Friday, 24 June 2011

Literary Giveaway Blog Hop - A Mother of a Book

Greetings to all those visiting Tony's Reading List as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hop (and I hope you are going to visit all the other participants too!).  Today on my little blog, there will, as promised, be a giveaway - the down side is that you'll have to sit through the review first (it's a small price to pay, no?).

Friedrich Christian Delius, the recipient of this year's Georg-Büchner Prize, is a well-known and highly successful German author, and as you would expect, Bildnis der Mutter als junge Frau (Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman), a 2006 novella, is a wonderful piece of writing.  For those of you who are not fluent in the teutonic tongue, don't panic - the wonderful Peirene Press have an equally wonderful English-language version available :)

The story follows Margherita, a young, pregnant German woman, who has been left to spend the time leading up to the birth of her first child alone, after her husband was called away on business.  Which doesn't sound so bad until you hear that she is in Rome, in January 1943, and that the business her husband has been called away to is on the North African war front...

In one long sentence spanning 120 pages, we literally follow Margherita on her way through the eternal city.  Ostensibly, we are watching a young woman stroll to her church to watch a concert; in reality, we are privy to her internal musings and are able, by sifting through the confused thought patterns, to gradually build up an image of Margherita, her life, Rome, Germany, the War, Christianity - everything.

Margherita is a product of her time, a faithful member of the German Girls' League, conditioned to love her husband, bear many children and support the ideals of the Fatherland, and it is is tempting to see her as a vapid, clinging woman, unwilling to give an opinion and unable to function properly, even to stray from the straight line between her home and her church, without her husband.  However, the longer the story goes on, the more she opens up, and the less convinced she appears that what is happening back in her homeland (and all around the edges of Europe) is right.

The main source of her doubts can be found in her deep faith, and the quiet warnings from both her father and her husband about the way the Führer has effectively put himself on a pedestal alongside God.  Once we begin to see past her seemingly-blind obedience to her country, cracks appear in the facade.  Margherita worries about the difficulty of reconciling her national and spiritual duties, lamenting:
"die täglichen Konflikte zwischen Kreuz und Hakenkreuz", p.100
("the daily conflicts between the cross and the swastika")
In this light, her seeming indifference to what is going on is in fact a form of defence mechanism, protecting her from her own inner turmoil and doubt.

This Christian theme pervades the book, with Margherita stranded on an island of Evangelism in the middle of the most Catholic city in the world.  She seeks comfort in her church, comparing its rituals favourably with the more ostentatious scenes she sees elsewhere in the eternal city.  However, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Delius is playing with the reader a little in this respect, with his portrait of the pregnant young woman, wandering around in a time of conflict, the father of the child absent and seen only in her thoughts.  Is it any coincidence that Margherita's trip to the Vatican takes place on the occasion of the holiday of the "unbefleckten Empfängnis" (p.17) - or, in English, the immaculate conception...

Whether this is really the author's intent, or a happy accident (or, more likely, just the blogger's overactive imagination), what it all adds up to is a brief, leisurely, compelling stroll through a beautiful city, a brief moment in time and a period of world history which will never be forgotten.  The magic of this novella is that Delius is able to cover all aspects of his story from the micro to the macro in such a short space of time (and in such a seemingly limited style).

And the sentence?  Well, I'm not 100% convinced, and there were a few times when I really thought it was continuing simply because it had already been going for so long that it would have been a shame to end it.  Still, I'm not going to criticise such minor details when the book is such a success overall - and especially not when (for the writer) it is a particularly personal affair.

If you want to know what I mean by that, just look up Herr Delius' date (and place) of birth...

So on to the giveaway!  I will be giving away a copy of the book reviewed above, either in the original German or in the 2010 Peirene Press English-language version.  If you want to enter, simply:

  - comment on this post, stating whether you want the English or German version
  - write the word 'please' somewhere in your comment; manners are important :)
  - a contact e-mail would be nice, but I will endeavour to track down the winner!
  - commenting on my review is welcome but not obligatory ;)

This competition is open to all, but please note that I will be using The Book Depository to send this prize, so it is limited to people living in countries where The Book Depository has free delivery.  Entries will close at midnight (Melbourne time) on Thursday, the 30th of June, 2011, and I'll be announcing the winner shortly after.  Good luck to all, and to all a good night...