Irmgard Keun’s first novel, Gilgi, One of Us, presents us with a young woman determined to get on in the world:

“Keep to the daily plan. Don’t deviate from the system. Don’t slacken. Not in the smallest trifle.”

After her day’s work as a stenographer, she takes lessons in Spanish, English and French, before retiring to the room she rents “so that she could work in peace…

“She pays for it, and it belongs to her… She bought the furniture gradually, piece by piece: divan, desk, cupboard, chair. Bought it all entirely with her own earnings. She did overtime to pay for the little Erika-brand typewriter and gramophone.”

Gilgi seems remarkably in control of her life; indeed the novel opens with an image of her “holding it firmly in her hands.” Even when it comes to dealing with the unwanted attentions of her boss, she has a plan. This confidence gives her a lively, amusing, and often sharp, view of the world, as demonstrated in the narrative voice. When her mother asks about fatalities in a news story we are told:

“It’s not callousness. It’s just that she enjoys the shuddering sympathy which news of deaths and scandals provokes in her.”

It also occasions a certain feeling of superiority:

“The hopeless people in the streetcar – no, she has nothing in common with them, she doesn’t belong with them. They’re grey and tired and lifeless. And if they’re not lifeless, they’re waiting for a miracle. Gilgi isn’t lifeless and she doesn’t believe in miracles. She only believes in what she creates and what she earns.”

Gilgi is an unusually independent woman for Germany (or anywhere in Europe) at the beginning of the 1930s, but, even as the reader admires her, there is also a sense that Gilgi’s mission to succeed requires her to keep an unnatural distance from those around her. We may be amused at her thoughts on her parents and her fellow streetcar passengers, but we can also see the lack of human sympathy which lies at their centre.

german lit month

Gligi’s plan begins to fall apart when she falls in love with an older man. Martin has no job and lives in an apartment he is looking after for a friend. In contrast to Gilgi’s relentless budgeting, he has no care for the money he spends. When Gilgi’s parents object to the relationship, Gilgi moves in with him, and soon he is encouraging her to give up her job:

“Gilgi…you shouldn’t go to the office anymore, the bed always gets so cold and uncomfortable for me when you get up so early.”

Gilgi finds that being in love overcomes all her other ideas and principles:

“…something in Gilgi had been broken beyond repair. – Oh, liking someone is good – loving someone – is good too. But being in love, really being in love: an extremely painful condition.”

(Keun also begins to break up the text with dashes to show Gilgi’s less coherent thought process). This is not, however, simply a story about the dangers of falling in love. It could be argued that her abandonment of her plan allows Gilgi the empathy needed to later attempt to aid an old friend, Hans. Hans’ story of employment also suggests that simply working hard is no guarantee of success. Earlier, Gilgi discovered she had been adopted, and in her potential alternative mothers (the rich woman who is her birth mother and the working class woman who was first given her to bring up) we see two different lives, completely independent of Gilgi’s personal qualities or effort.

In other words, this is a novel which is not simply about a young woman falling in love; it also explores ideas of how to live in an unjust society. And as society is not only unjust against woman, Gilgi cannot escape it simply by rejecting the role she feels is forced on her as a woman. The novel’s ambiguous ending is an indication that there is no easy answer to the questions it raises.

Gilgi is an excellent first novel, insightful not only regarding the time it was written, but exploring issues (the expectations placed on women; work / life balance; the individual at the mercy of social injustice) which we still struggle with today.


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25 Responses to “Gilgi”

  1. MarinaSofia Says:

    I remember reading about Irmgard Keun and this novel in the book about women writers resisting Nazism. Sadly, all too true even today, that the best-laid plans of ambitious women can get crushed by society.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, though the novel also looks at another idea currently very much in vogue – that hard work is all you need to succeed. It certainly doesn’t feel dated, although it is a new translation – might feel different in German.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I loved Keun’s “After Midnight” and keep meaning to pick up this matching volume. I do love her writing and it’s such a shame her work isn’t as widely known as some of her male counterparts….

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very interesting. Is this or Child the better entry point do you think?

    • 1streading Says:

      I read Child of All Nations first because of the Roth connection. I was really impressed with this as a first novel, though – I might be tempted to start there.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    It does sound excellent, Grant – you’re on a bit of a roll with your German Lit Month reads. I recall looking at this author for last year’s GLM but then for some reason she slipped off my radar. I’ll have to put her back on the list. And a lovely Melville House edition, too…that’s a bonus.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes – they look great (though the covers aren’t very durable). I’ve now no unread Neversink Library books so it looks like I will have to get some more! As for Keun, I would definitely recommend her.

  5. roughghosts Says:

    This does sound quite wonderful. I think a lot of young women were caught in a difficult position at this time. I like the idea of the text reflecting the character’s change in thought processing. I have Child of All Nations on my shelf as a potential. I confess I bought it purely for the title and the Penguin Classics cover of my edition. But until recently it remained forgotten on one of my “too-many” book cases. I think I will watch for this one too (in fact, I just checked, they stock it at my favourite bookstore) but if I get one of her books in this month it will be the one I always have.

  6. winstonsdad Says:

    sounds like a powerful book I read another book by a german woman writer about the same time as this Manja

  7. Caroline Says:

    I wonder why I haven’t read this already. It sounds great. She created memorable female characters.

  8. Mytwostotinki Says:

    After Midnight is a great novel in my opinion. The other works of her, including Gilgi I haven’t read so far but she is definitely one of those authors where I want to read everything they published. Keun features prominently in Volker Weidermann’s Summer of Friendship. Ostend 1936 which I reviewed for German Lit Month last year and which is available now also in English. I hope that book makes more people curious to read Keun.

  9. The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of […]

  10. After Midnight | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] work is generally regarded to be those novels which describe living in Germany during the thirties: Gilgi (1931), The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) and After Midnight (1937) (alongside her exploration of […]

  11. Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] a trio of novels – Gilgi, One of Us; The Artificial Silk Girl; and After Midnight – Irmgard Keun gives us the inside story of 1930s […]

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