Archive for the ‘Irmgard Keun’ Category

Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart

June 6, 2021

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.

The Artificial Silk Girl

May 4, 2019

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.

After Midnight

November 9, 2017

Though Irmgard Keun lived until 1982 – long enough to be appreciated as a writer for the second time – her best 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 exile, Child of All Nations, which was published in 1938). By After Midnight, the subjugation of all aspects of German life to National Socialism was impossible to ignore and it impresses itself on every page of the novel. Like Hans Fallada, however, Keun is interested in demonstrating the ways in which this new totalitarianism impacts on the life of ordinary men and women, particularly women.

The novel’s narrator is Susanne, or Sanna, a young woman who has already had to leave Cologne after being reported to the Gestapo by her relative, Aunt Adelheid, with whom she was staying at the time (an attempt to warn her off a developing relationship with her cousin, Franz), and now lives with her brother, Algin, and his wife, Liska, in Frankfurt. Algin is a once-successful writer who is threatened by the new regime:

“He has had another letter from the Reich Chamber of Literature. There’s going to be another purge of writers, and Algin will probably get eliminated. He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Fuhrer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far.”

It’s reasonable to assume Algin’s problems were also Keun’s, who was reluctant to go into exile, and later returned to Germany for the duration of the war. Keun, however, focuses the novel on the trials of the more prosaic Sanna and her friend Gerti. The novel takes place over one night, with flashbacks filling in the characters’ backgrounds, hence the title – though one can assume it also reflects a feeling that Germany has passed into a long, dark night of the soul. Sanna’s state of mind at the beginning is typical of many of the characters:

“I feel tired. Today was so eventful, such a strain. Life generally is these days. I don’t want to do anymore thinking. In fact, I can’t do anymore thinking. My brain’s all full of spots of light and darkness, circling in confusion.”

At present she is particularly concerned that Gerti will say the wrong thing – “Gerti ought not to go provoking an SA man like that” – as well as worrying about her friend’s relationship with Dieter:

“Dieter is what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class – I can never get the hang of these labels. But anyway, Gerti’s not supposed to have anything to do with him because of the race laws.”

Sanna’s confusion over ‘class’, and the informal nature of her language (’anyway’ features a lot in her vocabulary) actually highlights the ridiculousness of the prohibition. Her position as narrator, what might be termed her ‘common sense’ viewpoint, interested in individuals rather than politics, provides an effective vehicle for criticism. Anti-Semitism runs through every conversation, from Heini claiming that Breslauer, a Jewish doctor, is luckier than most (“I need my sympathy for thousands of fellow poverty-stricken emigrants”) to the claim of one visitor to the pub that he has discovered a way of divining Jews:

“You see, one can’t always tell who Jews are, straight off… But I can find him out with my rod!”

That he divulges this to Breslauer, bonded by their shared star sign, makes clear Keun’s view.

More generally, Politics is used as a weapon in petty rivalries and squabbles, as it was against Sanna by her Aunt. Franz also suffers when he attempts to set up a tobacconist’s shop with a friend to provide an income for himself and Sanna. Accused by a rival of anti-Nazi comments, by the time he is released the shop has been ransacked.

Though the pervading atmosphere of the novel is an almost unbearable tension, this is punctuated by two scenes of sudden violence which punch through any sense that life is somehow ‘carrying on’. Keun selects a day on which Hitler visits Frankfurt and we meet, among the celebrants, the young girl, Berta, who had been chosen to give him a bouquet and recite a poem. Hitler’s haste having rendered her surplus to requirements, she is performing for the benefit of the assembled drinkers when she collapses. “Bedtime for you!” her mother cries, but the girl is dead. The very unlikeliness of her death borders on comic, but this death foreshadows a later one which will provide the novel with its climax.

After Midnight is a heart-stopping evocation of Nazi Germany. Its narrow focus, both in terms of time and character, provide a snapshot of the everyday tensions, indignities and compromises faced by ordinary people whose loves and jealousies are immediately recognisable. The optimism of its ending seems slight in comparison.


November 16, 2015


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.

Child of All Nations

August 8, 2012

Michael Hofmann points out in the afterword to his new translation of Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, that he came to Keun via Joseph Roth (a writer he has widely translated into English), Keun having travelled with Roth in exile from Germany between 1936 and 1938. The connection to Child of All Nations is even stronger, it being difficult not to read the novel as a fictionalised account of those times written from the point of view of a child.

Kully, the novel’s narrator, is a young girl who travels Europe with her mother and father having fled their native Germany where her father’s books have been banned. Money is a constant problem and her father is often absent in search of it:

“My father always manages to get hold of money from somewhere. And he always comes back to us too. I don’t think he ever completely forgets about us.”

This is not to say the family live in squalid conditions – instead they exhaust their credit in hotels, the mother often afraid to show herself outside their room while the father searches for a way of paying the bill. They live by borrowing from friends and acquaintances, and on advances for books her father claims to have almost finished but has not yet started. Kully’s awareness of money and the family’s lack of it is often contrasted with her father’s extravagance:

“My father squeezed us into a taxi. I was thinking we could easily have walked home and saved the fare.”

Her father’s spendthrift nature is best demonstrated in the way he constantly loses coins around the room which Kully picks up and threads onto a necklace. One might expect that this might eventually be utilised in an emergency, but in fact her father uses it as a tip when he has no other cash.

As well as being a wonderful insight into life in exile during 1930s Europe, the novel also demonstrates the strengths of using a child narrator. Kully’s generally forgiving attitude to her parents better reveals their characters than the narration of either one would. She accepts her father’s absences and extravagances just as she does her mother’s anxieties. Her stateless existence is everyday life to her, which can make her comments on it both more matter of fact and more moving:

“At first, my father didn’t want us to go to Italy, because Italy is friends with Germany, which makes it a dangerous place to visit. But we are émigrés, and for émigrés all countries are dangerous.”

The high drama of exile is mixed with her own childish adventures, such as when she unwisely acquires two guinea pigs. The perils of moving from city to city come to include the absence of other children to play with.

The novel is slightly weakened by its lack of as natural conclusion. It was first published in 1938 and therefore cannot access either the war’s beginning or end, leaving it with an unfinished feeling. As Hofmann suggests, the journey to America and back seems an unnecessary addition to a novel about European exile, as do its comic aspect and more journalistic tone. Having said that, this remains a clear-sighted glimpse into the world of refugees and a reminder that Europe has its own history of those who have fled from oppression in search of safety.