Wednesday, August 25, 2010

"hospitable and harsh, beautiful and uncanny city"

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
By Friedrich Christian Delius
Translated from German by Jamie Bulloch
125 pages
Peirene Press
September 2010

          after every confinement there was space, after every darkness, light, after every emergency, help, but it was uncomfortable and exhausting and involved much sacrifice to obtain light and salvation, redemption and beatitude, that was more or less the meaning of this verse, everything was good, everything was in God's hands, and the more solid people were in this belief, the less they would be troubled by questions and anxieties, the more calmly they could wander down dark streets such as this, . . . (72-73)

Friedrich Christian Delius was born in 1943 in Rome, the eldest of four siblings. He began contributing to his school and local papers in 1961 and published his first book of poetry, Kerholz, in 1965. In 1964 Delius joined the Gruppe 47 association of post-war German writers and read from his novella, Die Birnen von Ribbeck, at its final meeting in 1990. Throughout his award-winning career, Delius has published fourteen novels, five poetry collections, and, most recently, the libretto for the opera Prospero by Luca Lombardi. Since 2002 he has lived mainly in Rome. His mother, the subject of his novel Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman), passed away in 1995, thirty-five years after the death of his father, a pastor in the German Evangelical Church.

In 1943 Delius's mother was twenty-one, alone, and eight months pregnant in Rome, waiting in a kind of limbo for the return of her husband from North Africa. The product of an austere Lutheran upbringing, she is innocent and naïve and prefers to trust that everything is in God's hands. She worries about her freethinking roommate Ilse, who converses with the Italian servants and has the habit of broaching subjects that make the young mother uncomfortable. It is now January and she has been in Rome for nine weeks. Tonight she is headed to a performance at the local German Protestant church. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is constructed as a single sentence that follows her thoughts on love, war, faith, and the Eternal City from the time she leaves her apartment to her musical experience at the concert.

Delius's single, rambling sentence is rich with psychological depth and the ancient, opulent grandeur of Rome. The visual sensuality of a "steeply towering, chocolate-box villa, busy with hemispheres, columns, mouldings, recesses and statues" is set against the distant influence of a father "who would consider the stone-sculptured naked boys indecent" (88). Between her father and her husband, the young mother seems incapable of forming an opinion of her own. It is this blind acceptance of patriarchal authority that holds her back from appreciating the new and unfamiliar and, by extension, from confronting disturbing questions. But she can in no way be called a bad person. She recognizes her privileged position in a time of great suffering and realizes that is is "un-Christian to shed tears for one's own misfortune and to forget the far greater misfortunes of others, the joys of life were limitless, each day she could delight in her child, and today she might look forward to the church concert, . . ." (40). What becomes increasingly clear instead is that she is instead a flawed person, just like anyone else. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a portrait of cognitive dissonance and the inability to overcome personal barriers.

Which bring us to the proverbial elephant in the room. In his mock essay "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," Borges argues that the interpretation of a text is as much influenced by the reader's own background as it is by what the author actually wrote. Although Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a contemporary novel (2007), its perspective as that of an ordinary German woman during World War II gives it a sort of double layering. The young mother knows absolutely nothing about the Holocaust and focuses exclusively on the war itself. She does recall her father and husband's concerns about how Hitler and his racial theories heretically elevate man to divine status and has her own doubts about the alleged inferiority of the Jews. But she sets her potential dissent aside and opts to wait for her husband's opinion on the matter. Although the novel's voice is entirely her own, the reader perceives, like Borges's narrator, a deeper meaning in this young woman's willful obliviousness. From our vantage point in the future, she is, as one German review puts it, an "unthinking perpetrator." The fact that Delius portrays her so realistically and so sympathetically gives her innocent thoughts and feelings a distinctly surreal edge.

Although Delius's narrative style - The Sentence - takes some getting used to, it is perfect for his blend of stream-of-consciousness and physical movement. His mother's impressions of the "hospitable and harsh, beautiful and uncanny city" mirror her own awareness of the tumult engulfing the world. In these dangerous times, she leans on her hopes for the future, just as she clings to "her little islands of reassurance, such as crosses on obelisks or the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, along the side façade of which she now walked towards the Pincio steps, the only one of the over-elaborate, profoundly grandiose churches in which she did not feel alienated, . . ." (31). Her literal and emotional journey culminates in a musical climax grants her relief but preserves her naivety. It is questionable whether there is any real character growth but I think that's what Delius intended. Overall, The Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a beautiful and honest character study and comes highly recommended.

A special thanks to Meike Ziervogel for this review copy.


JoAnn said...

This sounds wonderful! Character studies fascinate me.

stujallen said...

this is another great choice by Meike ,I ve it near to of ny tbr pile remeber one of my german friends singing about him years ago so I ll see what its like now ,all the best stu

Amy said...

I read this last night, such a wonderful book. Great review.

E. L. Fay said...

JoAnn: It's not available in the US, unfortunately, but I think you can order through Amazon UK.

Stu and Amy: I can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

Wendy said...

I also got a copy of this for review - so I'm glad to see you ended up really appreciating it. I must admit THE SENTENCE is worrying me a bit!

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