I recently finished reading a deceptive and beautiful novella, which I’d like to recommend. Beautifully produced by the Pereinne Press, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Freidrich Christian Delius is, in its way, one of the best studies of a soul at war I know. (There are some other reviews here and here.)
I chose it for the title and the reference to James Joyce. The style seems to confirm that this book is going to belong in the modernist tradition. Indeed, it is written in a single, 140 page sentence beginning ‘Walk, young lady, walk.’ And so we do. This is the internal dialogue of one woman as she walks. That is pretty much all the plot there is.
It is not quite stream of consciousness. It is certainly a Joyceanvision, as glimpsed by Stephen Daedalus, ‘He was alone. He was unheeded, happy and near to the wild heart of life.’ In fact, despite the title and the form, the content of this book is very simple. It is a monologue of a naive soul, protected by her Evangelical piety from what she describes as the ‘mild war’ around her. The setting could not be less mild, for she is walking through Rome, by way of the Piazza del Populo and down the Spanish Steps. If one conceives of that walk and then lays upon it the adjective ‘mild,’ it’s possible to enter into the narrow, or is it simple, world of a woman who says that she:
‘Sometimes felt too Evangelical or too North German or too young in the city they called Eternal, as if being here were contrary to her actual nature.’
Rarely, I suspect, has an author been so brave as to take a place of so many resonances and then let a character feel so few of them.
This is the dark end of the war. Defeat for the Germans and Italians is the unimagined possibility and, of course, the future that the reader knows Margherita will face. ‘If their [Italian]faces, their eyes betrayed anything at all, it was the silent question: how much longer.’ Not that she asks that question; she must not. Her new husband, a pastor, has been sent to North Africa. She writes him letters and she hears his voice. He is cultured, knowing Rome. She wants him to explain it to her. Yet she is incurious, and not only about the city. Also about herself. But ‘feelings were forbidden in wartime.’ She must not ask questions. She walks as in a daydream towards a concert.
Where, in some soaring writing, she is taken up by Bach into faith and into doubt and... Well, I won’t spoil the end, such as it is.
Of all books set in time of war, this must be one of the strangest. Are we to condemn her for bypassing the fact? Perhaps she is ignorant. Then again, she might be complicit. Is this how an ‘ordinary German’ got through that time? There is a shadow cast over the power of her faith – does it illumine or make her blind and, if the latter, is that blindness in truth quite kindly? Something in the style and character and even layout – it is one of those agreeable books that makes play with page and blank space – leaves these questions open, making this an acute and gentle portrait of a soul in the wrong landscape which could only be achieved in fiction.
Not a long read.
Just a great one.