Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Book Review

…it was nine weeks ago that she had arrived in Rome, so as to be with him for a while at last, with Gert, for the first time since their wedding, and when, the very next day, he had to tell her that he had been ordered back to the army, a sudden, immediate redeployment to Africa, and she had not been able to understand,

only just arrived and immediately alone again, highly pregnant in a dangerous, foreign place, it was a shock, at twenty-one almost herself like a child that cannot walk without help or stand on its own two feet, exposed in a totally alien country and a totally alien language… – from Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, page 14 –

The year is 1943; the place is Rome. A young woman on her way to a Bach concert observes the city and muses on faith, fate, war, and her future. Her new husband has been redeployed to Africa to fight Hitler’s battle there, while she is left alone and pregnant in a foreign city.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a novella which consists of one long sentence over 125 pages. It is a quiet story which takes a look at WWII from the perspective of a young German woman living temporarily in Rome.  Her husband has written to her and asked her to “absorb all the beautiful things Rome has to offer,” so as she walks she observes the beauty around her: the architecture, the art, the lovely weather, the people. But she cannot help thinking of the war and seeing the sharp contrast between its presence in Rome alongside all the wonder – the restriction of freedoms, the black outs, the lack of food and rationed goods. This reality draws her up short and she quickly pushes it away. The rhythm of the prose (which feels poetic in its style) compliments the push and pull rhythm of the young woman’s thoughts.

Friedrich Christian Delius is one of Germany’s most renowned contemporary writers. His background as a poet is evident in this translated work. In Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman he explores the idea of God being in control vs. the idea of free will. Throughout the novella, the young woman vacillates between questioning the war and her current situation, and putting everything into God’s hands. Her naivete and innocence is emphasized by her situation – namely that of a foreigner in the city of Rome who does not speak the Italian language.

…she sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and faith, because feelings were forbidden in wartime, you were not allowed to rejoice with happiness, you had to swallow your sadness, and like a soldier you were forced to conceal the language of the heart… – from Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, page 84 –

…but she was not at home, she was in a foreign place, and carrying a child, she had thrown herself into an adventure, left her home and parents and followed her husband, without realizing that God had another plan for her, and nobody could expect her to stroll through this foreign place with a happy heart… – from Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, page 85 –

Delius manages to capture the mood of the city during wartime, and touches on the horror which has now become synonymous with WWII – that of the fate of Jews under the iron will of Hitler while the world remained largely silent. He uses the young woman’s conflicted emotions to explore this theme. On the one hand, she is a German national and knows she should wish for victory; on the other hand, she holds strong moral and religious views which make her question the ultimate purpose of the Nazi regime.

…she would have been able to discuss the Jews and her Jewish thoughts with Gert, were he here, but not with anybody else, this was another reason she needed him beside her, so she could talk about something so awkward, about the danger of the ideas that came into her head,

on her own she could not work out what you were allowed and not allowed to say, what you should think and what you ought not to think, and how to cope with her ambivalent feelings, all she could do was to keep these things to herself until his return… – – from Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, page 67 –

This is a brilliant and thought-provoking piece of literature. To be honest, I was not sure I could read a book which consisted of only one sentence – but, Delius manages to make this work. In fact, I came to feel this was the perfect format for the story. The flow and rhythm of the prose carries the reader forward effortlessly. The young woman’s circular thoughts, the ebb and flow of her reasoning, the need for her to protect her emotions despite the very real possibility that her husband may not survive…all of this fits with the style of the novella.

Readers who are interested in translated literature and who love literary fiction as well as poetry will find this to be a mesmerizing work.

Highly recommended.

Other blog reviews:

Have you reviewed this book? Please leave me a link to your review in the comments and I’ll add it here!

*FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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    • Shelley on November 30, 2010 at 07:47

    The era I write about is right before this one, but I do think both decades have kind of a rich melancholy overlay. Trained by watching countless “damsel in distress” TV shows, I can never hear of a situation like this book’s without an overwhelming desire for the endangered woman to just…get…out.

  1. Hmmm this sounds interesting. When you said one sentence I was instantly skeptical because I don’t like “unique” punctuation (I couldn’t get past chapter one of THE SHIPPING NEWS), but when you mentioned the flow and rhythm I now was to give it a try. Thanks for sharing!

    • zibilee on November 30, 2010 at 10:12

    This sounds like a very striking book and one that might make a really good read for me. I am also not sure about a book that is written in one sentence, but I will take your praise for the book as evidence that this format could indeed work. Thanks for the very enlightening review.

  2. How intriguing — one sentence? I’m interested!

    By the way, you hooked me at “Rome.” Anything regarding Italy is right up my alley.

  3. Wow, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to write a sentence that long. I’m intrigued by the book if for no other reason to see how that structure works.

    • Amy on November 30, 2010 at 14:56

    Thank you for the link to my review! I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

    • Staci on November 30, 2010 at 17:20

    Very interesting concept…..I just requested a novella because of a fellow blogger’s review…this one just may be next!

    • sakura on December 1, 2010 at 02:17

    I too was a little apprehensive at first about the one long sentance, but Delius made it easy by inserting paragraph breaks where the rhythm of his writing naturally pauses. Wonderful.

  4. The one sentence thing was rather putting me off this book, but you make it sound so wonderful that I really must track down a copy.

    • Pam on December 1, 2010 at 06:43

    I’ve seen quite a few exquisite reviews of this and it looks incredible!

    • Sharry on December 1, 2010 at 14:28

    How interesting! An entire story all written in one sentence that works? I’ve got to check this out for myself.

  5. A great Joycean title and a fascinating trick of writing in one sentence? I think I need to pick this one up!

    • Teddy on December 1, 2010 at 22:50

    You just added another book to my TBR. I am just starting to get a bit tired of WWII books, I have read quite a few however, this one sounds different, from a German woman’s perspective.

    • Tom C on December 2, 2010 at 00:26

    Thanks for the mensh.

    You have written a very good review of the book.

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