Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Friedrich Christian Delius, Italy, literary fiction, Peirene Press, Publisher, Setting

‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ by Friedrich Christian Delius

Portrait-of-a-Mother

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!

Author, Book review, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Tom Rachman

‘The Imperfectionists’ by Tom Rachman

The-Imperfectionists

Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 336 pages; 2010.

In recent years I’ve read several short story collections masquerading as novels. For example, both Alaa As Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building and Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers told the individual and interconnected stories of residents living in the same building, the former in Cairo, the latter in Manhattan.

Colum McCann did something similar in last year’s prize-winning novel Let The Great World Spin, using Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire act between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 7, 1974 as a kind of bridging link to tell the stories of a diverse range of characters living in the city at that time. Even Christos Tsiolkas has got in on the act: his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Slap, looks at the lives and loves of various residents in the Melbourne suburbs, using a controversial slap at a family barbecue as the particular incident that links all the short stories together.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists uses this structure too, but this time the link is a busy newspaper office in downtown Rome where each of the characters is employed. The unnamed paper is an English-language publication with a global readership and is largely staffed by expat Americans. There are 11 characters all told, so that means there are 11 short stories, each of which are roughly 25 pages in length. That’s plenty of space to flesh out their eccentricities and foibles, and to develop them into fully-rounded human beings. But not enough that you get more than a brief snap shot of their present day lives circa 2007.

In between each chapter (short story) Rachman provides a brief update on the newspaper’s progress, moving from its establishment in 1960 at a time “when nobody’s making real money out of something like this”, through to its peak in the early 1980s when circulation hit 25,000 and journalistic standards were high, and then charting its slow decline as circulations and revenues got hit, first by television then the internet, until the present day in which circulation is down, the paper lacks a website and closure looks imminent. It’s a fascinating potted history of the newspaper game, some of which cuts very close to the bone for this particular reader!

The newspaper theme is borne out by the chapter headings, which are all headlines — “Global warming good for ice creams”, “Markets crash over fears of China slowdown”, “Bush slumps to new low in polls” — under which the relevant job title of the particular character is also listed  — everyone from corrections editor, to news editor, editor-in-chief to publisher are represented.

And while much of the content is tongue-in-cheek satire of journalism (think Evelyn Waugh’s delightfully funny Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning), there’s an undercurrent of despair running through it, too: the highly experienced Paris correspondent, who has been replaced by “freelancers selling jaw-dropping stuff”, is so desperate to earn a commission he fabricates a lead story; the 30-something business editor who works long, hard hours is so lonely and starved of companionship she becomes involved with the dodgy Irish chap who burgles her flat; the obituary writer has been so sidelined in his career it takes the death of someone close to him to spur him on to achieve better things.

But, typically, the chapter I most enjoyed — “The sex lives of Islamic extremists” — was the stand-out funny one. It tells the story of Winston Cheung, a hapless graduate, who moves to Egypt in order to apply for the job of Cairo stringer despite the fact he doesn’t have a clue about journalism (“Every day in Cairo news events take place. But where? At what time?”). He is led astray by a highly experienced foreign correspondent, Rich Snyder, who is competing for the same job. Rich wears combat trousers, never stops boasting about his scoops and awards (“It’s so dumb – I hate getting awards. And journalism is not a competition. It’s not about that, you know. But, whatever.”) and is an expert freeloader. When he runs off with Winston’s house key and laptop, it looks like Winston’s chance at getting the job is over…

As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business. I have KevinfromCanada to thank for tipping me off about The Imperfectionists and would urge you to read his review for another take on the same book.

Alternatively, you can wait for the film: apparently Brad Pitt’s production company has snapped up the rights to it.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, literary fiction, Publisher, Salley Vickers, Setting

‘The Other Side of You’ by Salley Vickers

OtherSide

Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 271 pages; 2007.

Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel was my favourite book of 2006 and so it was with some trepidation that I picked up The Other Side of You on a trip to Italy for some much-needed poolside reading: would it live up to expectations?

As you will see from the five-stars above, the answer was a resounding yes.

The tale is told from two perspectives: Dr David McBride, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Elizabeth Cruikshank, a failed suicide. Essentially it is a story about their relationship and how, over time, trust grows between them. But The Other Side of You also tackles some bigger, yet more subtle, themes, including how the decisions we make impact on the rest of our lives and how we never really know the people we are closest to.

During one of his sessions with the normally reticent Elizabeth, David confesses that “there’s no cure for being alive” and that the only thing to do is to “find a way to live”. Having lost a sibling as a child, this is exactly how David has lived his life, keeping the pain buried deep within but sometimes imagining he could “bring him back by willing it”.

But it is only when the pair begin to discuss a painting by Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus — which depicts the moment when the resurrected Jesus reveals himself to two unsuspecting disciples — that Elizabeth begins to open up and reveal the hidden pain that caused her to attempt to take her own life.

Age and disease and death may destroy our physical being but it is other people who get inside us and damage our hearts and minds. My work has occasioned ample examples of this but it was Elizabeth Cruikshank who really made me understand it. […] That long winter afternoon, which grew into evening, while I sat with Elizabeth Cruikshank and she told me her story, I abandoned all the accepted methods of working.

What follows is a riveting tale about a tragic love affair, which swings between London and Rome, so beautifully and exquisitely told (by Vickers) that the reader must give up all hope of putting the book down. In fact, I read it in one sitting and by the end of the marathon reading session — some 270 odd pages — I felt utterly devastated. The story lingered in my mind for days and weeks afterwards, but its aftermath felt so “raw” I could not bear to review the book, knowing I could never do it justice. Even now, I realise how meaningless this review sounds compared to the beauty, wisdom and intelligence of Vickers’ prose, where every page has at least one sentence — or paragraph — that truly resonates.

The Observer described The Other Side of You as “a compelling mediation on love” but I think the Independent summed it up best: “There is something rare and special about Vickers as a novelist. She manages to touch something buried deep in all of us.”

In my humble opinion, I think this is a remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss. I cried buckets when I got to the end, and I rather suspect you might too.