Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows, has been raising questions about the way Internet use (at work as well as at home) may be rewiring our brains, while over in the Guardian, Charlie Brooker wrote a piece entitled Google Instant is Trying to Kill Me, in which he discussed the ways that evolving technology has been chipping away at his attention span. He also tries something called The Pomodoro Technique, a special system whereby, through the use of a kitchen timer, we can train our minds to concentrate on a single subject for up to 25 minutes at a time!
What better time, then, to pick up the latest title from Peirene Press, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman. Oh, it’s short, like all Peirene’s books. It’s just 125 pages, which should present no challenge to even the most hyperlink-addled brain. Just 125 pages. Just a single, 125 page sentence.
The story follows a young German girl on a walk through Rome. It’s January 1943, and she’s found herself in the city after falling in love with an Italian soldier, whose baby she’s carrying. He’s not here, though: despite his injuries, he’s been sent off to fight in Africa, leaving her alone in the city. On her walk, she reflects over her relationship with her absent husband; the reconciliation of her Protestant faith with her new Catholic surroundings; the perception of Rome as being safe from bombs because of its heritage; and what is known and unknown about the progress of the war. Everything, in one way or another, comes back to faith.
The author, Friedrich Christian Delius, is a German-Italian born in Rome in 1943, and there’s an implication that the story was inspired by his own mother’s situation.
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, then with 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,
Of course, you don’t actually read it the way you would read a single sentence, and it’s not really structured that way either. As you can see from the quote above, it’s broken into paragraphs (and there are also a fair few places that are arguably comma splices). Nevertheless, the presentation of the story as a single sentence forces you to open up to it in a way that you might not otherwise do: you have to give it all or nothing of your attention. There’s nowhere here to pause while you go and Google this or Wiki that. It’s not intimidating, exactly, but a page or two in, there’s a point that’s almost vertiginous, like the moment at the top of a log flume ride, just before the plummet: no, wait, maybe I’m not ready. It’s a long way to the end. What if I need to get a drink or go to the loo or look somethingup orwhatifthetelephonerings…
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a book you’ll probably want to read more than once, either for the density of the ideas in the prose or for the unusual sensation of reading it: it almost feels more like watching a live performance than the usual reading experience. If you didn’t quite catch something, you’re reluctant to go back a page, as though the narrative might carry on without you.
The result is a book that manages to be satisfying both in terms of the material and the presentation. I’m glad all books aren’t written like this, but I’m delighted that this one is.