Novella a Day in May 2019 #1

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman – Friedrich Christian Delius (2006, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2010) 125 pages

Dear Reader, I’ve been somewhat absent from the blogosphere recently and I’ve really missed it. This was because at the end of March I decided on the spur of the moment to apply for a PhD which caught my eye. I had no plans for further study and so this meant April was spent in whirlwind of desperately trying to get my reading up to date, meeting with old tutors to remind them who on earth I am and begging for a reference, and then writing my application. The deadline is this Friday but I’ve now submitted my application and I’m hoping I might regain my sanity in the meantime. I don’t think I’ll get it, but my tutors have been really supportive and its good to shake things up now and again.

Aaaaaaannnnyway, I really enjoyed blogging on a novella a day in May last year, so I’m throwing myself back into it this year. I had such plans…. NADIM this year was going to be carefully thought through, with a good spread of countries (last year I ignored the southern hemisphere completely and lovely Naomi pointed out I’d also skipped Canada) and a wonderful balance of styles and subjects… yeah, that’s not happening. Instead this month (and I really hope to make it to the end) will be hastily cobbled together posts which completely fail to do the wonderful form of the novella any justice at all. But I still hope I manage to spread some novella love along the way 😊

I thought it apt to start with one from a publishing house that has done so much to champion the form: Peirene Press, who specialise in publishing contemporary European novellas, aimed to be read in one sitting. I’m a big fan of theirs and so I swooped down on Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman when I saw it in my favourite charity bookshop.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is set over the course of one afternoon in Rome in 1943. Margherita is 19 years old, pregnant and alone as her husband is serving in the German army in Tunisia. She feels alien in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, and she is walking to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church.

“the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her like

a sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, facades, ruins and street corners, of endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of 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”

And now, bear with me as I break something to you which you may have gathered from the quote above, which sounds awful but I promise it isn’t: the entire novella is one sentence. Wait, come back! It’s ok, really. Trust me 😉

There are paragraphs which make the whole thing easier, and Delius, possibly because he is a poet, has a great ear for rhythm. This means the sentence, broken by commas, works well in capturing the sense of someone walking, their thoughts falling into the pattern of their steps. I thought it was really effective and such an impressive feat of translation by Jamie Bulloch too.

“for two months she had crossed the Tiber almost every day via the Ponte Margherita, as if that were totally normal, but nothing was totally normal, especially not in these times, each day was a gift, each of the child’s movements in her belly a gift, each verse from the Bible and each glance across the Tiber”

Throughout her journey across the city, we learn about Margherita’s life in Germany and her new marriage. She is religious – daughter of and wife to clergymen – but not given to much reflection, preferring to stay silent in political discussions. Her husband and father are somewhat sceptical of the Reich, but Hitler has been in power throughout Margherita’s childhood and adolescence, she was part of the League of German Girls and it is only now, away from home, that she finds herself beginning to feel confused.

“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”

Even though nothing of great note happens in the course of the novel, there is still an effective and believable character arc. Cut adrift, Margherita is beginning to learn who she is. There is a sense that this naïve, unquestioning woman is potentially quite steely, and as readers we know she will need that in the months and years to come.

 “She sensed something within her rebelling against the constant obligation to stifle the feeling of longing with her reason and her 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”


30 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #1

  1. I cannot believe it is a whole year since you were last doing NADIM – it seems like just last week!! But hooray that you are doing it again because I loved it last time and am excited to see your selections this time (although I fear for my TBR). I am also a huge fan of Peirene Press and had not come across this book before, so thanks for the recommendation. And how exciting about your PhD – fingers firmly crossed for you!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So glad to have you back and what a brilliant way to kick of this year’s NADIM. Not a Peirene I’ve read but I plan to read them all eventualy.

    Good luck with the PhD application. My partner did one in his forties so I have observational experience of the process.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good luck with the Ph.D. application – how wonderful that you’ve found something that combines your passions and backgrounds. And yes, it does feel like less than a year when you did a Novella a Day – I will try very hard not to add too much to my ‘must-must-must read list’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Marina Sofia 🙂

      I did think of you when I was reading this – the main character being an ex-pat and the author being poet, I thought it sounded right up your street. I hope I manage to add to your ‘must-must-must read list’ at least a little bit!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yay, you’re back with NADIM!
    No pressure to read anything Canadian – there are many Mays to come! 🙂

    Good luck with your PhD application! Over here it seems pretty common to pursue a PhD in your 40s and 50s. It kind of makes sense to wait and see what it is you really want to focus on.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Best of luck with the application! If you need any tips about blogging and recreational reading alongside a PhD, I’m your man 😉

    Looking forward to seeing which novellas crop up this time!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. No!!! You can’t do this to me again!! I still have Up the Junction on my TBR from last year and another one (name temporarily forgotten) on my wishlist. Still, at least nothing in the world, not even you, could persuade me to read a novella-length sentence… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Novella a Day in May 2019 #19 | madame bibi lophile recommends

  8. Pingback: Five Novellas I've Read | A life in books

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