By Friedrich Christian Delius
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
Published by Peirene Press
From its first page to its last, Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman is just one long sentence. Yes, one sentence. Divided into manageable paragraphs, true, but still one sentence. If you don’t let this put you off, you’ll be rewarded.
The novella opens with a young German woman who, pregnant with her first son, sets off from her temporary home in Rome to go to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. We follow her along the streets and across the squares of the city, which we see through her foreign eyes, and we are permitted to share her thoughts.
Walking, reminiscing and thinking are her only actions and she doesn’t interact with anyone on her way to church. This, however, doesn’t make for a boring book, as you might fear. By the time we reach our destination, we know everything there is to know about this young woman - her upbringing, how she met her husband, the life she imagines by his side once he comes back from war…
It is the winter of 1943 and she is torn between the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority and the religious message of brotherly love. This internal conflict surfaces with more strength towards the end of the novel - which coincides with the end of the concert - and it makes for a superb reading experience as the words rise and fall in powerful waves, just like the music.
Delius’s narrative is what makes Portrait of the Mother As a Young Woman special. It is not exactly a stream of consciousness, as I first thought. It is an interior monologue but - again contrary to my expectations - it is not recounted in the first person. It’s a poetically flowing prose that - thanks to an undoubtedly skilled translator - is bound to delight those readers who like a “challenge”.