This compelling novel starts in Scheveningen, the seaside resort close to The Hague. Marie von Schabow, a 50 year old emerging writer, who is also a married woman and mother, is spending a few days there carrying out research into her great great grandmother, born of an affair between a dancer and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands who later became king. She is luxuriating in the freedom of these few precious days, walking by the sea, sitting in cafés, visiting art galleries as well as working in the archives and anyone who has spent time caring for others will relate to the huge sense of release and expansion which is conveyed in this beginning. As the days go by however, Marie becomes increasingly uncertain about the point of writing the story of her distant relative. During her time alone, her father and his story has been on her mind. He served in the Navy in World War One and later became a pastor, critical of Hitler and the Nazis : surely his story is more important and should be heard? Thinking about her father leads her to reflect on her own past and the third story emerges, that of the narrator herself. So by the end of the first section all three narratives are out there and weave around each other through the book, though the story of Marie and her father are the dominant threads.
Their stories are rooted firmly in the complex history of 20th century Germany. Marie’s trip to Scheveningen takes place in 1968, clearly marked by the swearing in of Nixon and the self-immolation of the Czech student Jan Palach, an event which shocked the world. So she grew up during the 1930s, joined the Nazi youth group BDM ( Bund deutscher Mädel- League of German Girls) but, living in Bad Doberau in the Ostzone- Eastern Germany, was under Communist rule for a few years, before fleeing to the West and Frankfurt at the end of the war. Her father lived that combination of boredom and sudden devastating action common to U-boat commanders during the First World War. The scale of destruction and loss he witnessed as a young man is told in unsparing, but simple and economic prose, reflecting the emotional numbness it induced in him. In addition he suffered the loss of several family members. It is therefore with huge relief that we read his love story- the courtship of his late brother’s fiance, Hildegard, and their subsequent engagement and marriage. However after the war he suffered a devastating breakdown and subsequent problems with employment and pulled through by finding God. He became an evangelical pastor, preaching all over Germany, utterly driven, spending years and years on trains and on the road while Hildegard brought up their family of 6 children.
The theme of movement, of travelling, of train journeys features in the main narrative too. After The Hague Marie goes to Amsterdam where she visits the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum and then travels by train to Leverkusen where she breaks her journey to stay with her brother. The intense narrative perspective is relieved here by dialogue with her brother and sister in law about their father. We see their take on the father but also are invited to see the effect of the tumultuous changes brought about by the Second World War on Marie’s generation. Her story is picked up and we learn that her husband, Rheinhard, was limited in his work choices as a returning POW. Marie, a gifted student, had to abandon her studies in order to train in agriculture to make a go of the farm they took on in Communist East Germany. So the lives of all the characters have been at best compromised, at worst, devastated by war and the tumultuous events of the 20th century.
Now as I write this I am aware that the characters have lived through an extraordinary number of significant historical events for a novel of just over 200 pages. While the novel does not have the complexity of, say, Günter Grass’ ‘Crabwalk’ , which also deals with the devastation of war and its sequelae, it does not come across as superficial in the slightest, possibly because the historical events are mediated through the consciousness of Marie and it is the emotional impact on individuals which is highlighted. Delius manages to select moments which he describes with precision to convey this impact: I shall not forget the image of Marie’s father watching the torpedoed Italian troop ship going down before him, hundreds of men clinging to the last remnants of the ship only to be dragged down with it in a matter of minutes. But as well as this bigger picture he is so skilful in conveying Marie’s everyday concerns to us: her occasional hot flush; wondering if the children are alright; has her husband really gone to see ‘2001: Space Odyssey’ in her absence? I found this a fantastic rendering of a woman’s consciousness and wondered how Delius had managed to get under a woman’s skin so convincingly. I hugely enjoyed both the historical and the personal aspects of this book and look forward to seeing it in translation.
(As far as I know only one of his books has been translated into English-‘Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman’, translated by Jamie Bulloch, published by Peirene Press http://bit.ly/1ZhQF2 and reviewed by Nicholas Lezard http://bit.ly/1W2R8FI)