Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Nothing artificial about this reality. . .

Many thanks to Dovegreyreader for this post, in which I first read about the German writer Irmgard Keun. I just finished her novel The Artificial Silk Girl, which first appeared in English translation in 1933 and was reissued (and is still in print) by Other Press in 2002 with a new translation by Kathie von Ankum.
Doris - a pretty, young, ambitious girl who wants to be a movie star and famous - scribbles her adventures in a notebook covered with white doves: "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." She lies her way into working as an extra in the theatre, schemes to get a line in the play, steals a fur coat from the cloakroom and then confidently escapes with it to Berlin to seek her fortune. The introduction calls Doris a precursor to a Bridget Jones or Carrie Bradshaw, but while she has some of the same cheerful optimism as her fictional heirs and is also constantly searching for love, her experiences on the street, basically working as a prostitute to support herself, are far more serious than anything you'll find in the chicklit of today. I'd compare this more to Alfred Doblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz - Keun is articulating the female voice and reality behind the many prostitutes that pop in and out of that novel. Or even to Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl, in which a bored and frustrated woman also engages in an unhealthy fantasy life. All these novels do illustrate the real and desperate economic options placed on unmarried women in the post WWI era. Doris has a great and admirable talent for making the best of situations, and this comes through her gutsy narrative voice, so that the reader keeps rooting for her. But though she attempts to conquer her fear and loneliness behind her writing, it becomes another facade, another "pose" to help her get through the daily grind. Mind you, it's her best talent; her observations are frequently quite funny and yearningly childlike as in the following. She's describing the party goers in a Berlin restaurant to a blind WWI veteran:
" a handsome man just kissed a woman fat as a tadpole - old men are kissing each other - the music goes one-two, one-two - there are lamps hanging from the ceiling that look like Paul's starfish collection stuck together - the music is covered with flowers like a chiffon dress which tears very easily - let me tell you, Herr Brenner, a woman should never wear artificial silk when she's with a man. It wrinkles too quickly, and what are you going to look like after seven real kisses? Only pure silk, I say - and music - "
That phrase - "seven real kisses" - oh, the longing in that. I found this novel fascinating to read and I certainly want to explore more of Keun's work. There's a brief biography at the back and her life also reads like a novel. While The Artificial Silk Girl became a bestseller, her books were later banned by the Nazis. She left Germany during the beginning of the war, met authors Stefan Zweig and Ernst Toller, had an affair with Joseph Roth, and then returned to Germany hiding under an assumed name. Like many Virago authors, her work was rediscovered and republished in the 1970s during the feminist movement. She died in 1982.

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