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”

“It’s the final countdown.” (Europe (the band))

This isn’t a political blog, but it is one where I try and relate books to what’s going on in my life/the wider world, and this is the week when Britain votes on whether to stay in or leave the EU. So in this post I’m looking at two books by European writers, and in order to maintain the blog’s thin veneer of impartiality, I’ve picked one by a writer from a country inside the EU, and one from outside.  Between them they are two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge hosted by Hard Book Habit– with none of the attendant worries of which passport queue to join, should major changes ensue…

Firstly, The Blue Fox by Icelandic by poet/novelist/songwriter for Bjork/all round Renaissance man Sjon (trans.Victoria Cribb).  This short novel (112 pages in my edition) is stunning: lyrical, sparse and truly magical. I can’t remember whose blog first introduced me to this, so if it was you please leave a comment 🙂

The story begins in 1883, with the priest Baldur Skuggason hunting a rare blue vixen:

“Snow covered the land up to the roots of the glacier, not a bare patch of earth to be seen; the vixen would write the tale of her travels on the blank sheet as soon as she embarked on them.

Grasping the weapon in both hands, he set off.”

Not a word is wasted, as Sjon creates characters and atmosphere with the minimum needed. This style is highly effective as it evokes the quiet focus of the hunt and the frozen expanse of the winter landscape.

“The sun warms the man’s white body, and the snow, melting with a diffident creaking, passes for birdsong.”

The second part of the novel goes back 16 years to explore the relationship between naturalist Fridrik B Fridriksson and his ward Abba, who has Down’s Syndrome. This section is more densely written but still beautifully constrained.

“Ghost-sun is a name given by poets to their friend the moon, and it is fitting tonight when its ashen light bathes the grove of trees that stand in the dip above the farmhouse at Brekka. This little copse was the loving creation of Abba and Fridrik, and few things made them more of a laughing stock in the Dale than its cultivation, though most of their endevours met with ridicule.”

Back in 1883, the stories intertwine and move towards an eerie, unsettling conclusion. The Blue Fox occupies a space between poetry, prose, myth, mystery and fable. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Berlin Stories by Robert Walser (tr. Susan Bernofsky), which also occupies a space between genres, this time autobiography and fiction. Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 as a young man, and Berlin Stories collects together his impressions of the city, the people he meets, the experiences he has.

I had no idea what to expect, not having read any Walser before. Picture the scene, reader: It is early morning. You hate your job. You are on a crowded platform waiting for a delayed train. You are surrounded by other commuters, who by their disregard for even the most basic social niceties are telling you that they too hate their job, and they hate you only marginally less.  Then you read this:

“Onward, onward.  That blue-eyed marvel, the early morning, has no time to waste on drunkards. It has a thousand shimmering threads with which it draws you on; it pushes you from behind and smiles coaxingly from the front. You glance up to where a whitish, veiled sky is letting a few scraps of blue peek out; behind you, to gaze after a person who interests you; beside you, at an opulent portal behind which a regal palace morosely, elegantly towers up. Statues beckon you from gardens and parks; still you keep on walking, giving everything a passing glance: things in motion and things fixed in place”

Needless to say, by page 4 of Berlin Stories, where that passage appears, I knew I was in for a beautiful journey around Berlin in Walser’s company. His style is brilliantly evocative of a city: short sketches of whatever interests him creates a series of impressions of Berlin, rather than a fixed, focused depiction. He is funny and sad, he has an eye for the minutiae and the broader picture. It is a love letter to the city, and you are left in no doubt as to why Berlin has such a culturally rich history.

“Berlin by comparison – how splendid! A city like Berlin is an ill-mannered, impertinent, intelligent scoundrel, constantly affirming the things that suit him and tossing aside everything he tires of. Here in the big city you can definitely feel the waves of intellect washing over the life of Berlin society like a sort of bath. An artist here has no choice but to pay attention.”

Like The Blue Fox, this is a short volume (139 pages) and therein lies its power. Walser creates concise, delicate yet richly vivid portraits of Berlin. Just gorgeous.

To end, I want a badge. A badge to commend my enormous self-restraint in not going on a 1980s cheese-fest (which is something I rarely restrain from) by capturing either the titular song or the band Berlin in embedded video form. Instead I’m going for a guaranteed earworm clip from a musical inspired by the Berlin stories of another writer, Christopher Isherwood.  Take it away, Liza: