Irmgard Keun Comes Back to Life

Posted on | September 21, 2011 | 1 Comment play olg slots online

There is no shortage of literature about World War II, about Nazis, about the Holocaust, but German novels overtly critical of Nazism written in the 1930s are—for obvious reasons—hard to come by.  Until I recently read After Midnight by Irmgard Keun, I’d have been hard-pressed to come up with an example.

After Midnight is a slender novella, and perhaps on account of its modest size, it had gotten buried in the pile of books on my floor until a Millions review—occasioned by Melville House’s recent republication—caused me to pull it from the mess.  Turns out I’d let myself be fooled by size: these 150 pages are as sharp as anything I’ve read this year.  (Her insane biography doesn’t hurt either: an affair with Joseph Roth, a lawsuit against the Gestapo, a faked suicide.)

What separates Keun from the pack—what little of one there is—of German writers processing the Nazi period from within is the fact that she trains her focus specifically on writers and the ways in which they were nullified by fascism.  Her narrator for this undertaking could not be more unlikely.  Sanna is a nineteen-year-old shop clerk, flighty and self-involved and most significantly, politically neutral in a world increasingly subject to the imperatives of ideology.  The darkening political mood in Frankfurt forms the backdrop for Sanna’s smaller dramas.  “Suddenly, we felt cold.  We were in a hurry to get home.  But the SS wouldn’t let us cross the Opera House Square to get to the Bockenheim Road.  We asked why not; what was going on?  But the SS are always arrogant and inclined to put on airs.”  More often than not, the Nazis are an encumbrance.  Even when Sanna gets taken in for questioning for “subversive statements,” her fear can’t entirely extinguish her sense of her own sexual charisma.  “He had a sort of gleam in his eyes—if he’d tried to kiss me I’d have kicked him in the belly as hard as I could, he could have perished before my eyes for all I cared, the brute,” she says of her Nazi inquisitor. play online blackjack ipad

But Sanna’s very artlessness gives us a window into fascist Germany that is paradoxically acute.  Her failure to change significantly, to oblige our demand for a coherent character arc, frees Sanna to catch those around her in their gradual ideological decay.  Sanna’s brother Algin, a successful novelist at risk of purging by the Nazi party, first loses his artistic freedom and then loses his grip on his art entirely:

The National Socialists burned Algin’s book.  Algin has to write stories which [his wife] Liska thinks are stupid.  All of a sudden he’s ceased to be a wonderful writer.  As a matter of fact Algin himself often says the stuff he’s writing these days is stupid, dreadful, but it still annoys him to no end when Liska says so.  And now he is coming to think it’s not so stupid after all, for he has taken to expressing himself poetically on the subject of nature and the love for his homeland…

And then, on the other side, there is Heini.  A willful journalist prone to monologue, Heini provides the novella’s most deliberate critique of Nazism—and with it the most conspicuous mouthpiece for Keun’s own views.  “So now you’re thinking of writing a historical novel, are you?” Heini challenges Algin.  “It’ll be the work of a eunuch, Algin.  A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world.  A writer who is afraid is no true writer.”  Yet Heini’s tendentious speechifying, his exhausting irony, render his words just as powerless as those of the defeated Algin.

It may be Algin who threatens suicide, but it’s Heini who makes good on it. In these two figures, Keun maps her fate as it must have appeared in 1937: self-betrayal or death.  But then there’s Sanna, who gives Keun a kind of narrative escape hatch: ingenuousness as a vehicle for criticism.  It’s the same wily impulse that helped Keun avoid becoming an Algin or a Heini: after her suicide, publicly mourned by Arthur Koestler, Keun snuck back into Germany from exile in the Netherlands.

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  1. The [Insert Superlative Here] Books of 2011: A Year in Reading : Apostrophe : ameliaatlas.com
    December 20th, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    [...] (for an English-speaking audience, at least) and I have them to thank for introducing me to Irmgard Keun’s After [...]

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