The Artificial Silk Girl

When Penguin Classics commissioned its own translation of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations (by Michael Hoffmann) in 2008, it was to be hoped that further novels would appear. Now, finally, the patience of UK readers is rewarded with the publication of The Artificial Silk Girl in Kathie von Ankum’s 2002 translation for Other Press, with Gigli, One of Us to follow in December.

The Artificial Silk Girl, Keun’s second novel, is a vibrant picture of a young woman, Dora, in 1930s Germany seeking to carve out a place for herself in the world. Dora is also our narrator, recording her daily life in the conviction that she is headed towards fame and fortune:

“I think it will be a good thing is I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary – that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so.”

Her story is one which takes her from man to man, stepping stones which are often precarious and, more than once, see her plunge into the cold waters of poverty. Her attitude towards men is at once cynical and sentimental, displayed not only on her written asides but in comments to her friend Therese. She is, for example, able to judge a man’s intention by the cost of the cigarettes he orders (“when they order those at eight [marks] you know immediately what’s on their mind”) and generally knows to dismiss any grand claims they make:

“It’s a male sickness to tell every girl that they are the top executive of a film studio or at least that they have great connections.”

Yet at the same time she tells Therese, “There has to be some love involved. Otherwise, what about our ideals?” This contradiction is both evidenced and exacerbated by her first relationship, at sixteen, with Hubert, a student in his twenties from a better family, whom she describes as “the only one…whom I’ve ever loved”. Hubert makes no attempt to seduce Dora, “not,” she says, “for moral reasons, but because he was a coward, because he was thinking that he would be indebted to me, an innocent girl.” It is Dora, therefore, who takes the initiative:

“But I think getting a girl all worked up is the same thing as doing the other thing, and then I was thinking, there has to be a first time and it was important to me that it would be the real thing, and I was in love with him, with my head, my mouth, and further down.”

When Hubert finishes his studies he leaves Dora, returning home to marry, but not before telling her that “when a man marries, he wants a virgin.” This formative experience reveals Dora’s natural acceptance of desire, and can be seen as the origin of her cynicism towards men, though her sentimentality is evident in the love she still feels for Hubert.

Dora loses her job as a secretary when she realises that her attempts to charm her boss have led him to believe that she is genuinely attracted to him (and therefore feels no need to shower her with gifts):

“How can a highly educated man like yourself be so dumb as to think that a pretty young girl like myself would be crazy about him?”

A spell in the theatre follows where she demonstrates her cunning both by spreading the rumour that she is sleeping with director, and by locking a rival actress in the bathroom so she can steal her line (“And that one sentence caused as much of a stir as a loaf of bread during a famine”). Soon Dora feels she must flee to Berlin, though not before stealing the fur coat which will become a symbol of the life she wishes to lead:

“It spoke comfort to me, a guardian angel, protection from heaven.”

In Berlin her life is one of greater extremes, as seen, for example, when, within two pages, she moves from “What a life! What a life!” having moved in with a wealthy man, to “Always the same. Always the same,” when his wife returns unexpectedly. After this she is, for a time, homeless:

“And then I spent a winter night half-asleep in Tiergarten on a park bench.”

During this time she stays in the same building as Hulla, a prostitute who is badly beaten by her pimp. Her instinctive reaction, “that’s how low you can sink,” originates partly from fear of her own future. The novel’s final scenes, in which she once again finds a male protector, are perhaps the most moving, and demonstrate that for all her cynicism, she is not the heartless manipulator that the reader may have feared she was becoming, a retention of conscience which is the cause of both hope and despair. The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderfully vivid and affecting coming-of-age story which ranks among the best of a genre overflowing with male examples.

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4 Responses to “The Artificial Silk Girl”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It’s fab news that Penguin are giving Keun a push – she deserves it. And good point about the fact that we need more female coming of age stories!

    • 1streading Says:

      It was only after I’d read it that I realised that if the main character was male it would probably be classed as a coming of age story! I’m really pleased to see Keun getting the Penguin Classics treatment she deserves.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    So delighted to see that you enjoyed this! Vivid is the word, a wonderfully evocative insight into Berlin (and Germany in general) in the 1930s. You’ve also reminded me about that terrific scene in the theatre where Dora (Doris?) locks her rival in the bathroom and steals her fur coat. Marvellous stuff.

    I think Dora is somewhat sharper and more knowing than she might seem at first sight, particularly in light of her little asides on the lot of many women in society at the time (the joys of marriage, children, keeping house etc.)

    And how wonderful to hear than Penguin will be publishing Gigli in December – that’s a Keun I’d really like to read.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m happy for you that you have Gigli to look forward to (and a bit jealous as I’ve now read all of her work that’s easily avaiable). I think the bathroom story in this is one of my favourites!

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