Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Funny Thing About Nazis: Irmgard Keun and Her Bitter Ink

Lately, I've been reading a lot about Irmgard Keun, the exiled and all-but-forgotten German novelist who once faked her suicide so she could slip back into Nazi Germany to be with her parents.  Emily St. John Mandel has a terrific bio-portrait of Keun at The Millions which fills us in:
Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin in 1905. Her life was the stuff of fiction: she was a best-selling debut novelist at twenty-six, published a second bestseller a year later, was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and in exile by the spring of 1936. She drifted through Europe in the company of various other anti-Nazi intellectuals, stateless, driven from country to country by financial and immigration difficulties....She published several more novels in exile and was in the Netherlands when the war broke out. She could find no exit out of Europe, and when the Netherlands fell, she took a remarkable step: she somehow managed to convince a German officer to issue her a passport in the name of Charlotte Tralow (her middle name and her married name, although she had divorced Johannes Tralow in 1937), either initiated the story that she’d committed suicide or allowed the rumor to spread unchecked or had someone falsely report her death — the precise details of the pseudocide are unknown — and slipped back into Nazi Germany. In August 1940, the British Daily Telegraph reported that she’d killed herself in Amsterdam. She lived out the war with her parents in Cologne.

Keun died in 1982 and never raised a noticeable blip on American readers' radar screens.  But now she's enjoying a revival in this country with the publication of The Artificial Silk Girl (just out from Other Press) and After Midnight from Melville House.  National Public Radio had this to say about the latter: "Even reading After Midnight today feels dangerous. I kept turning to the copyright page, unable to believe that such a sexually and politically frank book could have been published in 1937….Keun has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naivete is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away….After Midnight haunts far beyond its final page."

This is not my first encounter with Keun; three years ago, I read (and thoroughly loved) Keun's Child of All Nations which had just been reissued by Overlook Press.  Here is my review* from back then:
You don't expect a novel about a family tramping around pre–World War II Europe to hold you in its grip so tight that you read the entire book in one sitting. But that's exactly what Irmgard Keun's Child of All Nations does, thanks to the shrewd voice of its narrator, a ten-year-old girl named Kully who coolly endures being dragged from country to country by her neurotic mother and ne'er-do-well writer father, who's turned his back on Nazi Germany. Keun, whose books were banned by the Nazis, is bound to be resurrected from obscurity by this 1938 novel, now getting its first English translation by Michael Hofmann. Written before the full onslaught of the Holocaust, the book treats war as dark background scenery and focuses instead on the family's plight -- a struggle that keeps them barely one step ahead of poverty, creditors, and starvation. Kully's insights into her world are simple but profound: "My throat felt like an endless tube full of hunger." Or consider her perspective on international politics: "The world has grown dark, because of rain and war.... War is something that comes and makes everything dead. Then there'll be nowhere left for me to play, and bombs will keep falling on my head." Kully is a captivating character, and even in the face of misery, she's often very funny: "I'm not sure whether I don't understand grown-ups, or if they're just too stupid for words." This, however, is a novel that's smart beyond its years.

Going back to Child of All Nations this morning and turning to the first page, I'm reminded why I was so captivated by this novel:
      I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that's not because I'm naughty; it's the fault of my father. Everyone says: that man ought never to have got married.
      At first they treat me as if I was a rich lady's Pekinese. The chambermaids make kissy mouths at me and little mwah mwah noises. The maĆ®tre d' slips me postage stamps, which I save, because I might be able to sell them later. The man in the lift lets me press the button to our floor, and he doesn't interfere, much. And the waiters brandish table-napkins at me in a friendly sort of way. But all that comes to an end when my father has to leave to raise money, and my mother and me are left behind, and the bill still hasn't been paid. We are left behind as surety, and my father says we've got as much riding on us as if we'd been fur coats or diamonds.
      Then the waiters in the hotel restaurant no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast.
      We hardly dare go to the restaurant any more, Mama and me. But there's nowhere else we can go, if we're not to starve. Because we haven't got a single franc left, and can't afford to buy any more cheap cheese or apples or bread to sneak up to our room.
As Mandel notes at The Millions, "Irmgard Keun was possessed of a spectacular talent. She managed to convey the political horrors she lived through with the lightest possible touch, even flashes of humor."  It's true Nazi Germany was no laughing matter, but through the light, bitter ink of her pen Keun helps us understand the nation behind the horrible headlines.  We smile even as we shudder.

*This review originally appeared at The Barnes and Noble Review.

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