Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

9781466802155 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2012
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Friedrich Christian Delius

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In Rome one January afternoon in 1943, a young German woman is on her way to listen to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. The war is for her little more than a daydream, until she realizes that her husband might never return. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, winner of the prestigious Georg Büchner prize, is a mesmerizing psychological portrait of the human need to safeguard innocence and integrity at any cost—even at the risk of excluding reality. More than just the story of this single woman, it is a compelling and credible description of a typical young German woman during the Nazi era.

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An excerpt from Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman

Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk, Dr Roberto had said in his funny German with a strong Italian accent, 

and, as always when she set off on a walk or to get some things in town, these words that the doctor used to say after her weekly examination, with his persuasive but friendly smile and in that silky voice, danced around her head, 

beautiful lady, young lady, healthy lady, moving good, straining not good, and there is nothing more better in Italy for you and the child than the oxygen in the Roman air, and all this for no money, the city of Rome she is glad to offer you and the child her good air, 

curious words of encouragement and irritating compliments which were already there before she took her first step outside, as she combed and plaited her hair, and put it up in a bun in front of the small bathroom mirror, then with a sceptical expression put on her only hat, a black one with a broad brim, and stroked both hands over her large bulging belly, and could not f ind anything about herself that was beautiful besides this belly, because when he called her beautiful lady it made her blush each time, in spite of his friendliness and assistance, the doctor had no right to call her that, only he did, her husband, whose return from the African front she had been waiting for week in, week out, 

and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in the hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as “the girl” and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta, 

while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircase 

in the centre of the five-storey building, a hospital and old people’s home run by Evangelical nuns from Germany, with a few guest rooms, one of which she was sharing with Ilse until the birth, then afterwards she had been promised a room on the fourth floor for herself and the baby, 

in this mission, run by the deaconesses of Kaiserswerth, she had everything she needed and it cost her very little, a doctor and obstetrician, a midwife, sisters, regular meals, a bed, a chair, a small table, a drawer for the letters from Africa, half a wardrobe, a tiny mirror in the bathroom three doors down, a prayer each morning before breakfast, a terrace on the roof in a city where, in spite of the frequent sirens, no bombs fell, and where the winter was a mild affair, predominantly sunny and warm, 

and placed her hand on the banisters, here she was surrounded and cared for by ten women in dark-blue habits and white bonnets with frilly trims and bows under the chin, stiffened by Hoffmann’s starch, one of the sisters was in charge of the kitchen, one the laundry, one the ironing press, one the nursing, one the administration, and the most marvellous of them all, Schwester Else, was in charge of the entire deaconesses’ mission, and they all devoted themselves to the patients, to the mothers with their babies on the maternity ward, here she felt in good hands and was endlessly grateful for everything, 

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 housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, she had not even learnt a handful of words of a foreign language, although she had got the best marks in arithmetic and gymnastics, at school and in the Hitler Youth’s League of German Girls she had channelled her curiosity towards biology, to native plants and animals, but never to languages, and thus from morning to night and also now, as she carefully went down the stairs, she blessed her luck 

that she was on a German island in the middle of Rome, where even the Italians spoke German, sometimes it was a funny German like Dr Roberto’s, sometimes broken like that spoken by the women in the kitchen, but it seemed to her that all of them were making an effort, either because they really liked working here with Protestants, or perhaps because they themselves were dispersed Italian Protestants, brave Waldensi ans, or because they enjoyed German order or pious orderliness, 

and she walked down the stairs, holding on tightly to the banisters, until she reached the entrance hall where three narrow armchairs and a table stood outside the doctor’s consulting room, and a vase which always contained fresh flowers, today it was mimosa, three bunches of delicate yellow January mimosa, and after going through the glass door 

entered the front hall with a bench and the tiny room for the reception sister, as they called this post in the mission, usually it was Schwester Helga who was in charge of the key and the telephone, delivered post, showed patients to admission, completed the register, and was the person who had to be informed when leaving the house and the care of the ever-obliging, ever smiling deaconesses, 

it was already three o’clock, the afternoon rest was over, and Schwester Helga was coming to do her warden’s duty, she knew, it had already been discussed, that the young woman would go alone to the concert at the church on Via Sicilia, and would be accompanied home through the dark streets by two sisters, 

particularly as it might be a few minutes after half-past five, when no lamps shone and windows were covered for the blackout to hoodwink the bombers who had yet to drop a bomb on Rome, and the holes and paving stones on the pavement were hard to make out, See you at supper! said Schwester Helga, 

See you at supper! the young lady said, stepping through the door, and waited for a moment on the top step, as she took her first breath outside on this bright January afternoon, 

Dr Roberto was quite right to praise the Roman oxygen, this air was good for her, the sunlight was good for her, the afternoon sun shone on the right side, her side, of Via Alessandro Farnese, dabbing a little of the precious sun on her face, and making her raise her head so that her hat cast no shadow on her skin and, smiling, she walked past agaves and rhododendrons, up six steps and turned left, 

something she could not have imagined nine weeks ago, turning into a Roman street, all alone on a Sunday evening, so confidently and almost without trepidation, 

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, 

she looked up past the beautifully moulded window arches and the green shutters of the house that had, years ago, been painted rust-red, up five storeys to the railings of the terrace, searched for the window to her room and, as if it might do her some good, looked with modest pride in her newly acquired cosmopolitanism at the palms in front, which she loved to write about in her letters, all in all a stately building, surrounded with beautiful plants, 

her beloved husband could not have sought out a better refuge, she could not have found a lovelier German island, and the child inside her stirred at these thoughts, she stopped, felt the movements of the little legs and arms, she took this as a sign of consent and responded by slipping her right hand under her coat and slowly stroking her dress and the curved belly, 

and, as the kicking and punching abated, she began her walk to the other German island, the church on Via Sicilia, where the concert was to start at four o’clock, it was the trusted route from one island to the other, as the rest of it, the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like 

a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all those things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, façades, ruins and street corners, of the endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of the people in the streets, which were difficult to make out, in these stormy times of a far-off war which was drawing nearer every day, 

but where there is fear, faith can help, she could rely on this knowledge, for the Bible was also a help against the opaque, uncanny sea named Rome, for example a verse from Psalms, cited during morning prayer, If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me

as soon as she recalled this verse she felt comforted and guided and held, and with the encouraging words of Dr Roberto, Walk, young lady, walk, and the certainty of being in exactly the right, the most secure place between the African coast, where her husband was serving, and the Baltic coast, where her parents lived, she quickly reached the first street corner, crossed the junction, stayed on the sunny side, looked at the houses in this area, all of them in those friendly colours which had become familiar to her, between bright ochre and dark, faded and washed-out red tones, three- or four-storey high, bourgeois houses, some with thick black arrows pointing to the nearest air-raid shelter, and a few paces beyond the second crossroads lined with ilex the street opened into 

the square whose name she had never been able to remember properly, Cola di Rienzo, that is what was written on the stone plaques on the corners of houses, some prince or politician, she had immediately forgotten what Gert had told her more than two months ago, she could not retain all these foreign names in a foreign tongue, it was difficult enough to interpret the gestures and looks of passers-by, 

and difficult enough to pull the right face while passing the queue at the bakery, it was shortly after three, the panificio opened at half past three and shut, like all shops, at half past five because of the blackout, a few women were standing on the pavement, as they always did in the morning or early afternoon, she sidestepped them and continued on her way, 

flour was scarce, bread was scarce, it cost three lire per kilo, sometimes all they had was yellow corn bread, and last spring, Ilse had said, they lowered the daily ration from 200 grams per person to 150, two or three slices, and this for the Italians who are used to fresh bread every day, bakeries had not been allowed to sell cakes and biscuits for more than a year, 

again she thought of how fortunate she was, provided with everything she needed, not starving, and not having to queue like the Roman housewives or their maids, how lucky she was that at this hour she was able to go to church, and even to a concert, and was only vexed for a second by the question of 

why there is not enough bread in war time, and why it is getting ever scarcer, seeing that ever more land is being conquered and ever more victories are being reported, after all the wheat is still growing, and the rye, you can see from the window of the train how all the fields were blooming and ripening, so where is the bread, but that was not a question you could ask, it was a test, it was God’s will, he provided the daily bread and allocated it, 

while these women stood there and looked relieved that she was not queuing up too, a woman eight months pregnant would be entitled to go right to the front of the queue, and that would have made the wait for the few grams of bread even longer, the semi-hostile glances became almost friendly when they realized that she was continuing to the corner of Via Cola di Rienzo, 

where before turning left she looked over to the right, to where St Peter’s and the Vatican were only a quarter of an hour away, she did not want to go there now, she was not going to be sidetracked, she had been there once before and seen the Pope on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, together with Ilse she had stood in a crowd of thousands and watched 

as the man venerated as the Holy Father sat on a splendid chair and was carried through the church while the mass of people greeted him with rapturous applause as if he were a victor in the Olympia film or the Führer in the weekly newsreel, and she watched the cardinals walk up and down singing, although the huge din meant she was unable to hear any of the singing or prayers, everything seemed so heathen, so loud, so superficial, more like the theatre than Mass and, as she had not understood anything anyway, and did not like crowds, especially not now with her round belly, they went outside into St Peter’s Square and Ilse had sighed Thank goodness for Martin Luther!, she had thought something similar too, but had not dared utter it, Ilse was generally quicker to say what she thought, and the two of them agreed how lucky they were that they were Protestant and were able to forgo such ostentation, 

and whenever she caught sight of the imposing dome of St Peter’s, either from the terrace of the deaconesses’ mission or while walking through the streets, she felt pity for the Catholics who were intimidated by this mass of stone, who once inside this marble fortress became extras, ants, and subject to an apparently infallible pope, it was said that there were four hundred churches in Rome, each one more beautiful and magnificent than the next, but only one of these was the right one, the church in Via Sicilia, and now she turned 

left towards the bridge over the Tiber...

  • “For, ultimately, it is what we know about the tragedy of World War II, and what Margherita does not, or will not . . . that gives this miniature its power.”

    Time Out London
  • “For, ultimately, it is what we know about the tragedy of World War II, and what Margherita does not, or will not . . . that gives this miniature its power. ”

    Time Out London
  • “Delius understands the forces that shape Germany and has the gift to articulate joy, beauty and love.”

    The Independent
  • “[A] distinct and lovely novella.”

    Cameron Martin, The New York Times Book Review
  • “A revelation of humanism and hope almost musical in its intensity.”

    Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian
  • “Bulloch's excellent translation keeps the supple and rhythmic flow of Delius's language. This is a small masterpiece.”

    The Times Literary Supplement
  • “[A] distinct and lovely novella.”

    Cameron Martin, The New York Times Book Review“A revelation of humanism and hope almost musical in its intensity.”