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25 November 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 6:51am

How Irmgard Keun’s fiction captured a generation of bold young women

Keun fled Nazi Germany, returning after false reports of her suicide to write about the lives of women in the 1930s and 1940s. 

By John Self

“A writer who is afraid is no true ­writer,” wrote Irmgard Keun in her novel After Midnight, and she lived by her words. In 1935, she sued the Gestapo for loss of earnings after her books were withdrawn from German bookshops and, after fleeing Nazi Germany the following year, she returned in 1940 under a false name and lived there with her parents until after the war. Her cover was her death: it’s not known whether she initiated the rumour or simply allowed it to spread, but her suicide was mistakenly reported in the Daily Telegraph and Arthur Koestler named her among those who “took their lives” in his 1941 memoir Scum of the Earth.

For Keun, although a notorious fabulist in the details of her own life – we can at least say for certain that she was born in Berlin in 1905 – truth in writing was all-important. In particular, she told the truth about the lives of a new generation of young women in 1930s Germany in three novels which have now been reissued as Penguin Modern Classics: Gilgi, One of Us (1931), The Artificial Silk Girl (1933) and After Midnight (1937).

Her manifesto was clear from the title page of her debut: Gilgi, One of Us. This was not backward-looking like the work of Joseph Roth or Stefan Zweig: it was a book about here and now; about ordinary people crushed by the financial collapse of Weimar Germany, and young women in particular. Gilgi and her counterpart Doris, the narrator of The Artificial Silk Girl, are two of a kind: cheerful, ambitious, sometimes naive, and, like their creator, resourceful.

Both books are light on plot: Gilgi is notionally on a quest to find her birth mother, but the pleasure of the book is in Keun’s vision of a young woman trying to find a use and meaning for herself in a devastated economy. She wants to have “my own income and independence”, arguing the point with her friend Olga: “I’m not talented, I’m Fräulein Average, but I don’t see why that means I should give up. And what I can make of myself, I will make of myself.”

In The Artificial Silk Girl, which was influenced by Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Doris believes herself to be “quite different” from other girls, “who never have anything wonderful going on inside them”, and through her energy and enthusiasm we believe her, or at least believe that she believes it. Doris is certainly “quite different” from Gilgi in one way: she’s happy to be looked after by a man, and smart enough to use men’s assumptions about her intelligence (“Of course he thought he had seduced me, and you don’t destroy that belief in a man”) in order to satisfy her material ambitions. “I want to be at the top. With a white car and a bubble bath that smells of perfume, and everything just like in Paris.”

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[see also: Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: a brilliantly observed historical novel]

Both Gilgi and Doris see politics as a boring barrier to the fun they want to have, but Keun fills in the details around them. The base notes are hyperinflation, unemployment and the wrong sort of cashless economy, and Keun gives as pointed a portrayal of interwar Berlin as Alfred Döblin’s baggier and more “important” 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz. She regards the workplaces, backstreets and nightclubs of Berlin as the greatest free show on Earth, and Gilgi in particular revels in a blend of boisterous techniques: stream of consciousness, overlapping dialogue, dramatic set pieces.

Her heroines are reminiscent of Jean Rhys’s struggling narrators in the great early novels Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight, before they were stripped of their innocence. Keun’s women are described with a similar lightness of detail (The Artificial Silk Girl opens with Doris waking and noticing she forgot to wash her feet before going to bed: “I was too tired after the hectic night the day before”) and share a willingness to challenge society’s expectations, such as Germany’s laws on abortion.

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It’s unsurprising that even before the Nazis came to power, Keun was denigrated for “vulgar aspersions against German womanhood”, as one reviewer wrote in 1932. Yet her first two books were commercial hits and quickly translated into other languages. Also in 1932, the New York Times described Gilgi as a novel “that modestly stands out in delightful contrast to the books written by men… because of the wholesome freshness of its presentation and views”.

That “freshness” arises from Keun’s ability to charm the reader – a valuable quality often overlooked in literature – as well as her wit, candour and the way her characters seesaw between overconfidence (“I feel strong like a revolver. I’m a detective novel”) and despair (“It doesn’t matter how much I strive to change things – nothing works”). Her technique of writing Doris’s story as a breathless real-time diary (“I’ve just lived through a sensational event”) further ensures intimacy with the reader.

The disarming style continues in the 1937 novel After Midnight, but with a sharper edge and to richer ends. Now, instead of the Weimar Republic, Keun is mocking the Nazis, their supporters and even Hitler directly (“Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Well, fame always demands some sacrifices”), albeit from the safety of exile in Ostend. There, she and her lover Joseph Roth engaged in what she called “the purest literary Olympics”, competing each day to write more than one another from opposite ends of a café.

But Keun, who had lived under the Nazi regime for three years, knew what she spoke of: the story, again narrated by a young woman (19-year-old Sanne), has the harsh ring of truth. Neighbours have turned against one another: “I don’t wonder at it any more when I see people being crazy and unhappy. I only wonder at it when I see them acting like normal people.” There’s still humour, albeit of a black variety: mothers battle over whose child should be allowed to break through a crowd to hand flowers to Hitler, and a man invents a divining stick to detect Jews. And Sanne continues to think like a Keun heroine, lamenting the days before politics polluted everything: “It always used to be so cosy when two girls went to the Ladies together. You powdered your noses, and exchanged rapid but important information about men and love.”

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After Midnight is the most dramatic of Keun’s early novels. The story, which involves suicide and murder, takes place over the course of one day, and the title refers to the time when Sanne and her partner Franz must decide whether to remain in Germany or flee. Flight is a common response for her women, for Doris who doesn’t “want to go back to what I had before”, and for Gilgi who leaps on a train at the end of her story, seeking “flight from reality? Flight to a better reality?” Keun’s own flight took her across Europe and into America, before she returned to Germany in 1940.

Her bounce and bravery concealed suffering: letters told of how she self-harmed, was treated for alcoholism, and wrote little in the final decades before her death in 1982. But her bright, beautiful early books survive, along with her ­contradictory, funny heroines who “drink the Yes and are dizzy with happiness”, as Gilgi puts it. “But you still know about the No behind the Yes.” 

Gilgi, One of Us
Irmgard Keun, trs Geoff Wilkes
Penguin Modern Classics, 192pp, £8.99

The Artificial Silk Girl
Irmgard Keun, trs Kathie von Ankum
Penguin Modern Classics, 160pp, £8.99

After Midnight
Irmgard Keun, trs Anthea Bell
Penguin Modern Classics, 144pp, £8.99

This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump