Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin in 1905. Her life was the stuff of fiction: she was a best-selling debut novelist at twenty-six, published a second bestseller a year later, was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and in exile by the spring of 1936. She drifted through Europe in the company of various other anti-Nazi intellectuals, stateless, driven from country to country by financial and immigration difficulties. A shadow existence that took her across the continent and briefly to the United States, where she traveled in 1938 and left, Geoff Wilkes reports in his excellent afterward to the new English-language edition of her novel After Midnight (more on that later), because she was unable to secure anything more permanent than a tourist visa. She published several more novels in exile and was in the Netherlands when the war broke out.
She could find no exit out of Europe, and when the Netherlands fell, she took a remarkable step: she somehow managed to convince a German officer to issue her a passport in the name of Charlotte Tralow (her middle name and her married name, although she had divorced Johannes Tralow in 1937), either initiated the story that she’d committed suicide or allowed the rumor to spread unchecked or had someone falsely report her death — the precise details of the pseudocide are unknown — and slipped back into Nazi Germany. In August 1940, the British Daily Telegraph reported that she’d killed herself in Amsterdam. She lived out the war with her parents in Cologne.
Until recently, Keun’s work has been difficult to find in English. (Having encountered the story of her fascinating life only in essays, I’m tempted to learn German just to read her biography.) But then, this year, a wonderful development: two independent publishers have just released English editions of two of her books. The Artificial Silk Girl just came out from Other Press, while Melville House has released After Midnight. (A third Keun novel, Child of all Nations, was published by Overlook Press in 2009.)
“She’s an immensely important writer,” Melville House Publisher founder and publisher Dennis Loy Johnson said in a recent statement, “and it’s a crime that she was forgotten for decades and had to be rediscovered.”
Irmgard Keun was possessed of a spectacular talent. She managed to convey the political horrors she lived through with the lightest possible touch, even flashes of humor. The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight make for an interesting pair. The former was her bestselling second novel, published in 1932. The Los Angeles Times called it “a truly charming window into a young woman’s life in the early 1930’s,” which is somewhat startling to me; the young woman in question is vastly appealing and, yes, charming as a narrator, but the book’s only truly charming if you like your charm dark.
Doris, a beautiful and somewhat dim nineteen-year-old who aspires to a life of luxury and film stardom, embarks on a tour of the bedrooms of the Weimar Republic in pursuit of a level of glamour that she cannot possibly obtain on her own. The Artificial Silk Girl chronicles her long slow drift from reasonably respectable secretary in Cologne to homeless waif in Berlin, and the drift is harrowing. She’s a slightly unhinged figure, a girl who will literally starve before she’ll sell the expensive fur that she stole from a coat check at the beginning of her descent. (Although, in all fairness, the fur seems to be her only friend. She gives it a Christmas present.) The fur represents the life she longs for. She’ll never let it go.
She is frighteningly blind to the political storms that surround her. An industrialist she was dating has recently dropped her, for instance, “all because of politics.” Doris hates politics. She’s willing to be almost anything a man requires her to be, but in this particular conversation, she misunderstood his intent: “So he asks me if I’m Jewish too. My God, I’m not — but I’m thinking: if that’s what he likes, I’ll do him the favor — and I say: ‘Of course — my father just sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.’”
The novel is presented as her diary. Doris struggles to write her own script, which she expects will chronicle a fast rise into film stardom and unfathomable glamour, but she can’t grasp hold of the narrative arc and flounders in a life lived out in episodes. Recent comparisons have been made to Sex and the City, but Doris reminds me of no one so much as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s leading couple in The Beautiful and Damned; she will endure any number of humiliations in order to avoid the indignity of working for a living. She’s convinced of her own specialness — “And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person” — and her understanding of the world is that all she needs to do is remain beautiful and available, and the right man will sweep her up into an extraordinary life. It’s an exhausting pursuit — “I want to bury my face in my hands to make it less sad. It has to work so hard, because I’m trying to become a star. And there are women all over the place, whose faces are also working hard.”
The book has an oddly timeless quality, with sharp-edged and still-relevant observations about the impossibility of societal standards of beauty and success, and about certain hypocrisies surrounding sex and money:
If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.
Paragraphs like that one helped The Artificial Silk Girl and its author run afoul of the more conservative elements of the German literary establishment. Geoff Wilkes cites Kurt Herwarth Ball’s 1932 review of the novel, “which castigated Doris’s unconventional morality, and concluded by adjuring Keun to ‘write in a German spirit, speak in a German spirit, think in a German spirit, and refrain from her sometimes almost vulgar aspersions against German womanhood.’”
Write, speak, and think in a German spirit? My God. Which spirit? Whose Germany? It’s hard to conceive of a less tolerable demand for an artist as ferociously independent and intellectually able as Keun seems to have been. Speaking as a novelist, I’m not sure I want to think about the fury I would feel if a critic had the nerve to tell me how to think.
There are surface similarities between The Artificial Silk Girl and After Midnight. Both works are narrated by very young women attempting to navigate the fraught landscape of Germany in the years preceding the Second World War. But these are wildly different books: The Artificial Silk Girl was published in 1932, After Midnight in 1937, and that span of years was not trivial. After Midnight, published in exile after Keun fled the Nazis, is a darker, more driving, and to my eye more accomplished work.
After Midnight ostensibly takes place over the course of a single evening leading up to a catastrophic and climactic party, but easily integrated flashbacks and digressions flesh out the characters’ pasts. By 1937 a fictional character who was entirely oblivious to politics was less plausible, and Sanna, the narrator, is anything but indifferent. She is intelligent and observant, she is watching the country go mad around her, and she lives a life of quiet, unbearable strain. Her friend Gerti struggles as much as Sanna does, but she’s less able to contain herself; she’s prone to fury and coming a little undone, reckless to the point of insulting SS officers in bars. Gerti is in love with a half-Jewish boy. Sanna accompanies the couple sometimes in public:
…so that the impression they make in the bar won’t be quite so dangerous. I don’t like doing this, and I always feel very foolish. I could weep with the worry of it. They’re both so pretty and so nice, and they may be hauled off to jail tomorrow. Why are they so crazy? I can’t understand it. Other people dance, but they can’t. The radio is playing string music, soft as a feather bed. Bright light shimmers in the wine. The wine is sour, but they are drinking hot, bright radiance.
The prose is gorgeous. Life continues, in all its beauty and complexity and love and friendship, but the cage doors of the police state have closed over it and the world has ceased to make any sense, the world is unspeakably dangerous; saying the wrong thing, expressing the wrong thought, being seen with the wrong person can mean death. Sanna lives in Frankfurt with her brother and sister-in-law, because she had to flee Cologne after her horrendous future mother-in-law reported her to the Gestapo. She did this ostensibly because Sanna mentioned her distaste for Nazi radio addresses, but also, Sanna can’t help but realize, because it’s in the woman’s best financial interests for Sanna not to marry her son. Reporting on one’s fellow citizens is often a matter of convenience. A shopkeeper effectively shuts down a competitor by reporting imaginary subversive activity to the police.
The screams of the tortured spill out of a prison on a certain trolley route. The tension is unspeakable: “I feel tired. Today was so eventful, and such a strain. Life generally is, these days. I don’t want to do any more thinking. In fact I can’t do any more thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”
It’s tempting, although perhaps too easy, to project Sanna’s desperation on another young woman. Irmgard Keun writes movingly and convincingly of the unbearable stress of life in the Third Reich, and she knew of what she spoke. Keun survived the Nazis, but the cost was steep. In her years drifting through Europe in the late thirties, Wilkes reports, she confided in letters that she was cutting herself.
“This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country,” one despairing writer tells another in the final third of After Midnight,
“and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise. Can’t have writers without imperfection around them, can’t have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet.”
But Keun never did. She railed all her life against authors who deferred to the Nazi regime, and had the audacity to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings after her work was confiscated in 1933. (Unsurprisingly, this went nowhere.) She continued to write and publish after the war, although never quite with the success or the dizzying prolificacy of her early years. She enjoyed a second wave of literary fame when her novels were reissued in the late 1970s, and died in 1982. Her work stands as a brilliant record of the era she survived.