I’ve had a couple of Peirene novels sitting looking at me for quite some time and have been intrigued by the TLS claim that these are ‘two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting’. I also wanted to take part in Read Indies month, hosted by Kaggsy and Lizzy and so it seemed sensible to give it a go.
As it turns out Portrait of the Mother by Friedrich Christian Delius (translated by Jamie Bulloch) was the perfect book to read in one go as it follows a young German women as she walks across Rome on a January afternoon in 1943, from her lodgings to a Bach concert at Rome’s Lutheran church, all told in one sentence.
It’s a walk that takes her just over an hour and through her internal monologue we get a fabulously detailed look at Rome, the paintings, sculptures, empty shops and people. But we also learn about her upbringing and her families lives, her new husband fighting in North Africa and how she feels as an outsider even though she’s amongst allies.
A country girl from Mecklenburg, newly married and expecting her first child, Margherita grew up under Nazism and was a member of the Hitler Youth Girls’ League. Although she feels safe in Rome, (nobody she thinks, will bomb the Eternal city and the graves of Shelley and Keats), her loyalty to her country makes her worry for the way the war is changing, but there’s no apology given or judgement of her, she’s just an ordinary young women. But she does question the hate she’s asked to feel and wonders how it fits in with their christian beliefs, after all she thinks, the British and Americans and French are christians too? but then, they want to kill her husband. . .
Finally she arrives at the church and the feeling of security she gets from the music rises almost like a crescendo for the last few pages
‘everything had its place beneath this heavenly canopy of music, even the wonderful stillness which descended with resonant vibrations at the end of the final bar, a detached, happy stillness which reflected her inner stillness, half a minute of silence, disturbed neither by applause nor restlessness, which corresponded with her happy silence and made her think that the loveliest thing in wartime was tranquility,’
This is a rhythmic, thoughtful book that I think must resonate with anyone who has been young or found themselves alone in a strange place, but for me it was also a fascinating look at a time in history through different eyes.