Friedrich Christian Delius’ novella, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, is a single 117-page-long sentence. Yes, there is only one period. [I counted.] We are in Rome, 1943 — with a young, pregnant German woman, and her one, long, breathless utterance: a thought stretched, branching here and there to the past, the present, the possibilities of the future; of her husband, her baby, the war.
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,
I admit I initially felt apprehensive — to me, having experienced several postmodern scares, it smacked of gimmick. But Delius’ novella worked. It was affective, effective, compelling. Two things as to why, me thinks:
1] This was an apt character with the right circumstances, in an apt setting, the right atmosphere. That is: yes, I do want to stay with this young mother pregnant and alone; yes, I do care about her thoughts.
2] The sentence, one would naturally think, could very well be unwieldy, rather stifling too. But Delius — and, of course, translator Jamie Bulloch — allows this sentence to fall into a rhythm that doesn’t trivialize, doesn’t sound jokey, doesn’t feel overwrought. These read like a person’s thoughts, with high pitches and low points. This is a stream of consciousness, with rough waters, some turbulence here and there, but mostly smooth, languorous sailing, hinting at depth.
[I can’t help but think how fun and challenging the crafting of a 117-page-long sentence could have been!]
In the past year, I’ve read several books set [either in whole, or partly] in the war — Irène Némirovsky immediately comes to mind, with Suite Française; and, a novel where the characters have pretty much eclipsed the factuality of the war raging outside them, Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude. I loved how these books focused on lives who have filtered out the vastness of the war, it’s all-encompassing connotations. In most of these books, too, there are select individuals, or a setting, which forms a microcosm. People compelled / intent to keep the war at bay — whether they do it consciously or unconsciously, with both will and disposition. In Delius’ novella, there is this one young mother.
And she has very particular thoughts. Not even about being a soldier’s wife — a Nazi soldier’s wife, too boot, one so frightfully unaware [her husband, after all, does not stand for anything else than love and family -- unlike what we might think!] — but her steadfast innocence.
And, borne out of this trait: one of the gutsiest parts of her stream of consciousness — the parts I liked the most — were when she allowed herself rebellious thoughts, selfish ones: There shouldn’t be a war, for I want my husband. All very simple, really.
and she could not help thinking
that so many die each day on the battlefronts, each head a life, each life a gift, each life at the centre of other lives, although she knew that everyday it was thousands more than these men here, but with these heads, all so different from each other, it was easier to imagine what each individual life meant, just how many hopes, efforts, joys and pains, and yet she felt how narrow her power of imagination was, because in truth she was only thinking of one life, the one which influenced and affected her most,
It’s a distancing, at least that’s how it begins — “There might be a war, but it doesn’t involve me,” and “There might be a war, but I am not involved.”
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,
This is how a rebellion takes form in a time of war — or any situation that is near-mandatory in its collectiveness, in its concept [skewed or not] of solidarity. It’s a sly admission, humane, deep-seated too: she wants her husband back, she wishes for the baby to be born into a shiny future that isn’t necessarily the result of the war now being waged.
she should not allow herself to feel this longing, it was not appropriate for a German soldier’s wife, who ought to be waiting patiently at home, first for the final victory and then for her husband,
I love the little curlicues of bitterness. And it’s not because she’s young and naïve — it’s because she’s human. We are allowed to be self-serving, we are allowed to be selfish. We’re allowed not to think about the bickering of powerful men, of smoke and ammunition, of the broken lives of strangers — we are allowed to simply wish the one we love home.
The form is the perfect vehicle for this young mother’s insight, which transcends: the possibility of loss, and even the reality of an entire world’s machinations, can fade away, for as long as one holds on to the conviction that he will come back.
At the novella’s end, our heroine decides to write a letter that very evening. I don’t know what history has dictated for her, her husband, her family — but I am, at the book’s close, at ease with the fact that our young mother won’t be swayed from hoping.