A Jester During the Third Reich
By Irmgard Keun, translated by Kathie von Ankum
Other Press, 2011
By Irmgard Keun, translated by Anthea Bell
Melville House, 2011
Irmgard Keun was one of the greatest fools in 1930s Germany. While far from deceived by Nazism and the hysterical parade spirit that pervaded the day – her writing suggests a bitter mix of scorn and panic over these – she relished the cap and bells as her favorite and most fitting costume. From the years 1931 to 1938, she wrote six novels, three of which are
now available in English. Joining Child of All Nations (translated by Michael Hofmann, published 2008 in the UK and 2010 in the US), After Midnight and The Artificial Silk Girl now amplify Keun’s account of Germany’s prewar “fools” – girls and women whose political and social naïveté (and sometimes outright stupidity) keep them from either supporting or resisting Nazism, but who are surrounded by acquaintances who care very deeply about Germany’s political fate and social mores. These narrators describe what they see and hear as best they can, and because they are too unsophisticated to speak without candor, they report the dismal truth with unparalleled bluntness.
In her own life, too, Keun seems to have enjoyed adopting such a persona. Most celebrated is her tangle with the Gestapo in 1933: when they removed all copies of her newly banned work from German bookstores (a nationalist critic complained of her “vulgar aspersions against German womanhood”), she sued them for the lost potential revenue. Her gesture seems either suicidally defiant or recklessly stupid. Was she hoping that such a convincing show of airheadedness would make the Nazis less watchful, so that she could carry on casting her ‘vulgar aspersions’? Was she smart enough to play dumb, but still dumb enough to think that the Nazis might forgive her, and put her books back on the shelves when they saw what a silly, harmless woman she was? Or was she so scornful of the rank-and-file party members (her books are populated with characters who became Nazis because they failed at everything else) that she wagered that her suit could end up in the hands of a naïve bureaucrat, who might well send a reimbursement check to anyone with impressive stationery and a commanding tone. Whatever her reasoning, the lawsuit must at least have been a source of wry comic satisfaction for herself or a very private group of friends. The Gestapo? Plaintiff and defendant were as ill-matched as Charlie Chaplin and his pants or Wile E. Coyote and the ever-falling boulders.
Keun parodies the Nazi bureaucracy in After Midnight (1937) by having Sanna, the narrator, detained by the Gestapo after an informant (her shrewish and fanatical Aunt Adelheid) accuses her of seditious remarks, namely that the best thing about Hitler’s speeches was his sweat. Sanna remembers things differently; in her version of events, it was Adelheid who said of the speech:
Wasn’t it wonderful? Have you ever known anything like it? Did you notice how he could hardly speak at all, and went white as a sheet and nearly collapsed? That man spares himself nothing. Did you see the way he was bathed in sweat at the end of the speech, and then the SS surrounded him?
Sanna immediately connects this to another spectacle she once saw with her aunt:
a play called Thomas Paine, where there was an actor down in a dungeon, wearing clanking chains and ranting away so that you were fairly deafened. “It goes right through you,” said Aunt Adelheid…. “Look, he’s utterly exhausted, bathed in sweat, what a wonderful actor, we ought to see this play more often.” And then she even bought a photograph of the actor and hung it in her bedroom. The Führer’s hanging there, too. So I had every right to assume that the most important point, to Aunt Adelheid, is for someone to sweat.
The irony of a likeness between Hitler and a man playing Thomas Paine is lost on both Sanna and Adelheid. Luckily, Sanna is protected by her incomprehension of the danger she has skirted, and she is released after signing a statement about sweat and enduring a few leers from the magistrate. The brevity and banality of Sanna’s court hearing, following on the heels of her meditations on Hitler’s sweat, show that for Keun, liberation can be defined as the freedom to mock. She paints the random arrests and imprisonments under Hitler’s regime as more absurd than horrifying, and deliberately avoids inducing fear, because fear comes too close to respect.
Sanna’s story unfolds in her nineteenth year, and since she is from a reasonably well-off, provincial family, she still lives a child-like existence, with few responsibilities and numerous forms of support. By contrast, Doris, the young protagonist of The Artificial Silk Girl (1932), embodies a new kind of city creature, the quasi-autonomous yet “respectable” woman who must never explicitly bargain with men but must nevertheless rely on a covert system of sexual exchange in order to survive. Like her heroine, Keun entered a society where urban women were neither domestically enshrined and provided for by male relatives nor offered a clear route towards self-sufficiency. She depicts a patchwork existence for female office workers in which basic necessities come from their meager wages, lodging from the scattershot generosity of older friends and relatives, and small luxuries (including an evening meal) from whatever dates they can get.
In The Artificial Silk Girl, Doris recounts a rare instance of actually being attracted to the man who takes her out, but leaving him at her doorstep so that she can use a line she has prepared to obtain a much-needed article: “I still don’t know what time it is – since my watch has been broken for so long.” Sure enough, on their next date he arrives with a small golden watch for her. Now she can get the other thing she wants, but unfortunately she has safeguarded herself too strongly against temptation: she has pinned a number of rusty safety pins to her underwear, knowing that if all else fails, her shame at the bizarre and ugly pins will trump any desire she might have to undress. She is not afraid to drop brazen hints, because hinting and gift-giving are understood as part of the game, but it is too much of a risk to be found bizarre or eccentric. To maintain her respectability a woman must appear to be playing by the rules.
Born in 1905 in Berlin, Keun herself began working as a typist, like Doris, at 16. At 20, she enrolled in a drama school, all the while continuing to earn money typing, but by 24 she had quit acting, realizing that her talent and looks, while enough to earn her bit parts, would never propel her to stardom. Her instinct to lace even the most deadly earnest subjects – love, war – with comedy perhaps explains her mediocre success as an actress. While it might be tinged with personal resentment, her depiction of “serious” theater in Berlin is one of ridiculous self-importance, made doubly absurd by the sexual politics and hypocrisy behind every casting decision. In The Artificial Silk Girl, Doris cuts through this mire with brutal efficiency. The pinnacle of her brief drama school career is reached by convincing the other girls that she is sleeping with the director, locking a rival in the bathroom, and running onstage just in time to shout the single line of a very minor character that every girl in the company has been begging to play: “Cousin, they’re off!” She is so afraid of being caught in her scheming that she manages to seem like a first-rate method actor. Making theatrical success both easy and arbitrary for Doris, Keun avoids a more analytical critique of German theater and simply laughs it down.
To this day, there is something deeply unsettling about reading The Artificial Silk Girl, or any of Keun’s other novels: her narrators’ level of emotional and psychological sophistication seems so inadequate to their historical situation, and their levity stands in sacrilegious contrast to our somber image of Nazi Germany. Seventy-odd years later, her insistence on hilarity still feels subversive, although the comic stupidity of her female narrators might not sit well with readers who find their performances anti-feminist. The vacuous clotheshorse is such a well recognized female stereotype that many women readers and writers have felt nervous about first-person narratives of fictitious “dumb girls” however satirical in intent, in case they are taken as evidence for the prosecution. It’s the queasiness I feel watching Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and trying to gauge the extent to which Marilyn Monroe is acting rather than just being. In Keun’s position, I would find it hard to resist the temptation to wink at the reader every few pages, or to have the words I’M SMART AND I’M JOKING inscribed somewhere prominently on the book jacket. Keun, however, is brave enough to trust her readers’ wisdom and sense of humor.
She does, however, offer a few sly hints that she knows what she’s up to, as when she has Doris say, in her imagination, to a woman whose dinner date is giving Doris the eye:
I’m thinking: there’s hardly ever anything out there for you, you poor turtle – perhaps you’re eating Camembert tonight but who knows about tomorrow? And I’m much too decent and too much into Women’s Lib to take your questionable balding boat owner away from you. It would just be too easy to do, so I’m not interested.
The line about Women’s Lib, glibly tucked into a snooty put-down from a pretty girl to a less pretty one, is quintessential Keun. We are reminded that more laudable ideals exist, and then shoved back into the petty tyranny of sexual desirability.
Keun gives the reader a similar nudge when describing, in After Midnight, the shape-shifting Liska, Sanna’s sister-in-law, ever changing her demeanor in the hopes of pleasing an overly talkative writer, Heini, who completely ignores her:
Heini may say the only voices he likes are the clear, ingenuous kind, and Liska immediately starts talking in a funny, clear voice, opening her eyes with wide, child-like excitement, as if she were taking her First Communion.
Then later he says: “A woman’s voice should never be raised louder than is necessary for the person sitting opposite to hear her.” Liska has a lovely, deep, mellow voice…. Now, instead of dropping it to its normal deep pitch, she tries to make it as deep and hollow as an underground dungeon…. Heini says women ought to be nurses: nurses are the only women who attract him. Liska immediately starts acting like a nurse, looking at everyone in a sad, gentle, pitying way, as if they were about to die of some dreadful disease. And three days later you’ll see Liska looking as if she were going soliciting along Kaiser Street. All because Heini happened to say a woman should have a touch of wantonness about her.
Besides painting a very funny and pathetic portrait of self-abnegating infatuation, Keun suggests the extraordinary flexibility that can be born out of desperation: when one has an urgent need to be heard and noticed, as Liska and her creator both do, then it becomes both possible and admissible to turn on a dime between tragedy and comedy, misogyny and feminism.
Keun’s narrative technique is energetic to the point of chaos. Her indignation was too urgent, her circumstances too straitened, for perfect control. In particular, she had a hard time with endings, whether of books or of scenes.
She often veers toward melodrama as if in a hurry to get some part of the plot over with, or to make an emphatic point without having to trouble about subtlety. In After Midnight, the most egregious instance is the macabre death of a little
girl who has been so overly coached and harried about a poem that she will recite to Hitler that she drops dead on the spot. The scene is so overwrought and its metaphor so obvious – the wretched, self-destructive obedience of the glassy-eyed Aryan child to maniacal authority figures – that it feels heavy-handed in its moralizing and out of keeping with most of the book. (There is one more death towards the end of the novel that strikes the same note.)
A more characteristic kind of ending is when the narrative disintegrates into discontinuous snatches of phrases, strung together with dashes, as if to suggest that whatever is happening is beyond the narrator’s powers of articulation. But after reading Keun’s devastating takedown of the histrionics that pass for psychological realism in German theater, it seems like a cheap trick from drama school to end an audition with a bang by doing a “mad scene.”
A few of these disjointed passages turn out well, such as the following from The Artificial Silk Girl. Doris has met a blind man, and with typical moral ambiguity, decides to let him feel her up because his wife is about to send him to a “home” for the disabled. He asks her what she sees each day in Berlin, and part of her (ten-page) response is:
I see myself – mirrored in windows and when I do, I like the way I look and then I look at men that look back at me – and black coats and dark blue and a lot of disdain in their faces – that’s so important – and I see – there’s the Memorial Church with turrets that look like oyster shells – I know how to eat oysters, very elegant – the sky is a pink gold when it’s foggy out – it’s pushing me toward it – but you can’t get near it because of the cars – … and across the street from it is the Romanisches Café with long-haired men! And one night, I passed an evening there with the intellectual elite, which means ‘selection,’ as every educated individuality knows from doing crossword puzzles. And we all form a circle. But really the Romanisches Café is unacceptable. And they all say: ‘My God, that dive with those degenerate literary types. We should stop going there.’ And then they all go there after all. It was very educational for me, and like learning a foreign language.
The combination of naiveté and unintended humor is winning, but ultimately exhausts itself – perhaps deliberately, to convey the boredom and banality of women’s social roles and the expectation that they will be able to churn out an endless glib patter. This ironic intent does not, however, make the ten pages of patter any less exhausting to read.
The literary ‘imperfections’ of incompleteness and excess are central to Keun’s project. Imperfect prose can appear in print more quickly than a polished masterpiece, and feels more honest – indeed, it comes to stand as metaphor for resistance to totalitarian ‘perfection.’ In After Midnight, one banned German writer addresses another about the future of writers in a fascist state:
This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise…. The purest of lyric poets needs to long for perfection. Once you’ve got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet. What are you going to write about God in Paradise? What are you going to write about the angels’ wings? Cut too short this season, worn too long? ….Perfect unity among mankind means silence.
Keun knew that Nazism, in both practice and theory, was the furthest thing from Paradise, and to remind herself and her readers, constantly, of this distance, she could not keep silent. Though she left Germany in 1936, she returned in 1940 after leading people to believe she had committed suicide. Living under an assumed name, Keun spent the rest of the war there, continuing to write newspaper and magazine pieces. While unable to be as radical as before, she had clearly come to the understanding that simply to write as an “I” was to debunk the myth of national unity subsuming the individual. It was defiance enough, and, considering her earlier ban, foolhardy enough – perhaps her greatest performance as one of Germany’s national fools. Today her brief and extraordinary prewar career unsettles complacency as relentlessly as ever.
Laura Kolbe has written for the Harvard Book Review and the Oxonian Review. She lives in New York City.