beautiful city.
Just a reminder that I’m “in conversation with” Friedrich Christian Delius and his translator Jamie Bulloch at the Big Green Bookshop, London, Wood Green, N22 tomorrow evening — Friday September 17 at 7pm — to talk about this book and some of the issues I’ve hinted at in my review. Feel free to come along for an evening of free entertainment (and hopefully not too many uncomfortable sllences) and a glass of wine. But if you can’t make it, and have a question for the author, do leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to ask it on your behalf!