It is a tiny slip of a book, unassuming in both size and color. And yet it might as well be covered in razor blades for the way it slices into you and leaves you on the floor, weepy and devastated.
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The young woman of the title, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, is a German...“woman” is pushing it. She’s barely 21, but heavily pregnant, married and waiting for her husband to come back from war. It is 1943, and she has been displaced in Rome. She came down to spend a little time with her husband, but when he was sent back to the African front, she was left in a foreign land with no connections, no language and so very little to do with her time. She wanders the city streets, trying to fall in love with it the way her absent husband did, and struggling to keep a shred of hope that he will return.
The book’s action takes place only over the course of a few hours, as she readies herself for a Bach concert at a church, walking a familiar route to get there. But she is good company, and her ruminations on the war, on her life and marriage, on Italy and Germany, turn what looks like a flimsy book into something so much more substantial and resonant.
I spoke with Friedrich Christian Delius about his narrator, about using your own mother as the basis for a character and about being a German in Italy.
As I was reading, I kept thinking about how brave this woman was, being so young and alone in a foreign country. But then there was so much she was deluding herself about, or refusing to think about, so maybe brave is the wrong word. Do you consider her brave, or think bravery is possible when self-delusion and fantasizing is involved?
I'd rather call her naive, actually. She was 12 when the Nazis came to power—she was influenced by that ideology. That said, she was raised in the Protestant tradition, which involves a certain commitment to truthfulness and is somewhat apolitical. So she developed an ambivalence—as well as a reluctance to let some pressing questions get at her. You could call it an inhibited naiveté.
I wanted to ask about the play on the James Joyce title in your title. Because the atmosphere of the piece, an inner monologue that rambles on and on as she walks through the city, but also the way it cuts off before you learn her fate, is also a little Joycean. Is he an influence on your work?
Well, there are two words in German, "Bildnis" [image] and "Porträt" [portrait]. "Bildnis" is a bit more old-fashioned than "Porträt," even a bit quaint perhaps. I chose that word because I had pictures in mind, just like you would see in a museum. I didn't think of Joyce, at least not consciously—I probably did subconsciously though.
The technique of the inner monologue you mention I tried out in previous books. I read Joyce 30, 40 years ago—I always admired his style, but I don't think of him as a direct influence. Or perhaps his influence is only now becoming apparent?
There is a lot of material on the culture clash between Germany and Italy, or specifically, Rome. You split your time between these two countries, so I'm wondering if those differences in culture, as far as you've seen them, still exist.
The key difference is surely that of different religious traditions, i.e. Protestant and Catholic. Also, the Italians, or rather the Romans only once invaded Germania, and that was 2,000 years ago. The Germanic tribes, and later the Germans and the Austrians, have invaded Italy, or parts of Italy, a number of times—even before World War II.
And there's another difference: I would say the majority of Germans has dealt with our Nazi past, has worked through it and, more or less, come to terms with it. Few Italians, however, see their fascist past—Mussolini's regime which held power for some 20 years—as a crime. It's a blind spot.
I loved the line, "but she was afraid of getting to know art on her own," as it seemed very revealing of her youth, but also the kind of relationship she had with her husband, the way she looked up to him and wanted him to explain the world to her. How did you get into the head of that kind of woman, and the dynamics of that kind of relationship?
Well, she was my mother, so I knew her quite well. Then there were the letters from that time, which were very useful. After all, it's a writer's job to get into the heads of other people and to think with their minds, as it were. For me, that's the pleasure of writing!
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.