Natalie Fast

Small, but perfectly formed

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“Thought provoking, well designed, short.” ‘Well, that last one is a good thing,’ says a friend who takes about five years to finish one novel. And on this occasion I agree. Peirene Press seek out acclaimed European short literature (never more than 200 pages) and revel in translating it. Peirene’s canon is also short, only three novellas, but already it is diverse. I have picked their first release, Véronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea and their newest, Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (published in September), and have set aside a day in which to hunker down and read them both.

Véronique Olmi is an acclaimed French playwright; Bord de Mer is her first foray into novel writing and her talents as a dramatist underpin the novella. The protagonist is an unnamed mother – she is our narrator, our eyes. We are thrown into her grim, rain-soaked, dark little world and we must follow her, with her two young boys, to the seaside. Olmi has created a character that is, in equal parts, obsessive and fearful about motherhood; she constantly worries about whether the boys are hungry, bored, or too wet. Little Kevin and Stan are lost and just get bundled along even more confused and scared than their mother. What the mother experiences from the depth of her 'darkness' and what is actually happening start to diverge:

'Stan! I begged him, are those fucking biscuits any good? I turned round and saw that Stan was talking to me, in the half-light I could see that he was looking at me and his lips were moving… I couldn’t hear a thing.'

The mother is fighting to hold on to what she can control – which, as she isn’t in control of her own life, ends up being her sons. The whole novella swells like the treacherous murky sea they are visiting and we are dumped with a crushing closing sentence against the shore. It is a harrowing little tale (sadly actually inspired by a real event that Olmi read in a newspaper).

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman is a complete foil to Beside the Sea, in terms of portrayal of motherhood. It is equally engaging, and short, but here we are led into the mind of a girl who is defined by her swollen pregnant belly and we follow her at a leisurely meander.

The young woman is stranded in Rome, pregnant, while her husband is deployed with the German army to Africa during WW2. We join her in a German enclave, a missionary run by nuns, in the centre of the ‘Eternal City’ and we walk with her through Rome and her own reflections, all across 117 pages, until arriving at another German safe-haven, the Lutheran Church on Via Sicilia. Reaching the end of this walk we realise how much ground has been covered in one single rhythmic sentence.

Delius manages to unite the jumbled thoughts and anxieties of a young girl alone and vulnerable without losing the reader as he jumps through time and countries. He intricately weaves enormous themes of war, religion and love so that they become peripheral to the main focus of the girl and her interaction with the present surroundings and her past memories of the Reich. It is beautiful in its detail and whilst it can feel aimless it is held together tightly and expertly by its form and strength of translation.

There is a rumour that Beside the Sea will be translated, not only from the French, but from page to stage, back to Olmi’s original roots. I hope it happens. The Medea-like mother will be more painful to watch than to imagine, but the distortion between external and internal realities would be gripping. I want to see it already.

Beside the Sea £8.99, ISBN 978056284020

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, £8.99, ISBN 9780956284006

Both published by Peirene.