You know how you remember the first single you ever bought? Or the first band you ever saw live? Well, Friedrich Christian Delius was the first German writer I ever saw reading. This was back in 1994, when I was an exchange student. Professor Frank Hörnigk had organised a colloquium at Berlin’s Humboldt University, inviting a different Berlin-based writer to read to students and answer their questions every week. It felt absolutely revolutionary to me – I was used to the slightly dry stuff of German Studies in the UK, where I don’t think we read a single book by a living writer in the first two years. And suddenly there they were – actual real live German writers!
And Friedrich Christian Delius was the first of them, and he was genuinely entertaining, his humour struggling all the way through my undergraduate comprehension difficulties. So it may well be thanks to him, and to Professor Hörnigk, that love german books even exists today. And to Conrad Zuse of course – about whom Delius wrote his most recent novel, die frau, für die ich den computer erfand. Which is an odd, imaginative fictional interview with the disgruntled German inventor of the computer and well worth reading, if only to find out what Byron has to do with it.
His Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is out any day now from Peirene Press, translated by Jamie Bulloch, and Delius will be reading in London in mid-September. It’s the third ever book from Peirene Press, the British independent publishers specialising in contemporary European literature in English translation… of less than 200 pages. As they point out, “Peirene's books have a plot to pull the reader along BUT rhythm, structure and language are equally, if not more so, important.”
That certainly applies here – rhythm is very much it. The novella consists of a single sentence, broken up merely by indentations. That’s something Delius has done before, in his The Pears of Ribbeck, translated back in 1991 by Hans Werner, a book about what the fall of the Iron Curtain does to a rural East German community. In that case, as I recall, the tone is angry, an enjoyable rant. Here, the tone is very different.
The story is about Delius’ own mother, stranded heavily pregnant in Rome in early 1943. Her newly-wed husband has been called up to the Wehrmacht in Africa and she is left alone in this unfamiliar place, at least protected from Allied bombs, she believes, because nobody would harm the Holy City. And nicely fed and cared for by Protestant nuns and the German community. As she walks across Rome to a concert in a church, her mind wanders and we share her thoughts. So the pace is a leisurely stroll, ending up in a climax as the protagonist listens to the concert, moved to tears by the music, her language and her faith.
Delius has rather nicely wormed his way into a pregnant woman’s mind, with all the attendant problems of short attention span and anxiety. We learn gradually about a deeply religious young woman, lonely and longing for her husband. Initially, I found myself identifying with her, forgetting for a while the political circumstances at the time. And then Delius begins to add details of the small injustices in Rome, the tiny rations for Italians compared to the privileged Germans, the cafés closed for want of coffee and the poverty. He introduces another female character, the mother’s roommate Ilse, who prefers the company of Italian kitchen staff over that of the diplomats’ wives among the German ex-pats.
We begin to see how terrifyingly naïve the heroine is – “perhaps there were even Jews in Rome, she did not know, she could not recall having seen any, maybe wearing yellow stars on their coats, and she had not heard the thorny word Jew uttered by any of her Roman acquaintances, not even Ilse”. Of course she has been brainwashed by growing up under the Nazis, and Delius describes the draw of the League of German Girls with its campfire camaraderie. There are hints, however, that others around her are different, not just Ilse. Her husband Gert is a pastor, as is her father, and there is a brief mention of the Confessing Church, an opposition movement within Germany’s Protestant church.
This is perhaps one of the difficulties with the book, which might have benefited from a timeline or an appendix. I found it assumed a great deal of knowledge of German history and geography – and of what happened in Rome in 1943, namely German occupation, Allied bombings and the deportation of the Jews to Auschwitz. Delius deliberately alludes to these coming events in the course of the narrative, adding an extra element of threat, but I feel they’re hard to spot for English readers. A whole level of understanding, perhaps not crucial to appreciate the book but still adding depth, would be missing. It’s not so much the translation that causes losses as the cultural transplantation from Germany to the UK.
But ah, the translation! Jamie Bulloch has done a marvellous job, writing ever so slightly old-fashioned English to suit the narration. He deals well with the single-sentence structure, something I can imagine might have caused the odd headache. German is the perfect language for the single-sentence book, although Open Letter is publishing French writer Mathias Énard’s Zone in December, this time stretching the boundaries of sentence structure over a daunting 517 pages – no mean feat for translator Charlotte Mandell. Truncating long, complicated German sentences is hard for translators to resist, although I personally don’t think it’s always necessary. But no, Bulloch has made the book a smooth read despite that pretty major obstacle, and after a while the lack of full stops felt entirely natural.
The publisher Meike Ziervogel writes on the (rather beautiful) jacket: “…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.”
I have to admit I found it difficult to relate to the mother, and I’m not quite sure that was Delius’ intention. But he does address the subject of women in the Third Reich in an admirably subtle way, showing us a woman who feels her only role is as a mother and who longs for peace – as long as it’s “her side” that wins the war. At the same time, she wishes her more critical husband were there to help her understand what’s going on in the world. What the writer doesn’t do, I feel, is absolve his mother of all guilt.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is beautifully written, a naïve contemplation on Rome during the Third Reich on the surface, a deeper look at how people ticked at the time below that, and ultimately a testament to the power of faith, if only to distract from the anxiety of life under a dictatorship. The form is perfectly matched to the content - something you can't say every day. I'm very pleased to see the book in such an excellent English translation and wish it well in the UK.