Saturday, August 12, 2017

On a Great Lutheran War Novel




Friedrich Christian Delius’ Bildniss der Mutter als Junge Frau (Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman) is an oddity, a great Christian war novel. There are no battles in the book and no one dies. No generals plot strategic victories and politics is scarcely referenced. Curiously, this short book – it is really a novella – most resembles the theologically inflected fictions of the least warlike of all modern writers, Marilynne Robinson, President Obama’s favorite novelist and the author of the highly regarded Gilead.

Literary influence is a matter of intuition. No professional writer sets out to write like another author – except, I suppose, in cases of satiric parody. Rather, I think, a writer absorbs influences without conscious volition – the milieu in which we write is our climate, the air that we unconsciously breathe. For this reason, I think a critic may legitimately rely upon instinct in teasing out influence without necessarily demonstrating intent to imitate. Since source material is ambient and, indeed, may reach the writer by indirect circuit, it’s questionable to claim that a certain precursor necessarily has influenced the author of a later text. Rather, it may be simply something in the environment, some common denominator difficult to precisely categorize.

Furthermore, I think we should acknowledge that influence can take many forms. Debussy admired Wagner but the German composer’s influence on the French musician is mostly negative – Wagner’s cultural significance is too great to be denied, but, also, a paradigm to be avoided. Some instances of influence arise from simple misreading – Baudelaire’s understanding of Edgar Allan Poe is based on a creative misprision of the earlier writer’s methods and intentions. In other instances, overt influence conceals or screens a much more profound influence that the author has repressed. Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo claims jazz precedents, but the book’s real source lies in Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid Crying of Lot 49.

Instinct tells me that Friedrich Christian Delius’ magisterial 2006 Bildnis der Mutter als Junge Frau (Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman) has roots in Marilynn Robinson’s Gilead (2004). But this intuition is probably demonstrably incorrect: a prefatory note advuses that the book arose from the author’s 2001 sojourn in Rome at the Casa di Goethe funded by a stipend from Daimler-Chrysler. This would suggest that the book was actually written before Gilead was published in the United States. Furthermore, the German book’s title alludes to James Joyce – of course, his first novel was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; Delius has written a portrait of his own mother "as a young woman." Further, Delius’ novella takes the form of a long monologue, a single sentence comprises the text’s 124 page narrative. This device, an enormous sentence simulating a woman’s stream of consciousness directly invokes Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, although the tone and texture of Delius’ prose is completely different. Another German-language precursor to Delius’ book is Peter Handke’s portrait of his own mother, Wunschloses Unglueck translated into English as A Sorrow Beyond Dreams. Both Delius and Handke mournfully consider the trauma of war and the impact of corrupt ideology on their mothers and both books occupy an uneasy terrain that lies somewhere between personal memoir, biography, and fiction. Once again, however, Delius’ novella, although perhaps deriving in part from Handke’s famous book, is written in a very different key – Handke’s book is about speechless suffering, repression, and defeat (his mother kills herself); by contrast, Delius’ book ends with the author’s heroine planning to put her thoughts in "a long, long letter" to her soldier-husband – far from being defeated by history, Delius’ mother emerges triumphant. Handke’s book is about mute suffering, speechlessness; Delius’ novella ends with a commitment to communication.

It is this tone of serene and gentle triumph that drives me to compare Delius Portrait with Robinson’s Gilead. Indeed, the two books feels like pendants to one another. In Gilead, an elderly dying pastor, Rev. John Ames, composes the text as a letter to his young son; Delius’ Portrait takes the form of a 21-year old woman’s address both to her unborn child and her soldier husband who is serving on the African front during World War Two. Both books are monologues, although Delius presents his heroine’s thoughts in the third person, a voice, however, so closely affiliated with his titular character as to affect the reader as a first-person narrative. Delius and Robinson’s books each contain muted references to war and the justice of war – Gilead concerns the impact of one of Ames’ forebears, an abolitionist pastor who preached his flock into war; the effect of World War Two on Delius’ mother is integral to his book, a subject advanced and explored on just about every page in the narrative. Robinson’s book addresses American problems of racism and the legacy of slavery; Delius’ heroine is concerned with the justice of the war in which her husband is entangled – just as Robinson confronts an American history rife with racial hatred, Delius poses his mother against a stark background of Fascist and anti-Semitic ideology. There is almost no overt action and very little plot in these two books – both are situational, that is, the exploration of a historical and existential dilemma confronting the two protagonists. Both books concern that rarest of all literary subjects – the man or woman of unassuming good will and virtue. Kindness, forbearance and patience are not generally thought to be amenable to literary representation. But both books celebrate protagonists whose goodness, by no means perfect or immaculate, is mostly instinctive.

Handke’s mother is a creature of Beckett’s barrens, a suffocated victim of a world without meaning. Joyce’s Molly Bloom is the embodiment of Leopold Bloom’s own soul, a pagan animism throbs in her words and affirmation of life – she represents a polytheistic, heathen world: we understand that Molly, the earth goddess has spent the day disporting herself in bed with the solar deity, Blazes Boylan. By contrast, Delius and Robinson are both Protestant writers – their characters are Evangelical Lutheran and Calvinist respectively. Fundamentally, I think that the resemblance between Delius Portrait and Robinson’s Gilead (and indeed the other two books in her trilogy – Home and Lila) probably must be ascribed to the Christian dispensation underlying these books. For a Christian writer, narrative themes are circumscribed: Handke’s form of bitter tragedy is inadmissible – God is loving despite the evidence of the world and, in the end, all will be well. Similarly, Joyce’s pagan celebration of the senses is also fundamentally off-limits – in Delius book, as well as Robinson’s novel, an abundant and sensual life is praised but only in the context of salvation. Delius’ father was an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and his Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman is about his mother’s condition of blessedness. Gilead is a reflection of Robinson’s lifelong engagement with the writings and thought of John Calvin – her hero is fundamentally a Puritan, although not in the life-denying or censorious way imagined by popular culture. I don’t know if Delius is a "believer"; Robinson, however, has openly expressed her Christian faith. Curiously, both writers were born in 1943 – Delius is present in his book as a kicking, restless fetus (he was born in February 1943); Robinson’s birth was ten months later, November 1943.

On the evidence of Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman, Delius is a master of German prose. Although his book has certain limitations, I think it is a great work. The reason that I have summoned Marilynne Robinson to testify in this note is that, I assume, many of my readers may be familiar with her novels, or, at least, Gilead. Since the tone of Delius’ novella is unusual, I have compared the book with Robinson’s novel, also a work that is profoundly counter-cultural, both as narrative and style. I want you to understand what the experience of reading Delius is like – and, in this respect, the comparison with Robinson is instrumental: the tone of both books is very closely similar. The notion of influence, with which I began this essay, is probably spurious in any event – after all, as Borges’ notes, influence is a two-way street: Kafka can be imagined as influencing Poe and E. T. A. Hoffmann; late Stravinsky was a formative influence on Mozart; what if James Joyce were the secret author of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola? What if a certain Pierre Menard, a contemporary of Joyce, wrote Don Quixote? My contention is that we can productively imagine Delius as having written Gilead and Robinson as being the author of Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman – these speculations tell us something about both books and the Christian Weltanschaung in which they are rooted.

Portrait of Mother as a Young Woman is set on a splendidly bright and temperate day in Rome in January 1943. An unnamed young woman from northern Germany ventures forth, walking for about one hour to attend a mid-afternoon concert in a Protestant Church. The young woman is pregnant, about four weeks before her child is expected, and her doctor has encouraged her to walk as much as possible – the outdoor air and exercise will strengthen her child and better equip her for the rigors of labor. We know from the title that the woman is Delius’ mother. And we know from his date of birth that he is the child squirming in her womb. German lends itself well to long sentences – syntax is loose and it is easy to write long dependant clauses and, in any event, disparate ideas and concepts can be loosely sutured with the copula und ("and"). (Hegel often lost himself in his sentences and many of the paragraph or page-long sentences in his writing lack a verb or noun – it might be an interesting exercise to study Delius’ novella grammatically to determine its actual controlling noun and verb, but, the exercise would likely be fruitless; the text seems to me to be composed in discreet clauses, either dependant or independant, that are between 40 and 80 words in length.) The clauses combined as a single sentence are set forth with spaces between them – as German critics have noticed, the effect is like a virtuoso singer, pausing every half-minute to take a deep breath. The subject of the book is the young woman’s thoughts and observations as she makes her way on foot to the church. (She is afraid to take a bus because she was groped by an Italian man when she earlier traveled on a public conveyance.) The novella ends with an account of the concert and, in the book’s last paragraph, the protagonist makes plans to write a lengthy letter to her husband, Gert, who is serving in the Wehrmacht in Tunis.

In the course of the book, we learn that the young woman is 21 years old, a staunch Lutheran, and from northern German. Rome is intimidating to her, an Irrgarten der Vergangheit – a maze-like garden of past history conceived as error. She is afraid of the Italians and looks down upon them. In her mind, Luther’s theology has repudiated Rome and so she feels herself a stranger in a strange land. The young woman was married when she was nineteen, but has spent only a few weeks in the company of her husband. Gert served first in France and, then, on the Russian front where he sustained a leg wound. The wound has resulted in cellulitis, an infection that has not been well-controlled and, so, Gert was transferred to a desk job in Rome. Upon his transfer, Gert’s wife traveled to live with him – a move away from family and friends that her parents opposed. After a few weeks in Rome, the defeat of the German forces in El Alamein results in the order that Gert be transferred to North Africa to a desk job – typing and answering phones in Tunis. No bombs have yet fallen on Rome, but, in her heart, Delius’ mother knows that the war will be lost and that, soon enough, her world will collapse in fire and ruin.

In an essay on Marcel Ophuls documentary on the Nuremberg Trials (and Vietnam), The Memory of Justice, a German lawyer is quoted as saying: if you were ignorant of what was going on (in the Third Reich), you were a fool; if you knew, but looked the other way, you were a coward; if you knew and took part, you were a criminal. No other categories are available. So where does Delius’ mother fall on this spectrum? On the basis of her age and innocence, Delius seems to characterize his mother as a sort of holy fool – she is complicit with the regime to some degree, and, indeed, struggles to regulate her unruly defeatist thoughts, but her primary instincts are pacifist. Although she is not hesitant to endorse the war against the "godless Bolsheviks", she can’t reconcile her Christian beliefs with the Fascist injunction to hate the French or English or Americans – enemies that she regards as fellow Christians. Indeed, one of the leit motifs in the book is the conflict between the young woman’s happy memories of nature-hikes and singing around the campfire as a member of the Fascist BDM (Bundes deutsches Maedeln – German Girl Scouts) and her Lutheran upbringing. This is particularly problematic for her because her father, a badly damaged World War One veteran, is a circuit-riding Evangelical pastor. The first world war hovers as an uneasy and menacing presence over the book – Gert is a "war orphan" and many of the heroine’s uncles and male relatives seem to have died in that conflict. At the Spanish steps, Delius’ heroine imagines Jacob’s ladder to heaven and this leads her to contemplate the Jewish people, the tribe of Jacob. Here we are unsettled to read: "(it made her uncomfortable to think of the Father of the Jews) here where one was Aryan and didn’t dare to speak about the Jews or even the figures in the Old Testament, somewhat suspicious characters, such as Jacob, who had been, she had read, admonished to expand his people of Israel in all directions of the world and,indeed, that was precisely the problem with the Jews, guilty of unhealthy mixing of the races, as she had been taught in school and the BDM, the doctrine of race / perhaps there were even Jews in Rome, she didn’t know, she couldn’t remember having seen them with their yellow stars on their coats anyhow and none of her Roman acquaintances had even heard spoken that tricky word ‘Jew’..."

Delius recognizes that our inner monologue is musical – that is, themes repeat again and again albeit with slight variation. Thoughts conceived as monologue are redundant, overdetermined, ruminative. According, the novella is a mosaic of symbolic or thematic leit motifs repeatedly intoned. There are hieroglyphs on obelisks and Latin inscriptions that the young woman can not read – an uncanny world of writings that seem vaguely menacing to her. Arrows are posted on buildings marking the way to air raid shelters and, whenever she sees these emblems, she thinks of bombs and prays that Rome will continue to be spared – Rome is a Kultur-stadt, a place of ancient and beautiful culture and Delius’ mother thinks that the gentlemanly English and Americans will refrain from bombing the place. Musically repeated, we hear the admonition of the young mother’s obstetrician that she should laufen – that is, run or walk for her health. She recalls spending happy afternoons with Gert exploring the city and broods on her husband’s promise that they will share "Roemische Freude" ("Roman joys") one day together. (Gert is something a classical scholar and good guide to the city and he has left his child-wife a Baedeker, encouraging her to sightsee in the Eternal City in his absence.) Everywhere she goes she sees stone and bronze eagles – ultimately, the emblem of the eagle comes to symbolize Fascism, the Roman legions that once marched forth from the city, and the eagle attribute of St. John the Evangelist. During the climactic concert in the Church, the young woman is vouchsafed a vision of all mankind living harmoniously under a great canopy of music, a Himmelzelt ("tent of heaven" ) to which she is lifted by a great and noble eagle. She recalls Glueck’s opera Orpheus und Eurydike, an emblem of the plight of separated lovers – she attended it with Gert during their courtship. A painting by Caravaggio, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus that Gert has shown her in one of the Roman churches symbolizes her growing conviction that the war will be lost. Repeatedly, she passes through narrow streets and alleyways – Gehet ein durch die enge Pforte ("Go in through the narrow gate") – and these enclosures signify both the slender and perilous path that leads to heaven as well as the birth-canal through which her child will soon pass.

The concert with which the book ends consists of music by Schuetz and selections from Cantatas by Bach (as well as a performance of a Haydn string quartet). The soloist, a tenor hails from Germany – the concert was previously scheduled for November 1942 but had to be postponed because the railroads had then been damaged by bombing and the singer could not reach Rome. In the mind of the heroine, November 1942 was relatively peaceful compared with the present – there is rationing now and the people are obviously unwell and starving and invasion seems imminent: at any moment, aerial attack is expected, although the heroine refuses to believe that the English will bomb the city where Keats and Shelley are buried. The war seems to be expanding – soon it will be everywhere and there will be no respite. A thread concealed in the fabric of the prose is the heroine’s fear that Gert will be killed – other women in the church-dormitory where she lives have lost their husbands (or learned that their men are prisoners of war); this terror is so great that it remains implicit – never fully articulated.

Despite all of these fears and privations, the tone of the novella is celebratory – the young woman’s faith in God is not shaken. God will protect the righteous and preserve order and justice in the world. Although there is turmoil all around, Rome is beautiful, the weather is good, and the young woman, at least for now, is healthy and well-nourished, looking forward to the birth of her child. Even amidst the devastation of war, Delius mother feels herself at ease – God will save her. The term "irony" is not exactly correct to describe the citation of Martin Luther’s great hymn "Eine feste Berg" ("A Mighty Fortress"), a consolation to Delius’ protagonist because it embodies both God’s sheltering love as well as the fortress of Europe, the Fascist continent fortified against attackers gathering on all sides. Her walk through Rome leads her inexorably to a final vision of a peaceful future, mankind united under God and Bach – the two great figures intensely entangled in the heroine’s imagination of a world without war.

The book is intensely lyrical. Like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, it is too long for its subject matter, too repetitive – but this is intrinsic to religious belief and mirrors the superfluity of inner monologue. One who has faith sees God (or Christ) in everything and the world becomes a radiant system of mirrors always reflecting the divine light that suffuses all things – this is a remarkable and transcendent vision, but it isn’t dramatic or dynamic and has little social or political relevance: the problem with the universal is that it reduces everything to One, a falsification of reality although also a vision that can be very beautiful when it is not simply suffocating. Delius’ highly poetic style prevents the book’s religious theme from crushing the life out of his writing.

Here is a sample of the book, an account of the courtship of Delius’ mother:

"in wonderfully pretty October weather, it was the first time that she had dared to go for a stroll with a young man, from Wartburg upward through Mariental and at the end of the long afternoon his question, the decisive question, if he might call upon her again, from Kassel through Eisenach, and as she was given to understand, before he had to travel to Rome

yes, she had said, but so softly that he had to ask her again, yes, she said a little more loudly and, then,her face was red, it had never been more red, and a few days later

he was there again with pralines, candy that he had bought for her in France where he was a soldier, purchased, not looted, as he emphasized to her, they wandered through the woods around Wartburg and ate the pralines and, in the evening, he surprised her with his cautious question if he could use the word "thou" with her because the formal address was too dreadful and after that first "thou" it had all been quick as a bolt of lightning and they were engaged..."

(The italicized "ja" or yes reminds us of Molly Bloom’s affirmation at the end of Ulysses – there is a hint of the war in the word blitzschnell – like Blitzkrieg – to describe the progress of their romance from Gert’s first use of the German familiar du or "thou" and the couple’s subsequent engagement.)


"(she was) in the Via Sicilia, where she was now walking, going by foot, pregnant and with these thoughts wandering back to her betrothal, always astonished and trembling with thankfulness about these incidents...on her still, unerring way through Rome, Wartburg was always in her head, as a symbol for the steadfastness of love and belief and for her lovely Germany, also as a Protestant protesta against St. Peter’s church, Luther’s fortress, Luther’s speech, Luther’s strength, Luther’s invincibility, Luther’s beautiful words..."

And near the book’s end:

"(everyone singing) also the soldiers, as they had early sung with Old Fritz, all the generals, on all the fronts, Christians, heathens, Jews, Communists, all had to gather their breath and sing in unison one mighty Praise to the Lord, just as her father, the captain in the Great War, had sung so loudly, so that one could do nothing more but sing together with full-throat and praise the mighty King of all honor

and it all happened under the heavenly tent of music, also the wondrous silence that followed the end of the last bar... a happy silence that was hers, that was the same as her peace, and that led her to the thought that in time of war the most beautiful thing of all is stillness..."