Posts Tagged ‘Irmgard Keun’

Well, I am horribly behind in my reviewing (and blog reading too, I’m afraid) still clawing my way back to feeling more like normal. I simply wasn’t up to blogging last week at all. With seven books still to write about I am kicking off the catch up with a combination post.  

Both of these were read during July; I had no plan to get ready for #WITmonth it just happened to be what I read.  

Vivian – Christina Hesselholdt (2016) (translated by Paul Russell Garrett)  

A lovely Fitzcarraldo edition that Jacqui kindly sent me for Christmas. Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt examines the life of enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. This is a wholly fictionalised examination, an imagined life of a woman about who little seems to be known. The real Vivian Maier died in 2009 – after which her work became widely appreciated and left many wondering about the woman herself.  

It’s always challenging to write a fictional account of the life of someone who lived – yet I suppose as so little was known about Vivian it gave Hesselholdt the space to fill in the gaps about this woman who during her lifetime took more than 150,000 photographs, mainly with a Rollieflex camera. Her photographs were extraordinary street scenes of New York and Chicago from across four decades. She hoarded her photographs, negatives and newspapers and it was only shortly before her death that the photographs were discovered in an auction.  

“Viv – Today I photographed a pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets. In my version it became heroic. Because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” 

Vivian Maier lived a quiet life – working for many years as a nanny for wealthy families in New York and Chicago. She had been born in New York in the 1920s, the daughter of French and Austrian immigrants, it was a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, abuse and mental health issues just part of the landscape Vivian grew up in.  

Hesselholdt’s narrative is told in a chorus of voices – including the questioning, non-objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself of course, a child she cared for, the parents who employed her, Jeanne Bertrand another photographer who had lived with the Maier family when Vivian was a young girl, and various members of Vivian’s family.  

We see Vivian at different points in her life – the narrative of this very modern novel is not chronological, which I rather liked. Slowly an indistinct picture begins to emerge – a little like a photograph in a tray of chemicals in an old-fashioned dark room. Hesselholdt allows Vivian to remain enigmatic, and we will never know how close to the truth this fictional life might be. It is however a fascinating portrait and a beautifully written novel.  

After Midnight – Irmgard Keun (1937) (translated by Anthea Bell) 

After Midnight is the third novel I have read by Irmgard Keun. Written while Keun was living in exile, having left Nazi Germany, this deceptively straight forward novel is a brilliantly subtle critique of life in Nazi Germany.  

The plot takes place over a couple of days in 1936, at a time when Hitler was paying a visit to Frankfurt. The novel is narrated by Sanna a nineteen-year-old girl who like anyone her age wants a little fun – but Sanna and her friends must do their socialising to a new and frightening back drop – a world full of rules, where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could be life threatening. Sanna spends her time with her friend Gerti, her stepbrother Algin and his beautiful wife Liska the group often joined by journalist Heini. A group of young people for who the world is not as carefree as it once was. Sanna is naïve, though sharply observant of what is going on around her, she is not at all political, happy to drink and flirt with anyone. The changes that have come to Germany are evident though, journalist Heini has fallen foul of the authorities and Sanna’s writer brother is already on the blacklist.  

Sanna recalls how she left her home to travel to Cologne to stay with her aunt and cousin. The aunt is a suspicious, difficult woman and denounced Sanna to the authorities – after which she hurriedly left for Frankfurt. She had fallen in love with her cousin Franz though, and now as the narrative moves toward its climax, Sanna is determined to find a way for them to escape Germany together.  

“And more and more people keep coming in. This Gestapo room seems to be a positive place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours. And the typewriters go clatter, clatter, clatter, all the statements are taken down, all the informers are treated well and kindly.” 

Keun recreates this world brilliantly, a world where people happily denounce one another, a world in which Sanna despairs that her friend should chose a ‘mixed race’ (a person with a Jewish father) as her lover when there are so many other men around. It is a stark reminder of what ordinary Germans lived with in the years before the war, and how much was known at the time by the populace. Three years before the war would break out and yet everything is here – Sanna’s straight forward narrative highlights the horror that existed alongside ordinary life. 

As Liska throws a lavish all-night party, the mood darkens – and there is a real sense of what is to come, though Keun could not possibly have known just what was ahead.   

Two fantastic novels got my #WITmonth reading off to a great start this year. 

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Translated from the German by Michael Hoffman

My first review for #witmonth is Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun – she is probably best known for her novel The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) which I read a couple of years ago.

Kully is the memorable child narrator of this novel – which portrays the displacement of a family who have left Germany in the 1930s, to escape the Nazis, and whose fate is to now wander Europe as visa after visa expires. Kully and her parents live their lives moving from country to country staying in a series of hotels, struggling to pay the bills. Kully’s father is a writer, and they seem eternally hopeful of money that is owed to them somewhere or other, or money which might come to them when his new book is published. There is a lovable, precocity to Kully – who is still very much a child, despite this new way of living – and the fact she has no one to play with.

“When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany anymore, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?”

There is so much for Kully to learn about in this new way of life – the eternal problem of passports and visas, and how to act in hotels. As the novel opens Kully and her mother are alone, as Kully’s father has gone to Warsaw. It won’t be long before they are all on the move again. One hotel giving way to the next on a journey around Europe with no visible end. In the hotels Kully tries to make friends with the maids, she gets stamps from the maître d’ which she saves – she is allowed to press the buttons in the lifts – when they take the lift – as sometimes they dare not as they can’t afford to tip the lift man. Sometimes they can’t afford to go to the restaurant so hide in the room that Kully shares with her mother and her pet tortoises – later she buys some guinea pigs that escape under the wardrobe. The maître d’ stops giving Kully stamps soon enough and it’s obvious they are regarded with suspicion by hotel staff, so have to keep a low profile. When her father sends Kully a parcel for her birthday, there is duty to pay on it which she and her mother don’t have, so Kully never does find out what is in her parcel.

“Above all, I need to learn what a visa is. We have German passports, which the police gave us in Frankfurt. A passport is a little booklet with stamps in. Basically, it’s to prove that you’re alive. If you lose your passport, then as far as the whole world is concerned you might as well have died. You’re not allowed to go to any more countries.”

Through Kully’s wonderfully, innocent, wide eyed view of the world we understand the stresses and strains her parents are living under. An existence with no security, where money, the earning of it, the spending of it the saving of it becomes as vital as breathing. Kully’s father is a charming, rather hopeless man, whose optimism that all will be well waxes and wains with their changing fortunes. Kully’s mother has to try and get an advance from one of her husband’s publishers, pretending she has forgotten to bring the new manuscript with her each time they meet – a manuscript which in reality doesn’t exist yet. Kully’s mother is clearly depressed, struggling to cope with the unending struggle for money and the need to keep moving, she is a much more shadowy figure in this novel than her husband.

“Sometimes my father loves us, and sometimes he doesn’t. When he doesn’t, we can’t do anything about it, my mother and me. Nothing is any good when he doesn’t love us. Then we’re not allowed to cry in his presence or laugh, we mustn’t give him anything, or take anything from him either. Any steps we might take only have the effect of delaying even more the time when he will love us again. Because he always comes back to us. We just have to hold still and wait, and then everything takes care of itself. There’s nothing else we can do anyway.”

Irmgard Keun reproduces that naïve childish voice perfectly – through Kully’s all seeing eye we see the world as it is for both adult and child. The fragility of this family’s position was one lived by hundreds, perhaps thousands of others at this time. The storms were already brewing across Europe – and reading this novel so many decades later we know what is to come – something Keun couldn’t have known in 1938. We can’t help but wonder, after we finish this novel, what happened to this family and this child of all nations – as the world tip-toed closer to war.

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Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum

I had meant to read The Artificial Silk Girl back in the summer for Women in Translation month, but as usual I had more books than I could possibly read. However, it meant I had the perfect book to read at the start of #Germanlitmonth. I remember seeing several glowing reviews of this book from other bloggers, and I can see why they liked it so much. Irmgard Keun’s classic takes us back to a time and place that many still finding fascinating, maybe as much because of the times that followed it.

An evocative portrait of the roaring Weimar Berlin of the 1920s/30s – it is also a wonderfully poignant story of a quirky, radical young woman, whose voice I found immediately captivating. The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel – banned by the Nazis it had been an instant best seller when it was first published. With the Nazis coming to power in 1933, this novel depicts life just before that tumultuous time.

“And I think it will be a good thing if 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. And I look like Colleen Moore, if she had a perm and her nose were a little more fashionable, like pointing up. And when I read it later on, everything will be like at the movies — I’m looking at myself in pictures.”

Our narrator is Doris – living in a mid-sized German town in 1931, working in an office for a boss she loathes but must flirt with to keep on the right side of. She is barely able to keep up with her duties, commas being a particular stumbling block. What little money she earns doesn’t last long; she hands over most of it to her hard drinking father. She manages to buy herself a new green hat – but Doris longs for the finer things in life – she is quite conscious of her own good looks and feels she must somehow become a star.

Doris is a fabulous creation, there is a streetwise vulnerability about her, on one level she understands the pitfalls of the world for a young woman, on another level she is heartbreakingly naïve and ripe for great hurt and disappointment. The reader is in her corner from the start, looking for the same happy ending as Doris herself.

Life has already been something of a disappointment for Doris – romance has been a let-down so far. Doris had had her hopes pinned on Hubert, but Hubert married someone else. She does manage to secure some extra work with a theatrical company, upgrading to a part with one speaking line by artifice, Doris wants more than this. There is nothing much left for Doris in her hometown.

When she is finally, and inevitably sacked from the job she is so ill suited for, Doris takes a night train to Berlin, where she hopes she can make it in the movies. Wearing a stolen fur coat, she spots in a cloakroom and wants for herself, she leaves her disappointments behind her and sets out with optimism. The coat is a kind of talisman for Doris, she feels it will bring her luck, or at least make her look the part.

“They have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.”

What she finds in Berlin however is not the fame and fortune she craves, but a world of seedy bars and seedier men, a world where the options for women are limited and unattractive. Staying in a series of temporary rooms, she is often hungry. Doris resorts to increasingly desperate measures in order to survive. She has lots of encounters with men, using her looks to get drinks or meals. Yet, there is an obvious goodness in Doris, she is wonderfully sympathetic to a blind neighbour, and deep down she wants a boyfriend who will last longer than a day or two and care for her. She understands, as so many women before her, how the rules for men and women differ.

“If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.”

In Keun’s portrait of Berlin at this time, there is a slight foreshadowing of the days to come. In the dissatisfaction and selfishness of certain characters and in the poverty, we see something of the troubles that swept through Europe in the 1930s.

Doris’s voice is honestly matter of fact, she’s quite sarcastic and a little bit ditzy, but enormously likeable. This was my first novel by Irmgard Keun by I am sure it won’t be my last.

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