Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart

In a trio of novels – Gilgi, One of Us; The Artificial Silk Girl; and After Midnight – Irmgard Keun gives us the inside story of 1930s Germany from the point of view of young women determined to make a life for themselves, often against the odds. In 1936 she was forced into exile, and travelled around Europe for two years with the writer Joseph Roth, a story she tells in Child of All Nations. In 1940 she returned to Germany, protected by reports of her suicide abroad, where she lived for the rest of the war. Her 1950 novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, (translated by Michael Hofmann) is a portrait of the country post-war, set after the 1948 currency reform which is often mentioned as a watershed moment which changes how characters are perceived (for example Haberman who is treated with respect by Ferdinand’s fiancée’s family when he is supplying them with vegetables but then becomes “an insignificant and inferior individual”).

Unlike the women of the thirties, the novel’s narrator, Ferdinand, is a young man who is more intent on withdrawing from life than embracing it:

“This morning I am so tired of people, I don’t even feel like getting up.”

He speculates that even if he could afford a hotel room, the solitude wouldn’t be “sufficient” and imagines instead a “little room attached to a balloon high up in the sky.” Despite their melancholy tone, such riffs are a joy for the reader in a novel where the plot meanders uncertainly as Ferdinand finds himself unable to picture his future. Take, for example, his depiction of his deteriorating financial state through the medium of cigarettes: “My life as a smoker was one of continual remorseless descent.” At first he is disgusted by those who keep their dog-ends (until he does so), collect cigarette ends from ashtrays (until he follows suit), or pick them up from the streets (until that, too, becomes his habit):

“I stood so low that no one could stand below me.”

“Poverty,” he tells us, “is not just a disgrace, it’s the only disgrace.”  Ferdinand is contrasted with those who seek opportunities to enrich themselves, for example his friend Liebezahl who exemplifies another strand of the novel – the popularity of superstitions such as horoscopes and palm reading – and who “keeps extending his empire with fresh initiatives.” His wealthy cousin Magnesius, who is “currently something in non-ferrous metals”, criticises him for thinking too much of others:

“You must think about the generality, Ferdinand, the well-being of the generality… Where would we be if everyone though like you?”

Ferdinand’s kindness is demonstrated in his dislike of hurting others. In the army he becomes the unwilling confidante of a sergeant, who is otherwise “the angry face of the machine”. Despite finding the friendship awkward, Ferdinand is unable to refuse it:

“I was just afraid of hurting the rumpled, friendly, grinning man.”

He finds himself in a similar position with his fiancée, Luise. Although he is desperate to end the relationship he cannot do so for fear of hurting her: “I could have run off but I didn’t want to give offense.” Instead, he searches for an alternative husband for her hoping she will make the decision to break up. In his inability to be emotionally selfish, Ferdinand is contrasted with Johanna who moves from one man to the next, each time loving “unconditionally”:

“I admire Johanna’s faithlessness.”

Keun places Ferdinand at the quiet centre of her novel, often in the role of observer, but surrounds him with an extensive cast of fascinating characters. What they share is a sense of mutability, much like the country itself at this time. The rage for horoscopes and seances, and Ferdinand’s role as a “cheerful advisor” – a kind of in-person agony aunt – all speak to a need to reconcile the past with the future.

The remnants of the war are scattered throughout the novel, from the de-Nazification of Luise’s father, to the physical objects which his wife stole from abandoned houses, the owners of which will occasionally request returned. Ferdinand’s attitude is (satirically) sympathetic:

“It’s quite possible that people feel more attached to things they have personally stolen than things they have honestly acquired.”

At a poetry reading, Ferdinand finds that the women attending have more than got used to the bombed buildings around them:

“…it seemed to me as though the ladies were somehow proud of the ruins. The way some women are proud if they’ve been through a dangerous operation.”

He is also sympathetic to women accuse of sleeping with Allied soldiers: “hadn’t they dinned it into the poor creatures that the uniformed, powerful, victorious hero had to be the women’s highest ideal?” (In fact, Ferdinand is as understanding towards women as Keun’s female narrators from before the war).

As currency reform returns some sort of normality to the country, Ferdinand admits that he is “not a man for normal times.” But his kindness remains, now directed towards Lenchen, a woman his met in his position as “cheerful advisor”:

“It makes me glad to know I can help this creature.”

His future may be uncertain but we are grateful he has retained his humanity, a possibility that Keun is perhaps holding out for Germany. Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart is a demonstration that her talents – both of social observation, and pin-point phrasing – were not diminished by the war.


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7 Responses to “Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I’ll save your review to read later, Grant, because I don’t have this Keun yet and I’m not sure I knew about it – most exciting!!!

  2. Tony Says:

    Really should try Keun – I’ve meant to on several occasions, but I’ve still never managed to get around to it…

  3. Lyrically affected ladies are apt to commit thoughtless deeds. | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] You can find a bit more about this one at Grant’s, here. […]

  4. Andy Says:

    Can’t wait to read this…I miss the postwar years!

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