2010 Books in Translation Novella

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius

  Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch

Five words from the blurb: Rome, German, woman, war, daydream

Beside the Sea was one of my favourite reads last year and so I am always keen to try books from Peirene, a wonderful new publisher.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is set in Rome and follows a young, pregnant German woman as she walks through the city. It is 1943, but the war seems a long way away. She feels safe as she daydreams about her baby, but she slowly realises that her husband isn’t in the same environment. He is in Northern Africa and there is a good possibility that he will not return to see his child.

The book is very unusual in that it is written as a single 125 page sentence. Unfortunately I failed to warm to the writing style and it irritated me throughout the book. I longed for a full stop and thoughts about how nice a chapter break would be began to occupy my mind. The endless sentence gave the book a rambling feel which stretched my tolerance to breaking point. The addition of a few full stops would have done a lot to improve an otherwise beautifully written book.

….in any case it was better to keep quiet, and as a woman it was even more important to restrain oneself, how quickly an idea or thought can escape one’s lips, improvident words could help the enemy, The enemy is listening!, she had learnt, or it might be dangerous on a personal level, there is the weapon of silence and the weapon of words, she had learnt with the League of German Girls, and as she preferred to remain silent anyway, especially if she was not confident of her thoughts and her faint doubts were not assuaged, she knew what she had to do, to trust patiently in God, and continue undeterred along her path,…

With words these profound I think it is important to take the time to pause and reflect, but this was impossible given the structure of the book. My problem with the writing style was quite sad, because some wonderful ideas were buried under the gimmick.

Another problem I had is that nothing actually happens. The entire book consists of one scene in which a woman walks across the city, reflecting on her life.  I’m afraid I like my books to have a plot and so books that give an isolated insight into a woman’s mind do little for me.

I know a lot of people love this book, but it was too experimental for me.


I seem to be the only one who doesn’t love it:

….my favourite of Peirene’s titles so far, and possibly the most convincing narrative voice I have read for a very long time.  Stuck in a Book

What the author does quite cleverly is to create a mood where time feels suspended. Novel Insights

….a mesmerizing work. Caribousmom

….a meaningful and original glimpse of the mind of one women during the Second World War. Iris on Books

23 replies on “Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius”

I agree, I didn’t really like this one although we might be the only ones! I didn’t actually mind the single sentence thing but it was more that the plot or insights didn’t give me anything new really.

Jessica, I think I might have found this book OK if it had had either a plot or a few full stops, but losing both together meant this was a frustrating read for me. Glad to know I’m not alone.

I was asked to review this one but the “single 125 page sentence” put me off and I declined the opportunity. Sounds like I made the right decision, because I think the same things that drove you nuts would have done so for me as well. And I can just imagine how “one scene in which a woman walks across the city, reflecting on her life” would be a bit much!

Laura, I’m not sure – I think you might like this one. You seem to enjoy gentler, reflective books and if you could get used to the writing style then you may well love it.

“The book is very unusual in that it is written as a single 125 page sentence.”
Oh dear, that sounds like a deal-breaker for me. I really struggle with most “stream of consciousness” writing, and while a few authors can pull off experimental writing (e.g., Jose Saramago), most of the time I find it just gives me a headache! How can you read this book if not in a single sitting?

Steph, Yes. I love Saramago. I don’t really care that he misses out speech marks, but a lack of full stops really bothers me. I did read this book in a single sitting as it is quite short, but agree that I often struggle with “stream of consciousness” writing.

Oh, I’m so sorry you didn’t love this one Jackie – one of the few books we don’t agree about! I loved the tranquility of this book – and the one long sentence did not upset me, although I usually do not like experimental fiction. Thanks for the link love 🙂

I didn’t love this one, but did enjoy it and found it rather beguiling – possibly because I had a very strong picture of Roman streets in my head so I walked with her.

Thanks for linking to my review – as you’ll have thus seen, I was definitely a fan of this one! I was worried that I’d hate it, because the single-sentence chapter in Ulysses was loathsome, but I didn’t really notice it in Portrait. Also, I like my books to have as little plot as possible, so that was a plus for me 😀

Stu, I’m pleased I could read this in one evening as I don’t think I’d have made it to the end otherwise. I can see why you love it, but I’m afraid I’m boring in my love for books with a more conventional structure.

So glad that you are reviewing a book that I have finally actually also read.

I so wanted to love this book from this wonderful publisher but noooooooooooo. It annoyed the hell out of me. It took me 9 !! NINE!! days to read. I kept putting it down . It bored me. I for one was originally very excited about the idea of the one enormous sentence, only to end up feeling cheated as this was really just a narrative that skimped on fullstops (but failed to reflect this economising in the price tag of the book. Mmmm!!) I then found myself switching the chip in my head trying to at least enjoy it in the form as some sort of travel log!! No luck. I was sure I had come across the word “obelisk” and Spanish Steps hundreds of times in the book, or was i reading the same pages over and over without realizing it? ( this might explain the 9 days).

Sadly I felt nothing , gained nothing from this book. This is poetry of sorts to me which I unfortunately do not care much for. Also, I refuse to go down that “did something get lost in translation” route. Don´t think so

Ifi, LOL! Sounds as though you were a lot more frustrated than me! I agree that translation wasn’t the problem in this case. I think the translation was probably flawless – this book had the weird writing style in the original. At least we know our reading tastes are continuing to match up. 🙂

Thank you for linking to my review. I think this was actually my favourite Peirene from last year, but I can see how this might not have worked for you. The one-long-sentence did not bother me at all, but that is because it felt like it wasn’t one long sentence while reading it. I generally enjoy stories that are more reflective and maybe less about plot, so I guess that is where we differ most in our take on this book. I do appreciate your honesty in reviewing it. I hope you enjoy your next book better.

Iris, Yes. I think reading taste plays a big part in the liking of this book. I am a big lover of plots and so the reflective nature of this one did nothing for me. I’ve just found a wonderful new book to read. I hope you have too 🙂

I’m on the ‘I loved it’ side of this debate. I didn’t find the single sentence structure a problem – and even managed to put it down and leave it overnight. I think the ‘one sentence’ aspect isn’t quite accurate because a lot of the time there were distinct breaks in the narrative where a full stop could have been inserted. Yes it rambles, but then it’s trying to recreate this young woman’s thought patterns and surely most people’s thoughts do ramble. I know mine do. It’s certainly not as difficult to follow as Ulysses, more on a par with Woolf’s The Waves or To The Lighthouse.

Maryom, I think comparison to To The Lighthouse is a good one – I disliked that too 😉 I’m sure that stream of conciousness writing styles are more realistic, but I tend to have problems connecting with them. It is a good job that we all enjoy different books – it would be boring if we all liked the same ones 🙂

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