"I'm Laughing Because I'm Happy": Irmgard Keun

The German writer Irmgard Keun published her first novel, Gilgi, One of Us, in 1931, at the age of twenty-six. The novel was an immediate bestseller, catapulting her to literary stardom; a year later, she published The Artificial Silk Girl, which was even more successful. Both books feature young, female, white-collar narrators, with ambitions bigger than their futures. Doris, the narrator of The Artificial Silk Girl, is disinterested in work, and hopes her looks and (apparently minimal) acting talent will land her a career as a star--or at least a very rich husband. She details her considerable exploits in a "dove-colored" notebook with a frankness and charm that is striking.

But Keun was more than just an astute and witty chronicler of women's lives. Her work was condemned by conservatives, and her openly critical stance of the Nazi party ensured that that censure would become official when the Nazis formally came to power in 1932. Only a year after the success of The Artificial Silk Girl, the former literary darling was blacklisted by the Nazis and her books were confiscated. She remained in Nazi Germany for three years, trying unsuccessfully to gain membership in the Reich Literary Chamber, without which German writers could not publish. Unable to earn a living in her beloved home country, she went into exile--a peripatetic, penniless, and often desperate life documented in the hilarious and poignant Child of All Nations, whose young narrator, Kully, is the child of a blacklisted German writer (reportedly based loosely on real-life writer Joseph Roth, with whom Keun had a romantic relationship). In 1940, she returned to Germany under a false name and lived out the remainder of the war with her parents (she was also helped by a false report in a British paper that she had committed suicide while in exile). After the war, she was openly critical of other German writers who had collaborated with the Nazis and then quickly changed allegiance when the tides of power shifted ("Everyone has such a fortunately constructed memory," she wrote to a colleague).

Her books are sexually frank and wildly funny, her female narrators sharp-tongued and sharp-eyed, and she is a master of using a naive or innocent narrator as a vehicle for delivering blistering satire. "Sometimes I'm not sure whether I don't understand grown-ups, or if they're just too stupid for words," remarks Kully; grown-up Doris, the narrator of The Artificial Silk Girl, writes, in a kind of postscript, "If you want to strike it lucky with men, you have to let them think you're stupid."

The Artificial Silk Girl was an account of everyday life in Germany before the Nazis took power, and Doris is more or less oblivious to the horror lurking at the margins. Her concerns are those of Jean Rhys's narrators--her beauty, her survival, her next lover--and her narrative follows the same tragic arc, with a little more humor (the scene where Doris steals her lover's wife's silk undershirts while he reads to her from his own book--"every three pages he tells me that it's going to get more refined--and I take another shirt and stuff it into my dress"--is pure gold). The reader knows, if Doris doesn't, that her story will not end well, but her tragedy is personal and self-contained. After Midnight, Keun's fourth book, was published in 1937, and by then the horror was front and center. If The Artificial Silk Girl tends toward the lush and disorderly, After Midnight is honed to an edge that draws blood, the deftness of Keun's satire balanced perfectly against her utterly charming narrator.

The action of After Midnight takes place over the course of a single night, as nineteen-year-old Sanna and her beautiful best friend Gerti try to get from one end of Frankfurt to the other to meet up with Gerti's Jewish lover. Their way is blocked by Hitler's motorcade. Sanna's deadpan observations of the world around her capture the nightmarish absurdity of the Nazi regime: "Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness' sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? It's hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business--business, as we all know, can be very trickily organized--and now we have to know the rules for love, too. It isn't easy. It really isn't. ... I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that's allowed."

Sanna, of course, is unwilling to take the safest path herself, and it's her own love for her fiancé that will lead her to a series of desperate, courageous acts. But while After Midnight vividly describes the terror of growing up in a world gone mad, it's also a story about being a teenager, getting drunk and falling in love and not understanding why adults are always getting in your way. For Sanna, however, the ordinary concerns of adolescence are amplified to a fever pitch: mouthing off to your nosy, mean-spirited neighbors, remarking on how much Hitler sweats when he speaks, or refusing the advances of a soldier can mean ending up in an SS prison. Under Keun's ice-cold satire beats a fierce, hot heart, and it's glorious, funny, intensely lovable Sanna who elevates this book from satirical to sublime. After Midnight is as close to perfect as any book I've read in a long time; even in translation, there's not a word out of place or a sentence that isn't beautiful, and as the novel moves toward its harrowing final pages--that last line!--I think you will find, as I did, that you are holding your breath, hoping against hope for Sanna's world to remake itself into the ordinary and let her love and be loved in peace.

Irmgard Keun was an extraordinary person: exile, survivor, a woman whose husband disowned her once she spoke out against the Nazis (and pretended that he, too, had spoken out against the Nazis once the war ended) and who raised a child alone without ever publicly disclosing who her daughter's father was. Although she said she was working on an autobiography, it was never found. "God forgive me for my sins," she wrote to a friend, "but I can really write."

For more about Irmgard Keun, read Emily St. John Mandel's fantastic piece at the Millions.