There are lots of things I like about Peirene Press and I’ll come clean – one of them is that they asked me if I’d like a copy of this book to read. More importantly (yes more important in my scale of priorities than presents) I love that these books are short. I don’t read much in translation, there’s no particular reason or prejudice behind this gap in my literary experience beyond a huge pile of other reading preoccupations which have initially proved more attractive, and so many of the books I see in translation strike me as worthy rather than fun, but reading books like this one are a revelation which make me think I should try a little harder to see what else is out there.
‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ has a particularly personal resonance for me. It’s a single sentence stretching over 117 describing the thoughts and feelings of a young, heavily pregnant, German girl as she walks through Rome on her way to church. Its 1943, her husband is in Africa and the future is looking uncertain. It’s personal to me because my grandmother was German; she met my English Grandfather whilst he was in the army and I don’t suppose he behaved in a very gentlemanly fashion. She arrived here with a baby (which I believe was news to him) sometime in the latter half of the ‘40’s. They made the best of it but by the time I knew her it’s safe to say she was bitter about the way her life had gone, she had good reason but it didn’t make her very nice to be around. Delius has made me wonder what my grandmother was like when she was young and had the prospect of happiness in front of her. She didn’t tell her story and now she’s gone it’s lost but the aftermath of her history is very much alive and felt within the family.
Delius’s typical young woman is conscious throughout of her otherness. She’s not the enemy but she’s definitely a foreign object, a walking symbol of the war – something that she and the reader are constantly aware of. She’s also innocent of anything other than a determined avoidance of thought. Somewhere at the back of her mind there is clearly the niggling idea that all is not right with the Reich, but more pressing are the everyday cares – foremost her concern for her husband and unborn child. To doubt is to be disloyal – victory isn’t so much about lands conquered, but the safe return of loved ones and the chance to form a family. I can’t imagine anything which makes people more selfish or dangerous – or easier to understand.
I read this book over a few lunch hours which I think was a bit of a mistake, next time I mean to sit down and just read; I know there’s a lot more in here for me and that some if it fell through the gaps of bitty reading. That long single sentence demands you invest the time to read it properly, which is fair enough given the length of the book. I will also admit that when I read about it I wasn’t sure how it would work for me as a device, but in the end I didn’t really notice the lack of full stops (which might say something about me and my approach to punctuation). There are a lot of paragraphs, and sometimes I wasn’t sure why they were there – something I’d love to know about, and which makes me really sorry that I couldn’t attend a recent event with both writer and translator (living in the provinces rather tends to rule these things out damn it) but never mind, there are plenty of reviews out there and enough research should hopefully answer all my questions.
The only other German book about the war I’ve read is Bernard Schlink’s ‘The Reader’ in which there is a definite need to explain, excuse, and atone. ‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’ is just that – a portrait, and one with the hint of a challenge to the reader which seems like a good step further on in discussing what being on the ‘losing’ side does to a nation as well as to a person. Will all the hope, love, and pride in this young woman survive what’s to come, or will she lose too much?
I would love to either go on talking about this book, or make a snappy conclusion here, but the truth is that for all its brevity I’ll be mulling it over for quite a lot longer, it felt so elegant and self contained, yet full of ideas, and to be honest I hardly know where to start or finish with my thoughts on it. It amazes me that a writer can pack so much into so few pages and so neatly too, and that’s before I even start to consider that it’s been translated as well.