Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman

untitled (15) Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a novel which can accurately be described as un-put-downable. Containing no full stops until that following its very last word, to stop reading would show an unacceptable disregard for the rules of grammar. Its author, Friedrich Christian Delius, is a German writer of some standing: in 2011 he won Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg-Büchner Prize. This remains his only appearance in English, however, thanks to Peirene Press and translator Jamie Bulloch. The title, of course, echoes Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the replacement of ‘artist’ with ‘mother’ placing an emphasis on the ordinary which is reflected in the novel’s central character (though she is surrounded by art throughout). Joyce himself would celebrate the quotidian in Ulysses, and Delius borrows its ‘life in a day’ structure, taking us on a tour around Rome just as Joyce led us through Dublin. The young woman of the title is eight months pregnant; imminently a mother, she remains, for the moment, a young woman. The setting is Rome in 1943; the young woman is German and has arrived in Rome to be with her husband, but after only a few days together, he is sent to North Africa and they are separated again. The novel tells the story of her evening walk alone through Rome to a concert of classical music. Though the novel is ostensibly written in the third person, it is entirely told from the point of view of the young woman. Her ordinariness is emphasized from early on:

“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 a housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, although she had got the best marks for arithmetic and gymnastics…”

1943 was probably the year the war turned against Germany but, though she has an awareness of this (“they hardly spoke about victories anymore, they only spoke of the length of the war”), she thinks of the war mainly as it relates to her separation from her husband. One of the novel’s strengths is the convincing way it portrays her love for her husband, not only by recounting her memories of their relationship, but by demonstrating the way he permeates her thoughts as she walks through the city:

“it was here, especially, that she missed the voice and the knowledge, the warmth and closeness of her husband, who belonged to her, she wished to see Rome as he did, not according to the Baedeker…”

The novel’s style works well in reflecting the rhythm of both her thoughts and her walk, but also has a musical effect as it builds inevitably towards the music of the concert. Here, in describing the emotional climax the music creates for her, as tears flow down her face, Delius creates his own climax with two pages of the young woman’s hopes, beginning:

“she tried to picture a future without war…”

These thoughts are then counter-pointed with her determination to be thankful for the present, looking back on previous years and concluding:

“and perhaps in a year’s time she would think back to this Saturday in January 1943 and reflect with envy how peaceful it was when, in good health and pregnant, she had walked through the winter warmth of Rome and listened to a concert while giving free reign to her fantasies for the future with a husband who was still alive,”

This passage is particularly moving as it contains a truth which the reader knows for certain (it is a year later the Allies launch their invasion of Italy), and the young woman suspects. It is, however, her refusal to despair which lingers. On this evidence it seems difficult to believe that Delius is not more widely available in English.

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One Response to “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman”

  1. elizabethmaddenlitblog Says:

    Reblogged this on elizabethmaddenreads.

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