Over the last year one of my missions was to read much more translated work. Well actually it was also to check out how much I read that was translated and wasn’t aware of, for some reason I always think that ‘translated by’ should be on the cover – not the case. One publisher that has helped me in this mini quest is Peirene Press who established themselves this year and whose previous titles ‘Beside The Sea’ and ‘Stone in a Landslide’ I have thoroughly enjoyed, one of them quite possibly heading for a place in my favourite books of the year list. So when the third arrived in the post I was really looking forward to it, yet I put it away for a while, I was nervous – would I like it as much as the first two?
‘Portrait of a Mother as a Young Woman’ sounds intimidating before you start it as the book is one long sentence which instantly filled me with dread. I don’t like it when a book does this for a few pages let alone a whole novella. However whether its down to the original, the editing or the translation (without reading the original in German I would never know – something I always think of when reading translations ‘was it this good originally, was it worse, was it better?’) it was a fear that proved unfounded as there are natural breaks in the pattern of the narrative.
Our protagonist is the woman of the title; we meet her during the war in 1943 as a young pregnant German woman residing in Rome while her husband is in army service in Africa. After doctors orders she is walking through the city from her guest house to the church. Initially she simply observes the city and looks back on how her relationship with Gert started and then starts to worry about the future, will her husband be safe, what world will her unborn child be born into? Normally a woman who believes that the almighty is powering and behind everything, worrying doubts are setting in her mind.
There is little more to the story than the way in which her thoughts progress as she wanders, you are simply privy to the internal workings and machinations of this woman’s thoughts. Yet this is not a book about plot, this is a book about time and place and Delius, through his portrait of this young woman, sets the time, place and surreal atmosphere in a city untouched by war yet very much feeling its effects (such as the coffee shortage – how did Italians cope with that?) now and again and forcing the reality of the situation into peoples minds when sometimes they forget.
The writing is simply stunning. Delius paints a vivid picture and an incredibly believable woman’s narrative voice, though the book isn’t in first person the flow of it and structure of a single sentence makes it feel like subconscious and very natural train of thought. Rome is painted vividly, I have never been and yet now feel I have walked those streets in that time period. In fact I feel I have walked those streets as that woman so vivid is the picture Delius creates.
Is there a downside? Well for me a teeny tiny one and that’s the title, which is actually perfect in terms of saying what the story is about and yet I keep getting it wrong when I talk or tell people about the book. I want to call it ‘The Portrait of the Young Woman as a…’ and then I think ‘no, it’s The Portrait of a Lady as a…’I am slightly worried I will tell people about it and they will grab Henry James or think James Joyce wrote a wonderful book about a young Nazi girl. Oh dear. The title though doesn’t really matter as the contents are so wonderful. (Oh and I must credit Jamie Bulloch on an incredible translation!)
A book that will: be perfect if you want something very different from your usual novella or novel and especially if you want to walk vividly in the footsteps of someone else. 8.5/10
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers – The whole way through this book I wanted to head back to this novel, nothing to do with the story line but everything to do with the descriptions of Italy and in a way the mentions and thoughts of religion strangely.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Again nothing to do with the story line or premise of Delius’s book because it’s so unique but another incredible example of a man writing women flawlessly.
Who else has read this book, what did you think? Will any of you be going to see the lovely Kim of Reading Matters in discussion with the author tonight at ‘The Big Green Bookshop’? If you are I may well see you there. Which books have you read that have left you feeling you have actually stepped completely into someone else’s shoes and life despite the fact they are fictional?
Oh and should you want a copy of this of you very own I am giving one away in the post below…