Portrait of the Mother as a Young WomanFriedrich Christian Delius
A literary masterpiece by one of Germany’s most renowned contemporary writers.
Rome, one January afternoon in 1943. A young German woman is on her way to listen to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. Innocent and naïve, the war is for her little more than a day-dream, until she realizes that her husband might never return.
This is a mesmerizing psychological portrait of the human need to safeguard innocence and integrity at any cost – even at the risk of excluding reality.
Written by Friedrich Christian Delius.
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
Why Peirene chose to publish this book:
I was simply enthralled by the structure of this narrative; a single 117-page long sentence with a beautifully clear rhythm. At the same time it’s a compelling and credible description of a “typical” young German woman during the Nazi era. If we can relate to her we come close to understanding the forces that were shaping an entire generation.
Female Voice series
125pp, Paperback with Flaps, £10.00
Friedrich Christian Delius is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary German writers. He was born in 1943 and lives in Berlin and Rome. His first poetry collection appeared in 1965. Since then he has published 14 novels, 5 poetry collections and has recently written the libretto for the opera Prospero by Luca Lombardi. His books have been translated into 17 languages. In May 2011 Friedrich Christian Delius won the most prestigious German literary award, the Georg-Buchner Prize.
Jamie Bulloch is a historian and has worked as a professional translator from German since 2001. After studying Modern Languages, he obtained an MA in Central European History and followed up with a PhD in interwar Austrian history. His translations include books by Paulus Hochgatterer, Alissa Walser and Timur Vermes. He is the translator of five Peirene titles: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius, Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke, winner of the 2015 Schlegel-Tieck Prize for German Translation, The Empress and the Cake by Linda Stift and The Last Summer by Ricarda Huch. He is also the author of A Short History of Tuscany and Karl Renner: Austria.
‘The book’s last paragraph, overtly expressing nothing more than the young woman’s intention to write a letter, is one of the most moving conclusions I’ve ever read.’ Nick Lezard, The Guardian
‘Jamie Bulloch’s excellent translation keeps the supple and rhythmic flow of Delius’s language. This is a small masterpiece.’ Helmut Schmitz, TLS
‘Delius understands the forces that shape Germany and has the gift to articulate joy, beauty and love.’ Rosie Goldsmith, The Independent
‘Impresses with both the sympathy it creates for its bewildered protagonist and the musicality of its prose.’ Adrian Turpin, Financial Times
‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a beautifully crafted work of superb psychological intensity and proof, if it was needed, of the potency of the written word.’ Pam Norfolk, Lancashire Evening Post
Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk, Dr Roberto had said in his funny German with a strong Italian accent,
and, as always when she set off on a walk or to get some things in town, these words that the doctor used to say after her weekly examination, with his persuasive but friendly smile and in that silky voice, danced around her head,
beautiful lady, young lady, healthy lady, moving good, straining not good, and there is nothing more better in Italy for you and the child than the oxygen in the Roman air, and all this for no money, the city of Rome she is glad to offer you and the child her good air,
curious words of encouragement and irritating compliments which were already there before she took her first step outside, as she combed and plaited her hair, and put it up in a bun in front of the small bathroom mirror, then with a sceptical expression put on her only hat, a black one with a broad brim, and stroked both hands over her large bulging belly, and could not find anything about herself that was beautiful besides this belly, because when he called her beautiful lady it made her blush each time, in spite of his friendliness and assistance, the doctor had no right to call her that, only he did, her husband, whose return from the African front she had been waiting for week in, week out,
and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in the hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as “the girl” and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta,
while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircase
in the centre of the five-storey building, a hospital and old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns from Germany, with a few guest rooms, one of which she was sharing with Ilse until the birth, then afterwards she had been promised a room on the fourth floor for herself and the baby,
in this mission, run by the deaconesses of Kaiserswerth, she had everything she needed and it cost her very little, a doctor and obstetrician, a midwife, sisters, regular meals, a bed, a chair, a small table, a drawer for the letters from Africa, half a wardrobe, a tiny mirror in the bathroom three doors down, a prayer each morning before breakfast, a terrace on the roof in a city where, in spite of the frequent sirens, no bombs fell, and where the winter was a mild affair, predominantly sunny and warm,
and placed her hand on the banisters, here she was surrounded and cared for by ten women in dark-blue habits and white bonnets with frilly trims and bows under the chin, stiffened by Hoffmann’s starch, one of the sisters was in charge of the kitchen, one the laundry, one the ironing press, one the nursing, one the administration, and the most marvellous of them all, Schwester Else, was in charge of the entire deaconesses’ mission, and they all devoted themselves to the patients, to the mothers with their babies on the maternity ward, here she felt in good hands and was endlessly grateful for everything,
especially grateful that they spoke German here, and that she did not have to make any effort to speak a foreign language in a foreign place, which she would not have been able to do, trained as a kindergarten teacher and housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, she had not even learnt a handful of words of a foreign language, although she had got the best marks in arithmetic and gymnastics, at school and in the Hitler Youth’s League of German Girls she had channelled her curiosity towards biology, to native plants and animals, but never to languages, and thus from morning to night and also now, as she carefully went down the stairs, she blessed her luck
that she was on a German island in the middle of Rome, where even the Italians spoke German, sometimes it was a funny German like Dr Roberto’s, sometimes broken like that spoken by the women in the kitchen, but it seemed to her that all of them were making an effort, either because they really liked working here with Protestants, or perhaps because they themselves were dispersed Italian Protestants, brave Waldensians, or because they enjoyed German order or pious orderliness,
For Reading Groups
Get your mind in gear with our reading guide to Delius’ book:
1 The author is the child that the Mother is carrying during her walk. Discuss the idea of writing about a parent at a time before the writer could know them, and the skills and tools that would be useful.
2 Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is written as a single sentence. Why? What effect has that on the plot? Discuss the tempo and flow that is inherent in the text as a consequence.
3 The novel is set firmly in Rome, and the author has walked the same route – many years after 1943. How important is the sense of place to the novel, and how does the Mother consider her surroundings?
4 Margherita is conflicted between her loyalty to the National Socialist Party, and her church. Discuss the experience of an ‘ordinary German’ during the war, and the growing shift to empathetic writing from contemporary German novelists.
5 Margherita is innocent and naïve. At what point does she begin to consider the very real implications of the war upon herself and her baby?
6 Margherita’s interest in the war is on a very personal level, she wants the Germans to win it so that her husband can return to her. Is she egoistic or is she expressing a universal human desire?
7 Is the author judging Margherita/his mother?
8 Margherita grew up under the Nazis. In how far does the book describe the mind of a person who grew up in a totalitarian state?
9 Do you have any sympathy for Margherita? Discuss.
10 Another German novel, that describes an ‘ordinary’ German woman during the Nazi era is Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. If you have read Schlink’s novel, discuss the differences of the authors’ approaches towards their characters. If not, is there another example of an ordinary German’s experience of this time you have encountered?
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