Sunday, November 20, 2011

Georg Grosz meets Bridget Jones's Diary starring Madonna... no really (Books - The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun)


I learned of German, Weimar-era novelist Irmgard Keun from a post by Bookslut about a New York literary event on the subject of her life and work, as I mentioned here. My friend and I each bought a book and I got The Artificial Silk Girl which, we learned, is a staple of a contemporary German High School education. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy's German Literature Month, I actually read it in a timely fashion and in the context of lots of other discerning readers tackling German authors. Check out GLM's pages, they're chock full of links.

One might think The Artificial Silk Girl a serious, historical artifact, written as it was in 1932, depression-ridden German against the background of the rise of the Nazis. Indeed, it is revelatory about what it was like for a poor but beautiful girl
with stars in her eyes to grow up in this period and try to make something of herself, careering from actress to prostitute. But really, thanks to the approach of translator Kathie von Ankum, it feels like a contemporary confessional novel or even more, a film. Indeed, Ankum sees this novel as the German answer to Anita Loo's 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes a runaway bestseller in the America of its time, and would like the reader not so much to think of Christopher Isherwood or Lotte Lenya as to think of Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw.
It must have been around twelve midnight last night that I felt something wonderful happening inside of me. I was in bed - I had meant to wash my feet, but I was too tired after that hectic night the day before, and hadn't I told Therese: "You don't get anything out of letting yourself be talked to on the street. You owe yourself some self-respect, after all...."

After then I felt so sick at the office, and the old man isn't rolling in dough anymore either, and could fire me any day. So tonight I went straight home and to bed, without washing my feet. Didn't wash my neck either. And as I was lying there and my whole body was asleep already, only my eyes were still open - and the white moonlight was shining on my head, and I was thinking how nice that goes with my black hair and what a shame Hubert can't see me like that, when he's the only one, after all, whom I've ever loved. And then I felt the aura of Hubert surrounding me, and the moon was shining and I could hear a gramophone playing next door, and then something wonderful happened inside of me - as had happened before, but never anything like this. I felt like writing a poem, but that might have to rhyme and I was too tired for that. But I realized that there is something unusual about me. Hubert had felt it too, and Fraulein Vogelsang from my school as well, after I presented them with a rendition of Erlkonig that knocked their socks off. And I'm quite different from Therese and all those other girls at the office and the rest of them, who never have anything wonderful going on inside them. Plus I speak almost without dialect, which makes a difference, and gives me a special touch, particularly since my father and mother speak with a dialect that I find nothing short of embarrassing.

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.
Initially, the 21st century diction disoriented me. But as I spent time with it, von Ankum's approach wooed me. I realized that if I were to experience Doris's story as having any immediacy and if I were to understand who this young woman was in our own society's terms, that this language was the perfect vehicle for her innocent star gazing and tremendous ambition. She talks of "Women's Lib" and "beer bellies," and uses words like "gross me out" or "yuk," and describes one character late in the novel as "looking like a piece of pukey shit." Her breathless narrative voice reads, but exactly, like a contemporary film voice over, which combines the pleasure of light, no-thought, entertainment with the creeping realization that the sleazy Berlin of 1932, the one of Georg Grosz paintings, is about to implode around her. But coming of age doesn't wait and the world doesn't know it is about to experience an important period of history, and neither does Doris who, despite the Nazis, wants to learn how to come in to her own sexuality and find a way to live independently in her world. Keun's writing, however, is not merely a showcase for von Ankum's thesis about literary parallels, it is vivid in its own right.
If the doorbell rings, I'll go crazy. Dear God, please help me. This is the end of my stardom. It's all over - but for me that means it's just beginning. My heart is a gramophone playing inside of me, scratching my bosom with a sharp needle. Of course I don't have a bosom because it smack of the ordinary, like breastfeeding or an old opera diva where you can't tell what's bigger, her breasts of her voice...
The sense of what Germany of that time was like, the economic depression, and the brewing political unrest reveal themselves as just one more part of this girl's landscape.
So Therese helped me skip town that night. I was trembling all over and full of fear and expectation and joy, because everything would be new now and full of excitement and adventure. And she also went to my mother to fill her in and told her that I would pay back both her and Therese handsomely, if it all worked out. And I know that my mother can keep a secret, which is amazing because she's over 50, but hasn't forgotten what it used to be like for her. But they can't send me any clothes. That would be too dangerous - and so I've got nothing except for one shirt which I wash in the morning and then I stay in bed until it's dry. And I need shoes and many many other things. But it'll come. I also can't write to Therese because of the police who are undoubtedly looking for me - because I know the Ellmanns, how tenacious she is and how she enjoys making criminals out of people.

I don't care if she's in trouble because of me, because she was the one who cooked and ate Rosalie, which was our cat - a sweet creature with a silky purr and fur like white velvet clouds with ink spots. She used to lie on my feet at night and keep them warm - now I have to cry - I ordered a piece of cake for myself, Dutch kirsch, and now I can't eat it because I'm full of grief at the thought of Rosalie. But I took a doggy bag.
I found particularly striking, the stark contrasts which Keun suddenly springs upon the reader to remind one that this was indeed no ordinary time. In one, Doris describes her body to a blind man whom she befriends, seducing him, but as she does she notices a cockroach in a corner. In another, a girlfriend (Hulla) has suffered a beating from her husband (Rannowsky), who spends time in jail. They kill the husband's goldfish and...
And the fish continued to swim belly up. Three others hit him with their snouts. The dead fish's tummy was pale. And that overweight Hulla was kneeling on the floor praying. And she's terrified - "take care of my beloved fish, woman..." He's so brutal. And I say to her: "Hulla, I'll get us some cognac!" - after all, she was completely shaken up.

And Tilli wasn't there. So I say: "Albert, give me the bottle please!" He's drunk and he grabs me. I say: "No - Albert, please, the goldfish!"

Why is it that God gave him this aura that I like - and I was so excited anyway. His eyes. Only for a moment. All that running on the staircase. Tilli - Hulla! And as I come upstairs, there's lots of people there. And Rannowsky. And Hulla jumps out of the window, the moment he enters the room.

Sometimes there are mirrors that make me look like an old woman. That's the way it's going to be thirty years from now.
What a magnificently written moment. The drama and surprise of the chaotic atmosphere, the image of the fish floating belly up, the ridiculousness of it being more dear to Rannowsky than his wife is, and then the woman simply slipping out of the window - one barely notices it - this followed by Doris's reflection on (what else) how she looks! A selfish moment but one that conveys real despair that is somehow the world's despair, not just her's. That's what I found the experience of reading The Artifical Silk Girl to be. On its surface, the light, amusing text about a naive teenage girl swept by like the flow of a quick river, yet at any moment its tide might reach up and threaten to pull you under.

If you find yourself curious about Irmgard Keun, you might also be interested to read to what Isabella has to say about her After Midnight, which I understand Caroline is giving away at her site, which I link above.

6 comments:

Caroline said...

Such a wonderful review. I've been trying to promote Irmgard Keun's work through German Literature Month and chose After Midnight as a personal giveaway title. I love her books for this combination of light and frothy with a dark undercurrant. The translation seesm close to the original, it feels quite modern in German too.

Parrish Lantern said...

I was looking at which book by this writer I should read first as a couple had appeal, including this one, thanks for giving me a better idea of what It's about.

Ted said...

Caroline - Thank you! She was completely unknown to me until that event I went to in October. You sum up her tone just as I experienced it. After Midnight and Child of All Nations are both on my list now.

Ted said...

Parrish, welcome. I was taken with this one, even if I understand that it is not her most sophisticated.

Anonymous said...

It's so wonderful to see that people are still reading (and responding so positively to) my translation of Keun's amazing Artificial Silk Girl.
When I first embarked on the project of making the novel available in English (I wanted my students to be able to read it), I was looking to reprint the original 1932 British translation. But when I couldn't get the rights issues resolved, I decided to go straight to the German publisher and do a new translation. Other Press, where I was working at the time, trusted my judgment and published the book--one of the first fiction titles of its list. I'm so glad they did--and I'm glad that it continues to find an audience.

Kathie von Ankum

Ted said...

Dear Ms von Ankum - I'm delighted that you found your way to my enthusiastic post about your translation. You have really made something contemporary and accessible with your approach. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to Keun's work via your version. Have you translated other of her works?