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.
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.