The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun
For last year’s Women In Translation Month I read “Child of All Nations” by Irmgard Keun; this was the second of her titles I’d enjoyed, the first being “After Midnight” which I’d stumbled across in Foyles in 2013. Keun was a fascinating woman with a fascinating life, surviving WW2 in Germany despite having been condemned for her degenerate tendencies, and also spending time with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in Ostend – in fact, she had an affair with the latter. I enjoyed both of her books so much that I decided to pick up another for #WIT Month – her second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl”. Published in 1931, the book caused an immediate stir and was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and all remaining copies burned. Keun was apparently inspired by Anita Loos’ celebrated novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, although having read the latter I think that Keun’s book is something very, very different.
The book is narrated in the form of a diary by Doris, a young woman living in small-town Germany. Her family life is unhappy: despite loving her mother, she doesn’t get on with her father who drinks all the time, and work is in an office where she’s subject to the whims and attentions of an older boss. Doris is obsessed with the idea of glamour and fame, of getting into the cinema and becoming a star; however, that seems less than likely bearing in mind where she lives, and despite getting a small part as an extra in a local theatre, things are not going well for her. She loses her job, her father is demanding she pay for her keep, and the love of her life Hubert is marrying for money. So what’s a girl to do? Tell a lot of lies about the theatre boss, lock a rival in the toilet, steal a fur coat and head off to the bright lights of Berlin – well at least, that’s what Doris does, and her diary is intended to share all this with us and to record her rise to fame.
Berlin, however, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The glamour is superficial, the streets are full of people on the make and Doris finds it impossible to get an entry into any kind of show business as she’s sort of on the run without papers because of the fur coat. So she stays in a succession of temporary homes, hooking up occasionally with a man who always turns out to have a wife, and slowly running out of money and food and hope. Just as she’s about to starve to death, rescue comes in the form of Ernst, nicknamed Green Moss, who regards her as pure and feeds her up. But Ernst is also married, abandoned by his wife – so how will things turn out for the Artificial Silk Girl?
Once again, I was utterly hooked by Keun’s immediate and involving writing. A first person narrative is so often hard to get just right, particularly when it’s a younger person telling the tale. However, Keun succeeded admirably with Kully in “Child of All Nations” and once again gets it spot on here. Doris’s voice is just the right mixture of naivety and arrogance, her vulnerability hidden under a mask of bravado, when all she actually wants is a real home. In several sections Doris lapses into a slightly drunken stream of consciousness, recalling her past life in fragments, and as the truth about her family is actually revealed you can see why she’s ended up the way she has. In fact, I can’t help wondering about Keun’s own childhood as there are fractured families featured in so many of her works.
However, what made this book so fresh was the contrasts Doris sees between those who have and those who have not, something still very relevant today. Once again, if you have money you can grab hold of life to the full – without it, life is simply a dull trudge through the quotidian. I was reminded very much of “Grand Hotel”, a recent read, and one of its characters Flammchen who has the same understanding. The women in these books are dependent on their looks to get them a man and a secure life if they don’t want to spend their years scratching out a living at an underpaid job. And Keun is not averse to pointing out the ridiculous hypocrisy in their position:
If a young woman from money married an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.
Keun was also very much ahead of her time. Christopher Isherwood may have claimed in 1939 that he was a camera, but Doris was there before him. She records the sights, sounds and people of Berlin brilliantly, relaying the city in all its seediness and glory to a blind neighbour, Brunner, in a marvellous series of impressionistic paragraphs. The problem is, when they actually take a walk in the real metropolis they realise that the glamour and the glitter is false and Berlin is a sad place to be. There is perhaps less focus on politics in “Artificial…” when compared with, say, “After Midnight”, but the reader is still aware of the increasing racial tension even if much of this flows past Doris. However, she is astute enough to say at one point, whilst winding up an anti-Semite, “Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it.”
My version of “Artificial…” was published by the Other Press and translated by Kathie von Ankum. The blurb seems anxious to stress the connections between the book and such modern heroines as Bridget Jones and the ladies from “Sex and the City” – which I’m afraid would have actually put me off, had I not already been a Keun convert. And I did have slight reservations about the translation; I guess they went for the modern vernacular to appeal to today’s audiences, but I really can’t imagine Doris saying “grosses me out”…
However, these small reservations aside, “The Artificial Silk Girl” is highly recommended; as a piece of groundbreaking women’s writing it’s essential, as a portrait of Weimar Germany from the point of view of an impoverished woman it’s unparalleled, and in Doris, Irmgard Keun created an unforgettable heroine – eat your heart out, Sally Bowles! 🙂