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, like a lunatic, 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”

Novella a Day in May #1

For a while now I’ve been enamoured of the novella. I enjoy sparse writing styles (not so good at this myself 😉) and at its best a novella gives us a narrative distilled to its essence for maximum impact. To spread novella love I’ve decided to post about a novella each day for the whole month. There’s no fixed definition of a novella so for my purposes I’ve decided its longer than 70 pages and shorter than 200. This will definitely work! It won’t peter out and die in a heap by 5 May at all! Onwards…

The Game of Cards – Adolf Schroder (trans. Andrew Brown, 2008) 143 pages

The Game of Cards  is not ostensibly gothic or a thriller, and yet it is both these things. The story of how student Markus Hauser is employed by Selma Bruhns for a week to put several trunks worth of letters into chronological order is truly creepy and suspense-filled.

Selma is a terse, uncommunicative employer, who lives in an old house with a vast number of cats at varying stages of disease. Markus is constantly at the point of leaving, unable to stomach the “stench” of the house, the feral occupants, his awkward employer and the seemingly pointless nature of his repetitive task:

“He squatted down between the piles of letters lying on the floor, but when her resumed his work…looking for the pile in which he was putting the letters from 1943, laying the pages of the letter on it and reaching out for the next one, he paused, as if he’d only just realised that he had absolutely no idea what he was doing”

Gradually however, Markus is drawn into the letters, all written to a woman named Almut.  Very little is given away, but Markus finds himself compelled to continue, without really understanding why.

 “Words from the letters that he had read came alive. He found himself in streets where he had never been, heard the shrieking and whistling of creatures that he could not see but whose presence he surmised, felt on his skin the burning sun whose strength he had never yet felt, saw a woman coming up to him who spoke in a language that he did not understand.”

This chronology is interspersed with the investigation being conducted by Superintendent Berger, who suspects Markus of having strangled Selma with her own scarf on his last day of work. Thus we are drawn into not only the mystery of who Almut is and why Selma is obsessively writing to her, but also who killed Selma and why. Schroder jumps between the two timelines without preamble and so the reader is drawn into the disorienting, imperfectly understood situation of the all the characters.

 “With a sudden move that took Markus by surprise, she threw the animal towards him, it crashed into his chest, and only because Markus reacted quickly and caught the animal could he prevent I from falling onto the ground.

‘You are working slowly and without much concentration,’ said Selma Bruhns, turning round and stepping into the house.”

There is also the question of what happened – and what the stake was – in the titular match between Markus and Selma…

The Game of Cards is a deeply disturbing read, and a powerful portrait of enduring psychological trauma. It will stay with me for a long time.