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.
Despite well-executed lyricism and a strong sense of time and place, this slender fiction, Delius's first to receive an English translation, manages to feel both padded and inchoate. Twenty-one and pregnant, Liese is living in Rome in 1943 while her husband, Gert, serves with the German army in Africa. Liese, trained as a housekeeper and kindergarten teacher, resides with German nuns and has access to an obstetrician, among other comforts, in a time when many Italians suffer from wartime scarcity, poverty, and privation. Mostly for health reason, Liese walks through Rome, lost in observing life in wartime (children daring to imitate Mussolini; the beauty of "palms, cypresses, pines, and agaves on a high garden terrace behind a four-or five-meter-high wall") and contemplating the past (Gert asking whether he could address her in the informal rather than formal manner during their brief courtship; her father's transition from impoverished child to traveling preacher). The author and poet does well describing the particularities of this young woman's circumstance through these walks, but with no real inner or outer conflict, it's never more than a sketch.