In Rome one January afternoon in 1943, a young German woman is on her way to listen to a Bach concert at the Lutheran church. The war is for her little more than a daydream, until she realizes that her husband might never return. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, winner of the prestigious Georg Büchner prize, is a mesmerizing psychological portrait of the human need to safeguard innocence and integrity at any cost―even at the risk of excluding reality. More than just the story of this single woman, it is a compelling and credible description of a typical young German woman during the Nazi era.
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Friedrich Christian Delius, one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary German writers, was born in 1943 and lives in Berlin and Rome. He has published fifteen novels and five poetry collections, and has recently written the libretto for Prospero by Luca Lombardi. He has won most of Germany's prestigious literary awards--including the Joseph Breitbach Prize, the Georg Büchner Prize, and the Critics Prize--and his books have been translated into seventeen languages.
Jamie Bulloch has been a professional translator since 2001. His most recent works include The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer and Ruth Maier's Diary.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman
Walk, young lady, walk if you want to walk, the child will like it if you walk, Dr Roberto had said in his funny German with a strong Italian accent,and, as always when she set off on a walk or to get some things in town, these words that the doctor used to say after her weekly examination, with his persuasive but friendly smile and in that silky voice, danced around her head,beautiful lady, young lady, healthy lady, moving good, straining not good, and there is nothing more better in Italy for you and the child than the oxygen in the Roman air, and all this for no money, the city of Rome she is glad to offer you and the child her good air,curious words of encouragement and irritating compliments which were already there before she took her first step outside, as she combed and plaited her hair, and put it up in a bun in front of the small bathroom mirror, thenwith a sceptical expression put on her only hat, a black one with a broad brim, and stroked both hands over her large bulging belly, and could not find anything about herself that was beautiful besides this belly, because when he called her beautiful lady it made her blush each time, in spite of his friendliness and assistance, the doctor had no right to call her that, only he did, her husband, whose return from the African front she had been waiting for week in, week out,and she tiptoed across the terracotta tiles in the hallway, it was still siesta time, back into her room which she shared with another German woman, whose fiancé had been interned in Australia and who, although almost thirty years old, was known as "the girl" and who worked in the kitchen and helped serve meals, Ilse was still lying on her bed, reading after her siesta,while she, the younger woman, put on black lace-up shoes, fetched her dark-blue coat from the wardrobe, cast an eye over her bed that had been made and the table that had been tidied and found everything in order, said See you at supper!, shut the door, and walked past the bathroom towards the lift and the main staircasein the centre of the five-storey building, a hospital and old people's home run by Evangelical nuns from Germany, with a few guest rooms, one of which she was sharing with Ilse until the birth,then afterwards she had been promised a room on the fourth floor for herself and the baby,in this mission, run by the deaconesses of Kaiserswerth, she had everything she needed and it cost her very little, a doctor and obstetrician, a midwife, sisters, regular meals, a bed, a chair, a small table, a drawer for the letters from Africa, half a wardrobe, a tiny mirror in the bathroom three doors down, a prayer each morning before breakfast, a terrace on the roof in a city where, in spite of the frequent sirens, no bombs fell, and where the winter was a mild affair, predominantly sunny and warm,and placed her hand on the banisters, here she was surrounded and cared for by ten women in dark-blue habits and white bonnets with frilly trims and bows under the chin, stiffened by Hoffmann's starch, one of the sisters was in charge of the kitchen, one the laundry, one the ironing press, one the nursing, one the administration, and the most marvellous of them all, Schwester Else, was in charge of the entire deaconesses' mission, and they all devoted themselves to the patients, to the mothers with their babies on the maternity ward, here she felt in good hands and was endlessly grateful for everything,especially grateful that they spoke German here, and that she did not have to make any effort to speak a foreign language in a foreign place, whichshe would not have been able to do, trained as a kindergarten teacher and housekeeper, she felt she had no gift at all for languages, she had not even learnt a handful of words of a foreign language, although she had got the best marks in arithmetic and gymnastics, at school and in the Hitler Youth's League of German Girls she had channelled her curiosity towards biology, to native plants and animals, but never to languages, and thus from morning to night and also now, as she carefully went down the stairs, she blessed her luckthat she was on a German island in the middle of Rome, where even the Italians spoke German, sometimes it was a funny German like Dr Roberto's, sometimes broken like that spoken by the women in the kitchen, but it seemed to her that all of them were making an effort, either because they really liked working here with Protestants, or perhaps because they themselves were dispersed Italian Protestants, brave Waldensians, or because they enjoyed German order or pious orderliness,and she walked down the stairs, holding on tightly to the banisters, until she reached the entrance hall where three narrow armchairs and a table stood outside the doctor's consulting room, and a vase which always contained fresh flowers, today it was mimosa, three bunches of delicate yellow January mimosa, and after going through the glass doorentered the front hall with a bench and the tiny room for the reception sister, as they called this post in the mission, usually it was Schwester Helga who was in charge of the key and the telephone, delivered post, showed patients to admission, completed the register, and was the person who had to be informed when leaving the house and the care of the ever-obliging, ever-smiling deaconesses,it was already three o'clock, the afternoon rest was over, and Schwester Helga was coming to do her warden's duty, she knew, it had already been discussed, that the young woman would go alone to the concert at the church on Via Sicilia, and would be accompanied home through the dark streets by two sisters,particularly as it might be a few minutes after half-past five, when no lamps shone and windows were covered for the blackout to hoodwink the bombers who had yet to drop a bomb on Rome, and the holes and paving stones on the pavement were hard to make out,See you at supper! said Schwester Helga, See you at supper! the young lady said, stepping through the door, and waited for a moment on the top step, as she took her first breath outside on this bright January afternoon,Dr Roberto was quite right to praise the Roman oxygen, this air was good for her,the sunlight was good for her, the afternoon sun shone on the right side, her side, of Via Alessandro Farnese, dabbing a little of the precious sun on her face, and making her raise her head so that her hat cast no shadow on her skin and, smiling, she walked past agaves and rhododendrons, up six steps and turned left,something she could not have imagined nine weeks ago, turning into a Roman street, all alone on a Sunday evening, so confidently and almost without trepidation,it was nine weeks ago that she had arrived in Rome, so as to be with him for a while at last, with Gert, for the first time since their wedding, and when, the very next day, he had to tell her that he had been ordered back to the army, a sudden, immediate redeployment to Africa, and she had not been able to understand,only just arrived and immediately alone again, highly pregnant in a dangerous foreign place, it was a shock, at twenty-one almost herself like a child that cannot walk without help or stand on its own two feet, exposed in a totally alien country and a totally alien language,she looked up past the beautifully moulded window arches and the green shutters of the house that had, years ago, been painted rust-red, up five storeys to the railings of the terrace, searched for the window to her room and, as if it might do hersome good, looked with modest pride in her newly acquired cosmopolitanism at the palms in front, which she loved to write about in her letters, all in all a stately building, surrounded with beautiful plants,her beloved husband could not have sought out a better refuge, she could not have found a lovelier German island, and the child inside her stirred at these thoughts, she stopped, felt the movements of the little legs and arms, she took this as a sign of consent and responded by slipping her right hand under her coat and slowly stroking her dress and the curved belly,and, as the kicking and punching abated, she began her walk to the other German island, the church on Via Sicilia, where the concert was to start at four o'clock, it was the trusted route from one island to the other, as the rest of it, the immense city of Rome, still seemed to her likea sea which she had to cross, checked by the fear of all those things unknown, of the yawning depths of this city, its double and triple floors and layers, of the many thousand similar columns, towers, domes, façades, ruins and street corners, of the endless number of pilgrimage sites for cultured visitors, which she walked past in ignorance, and of the faces of the 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,but where there is fear, faith can help, she could rely on this knowledge, for the Bible was also a help against the opaque, uncanny sea named Rome, for example a verse from Psalms, cited during morning prayer, If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me,as soon as she recalled this verse she felt comforted and guided and held, and with the encouraging words of Dr Roberto, Walk, young lady, walk, and the certainty of being in exactly the right, the most secure place between the African coast, where her husband was serving, and the Baltic coast, where her parents lived, she quickly reached the first street corner, crossed the junction, stayed on the sunny side, looked at the houses in this area, all of them in those friendly colours which had become familiar to her, between bright ochre and dark, faded and wash...
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