Saturday, August 27, 2011

Artificial Silk Girl

The Artificial Silk Girl / Irmgard Keun; translated by Kathie von Ankum
New York: Other Press, 2011, c1932.

I've never read this author before, but thanks to Other Press I was made aware of this book, with a cover that caught my eye immediately.

I enjoyed it, for many reasons. One reason is simply its construction: it is putatively Doris' diary, and while it isn't made up of dated 'Dear Diary' entries, it has the honest tone that comes from writing for oneself, with all the foibles of others as well as the self set down. She also has a couple of evocative sentences here and there to remind us that she is writing all of this down for us -- here's one example:

I continue to write because my hand wants something to do and my notebook with its white lined pages has a kind of readiness to receive my thoughts and my tiredness and to be a bed that my letters can lie in. That way at least part of me has a place to lie down.

We meet Doris when she is a white collar worker in small town Germany, dissatisfied and frustrated with her office life. She lives with her mother and her boorish stepfather who only pays attention to her when he's taking a cut of her salary to support the household (ie: buy himself more beer). She feels that she needs to take advantage of her youth while she has it, and find herself a rich man somewhere to be supported by. She doesn't wish to turn into someone like her mother or her married coworker, who've settled for what they could get and are making the best of it, with limited romantic and financial horizons. In a moment of weakness she steals a fur coat from a self-important, mean woman in her neighbourhood and flees to Berlin.

Her life changes utterly. She whirls around Berlin trying to find a place to settle, searching for a man to support her without selling herself into vulgar prostitution. Attaining a position as a mistress is much more dignified; in fact she finds herself a perfect sugar daddy for a short while, until his wife reappears. Poor Doris is on the street and at her wits end when she's rescued by a gentle man who takes her into his home, at which point she falls into her first experience of true love. Unfortunately it comes to naught and she is left on her own again.

Doris has been compared in some publicity to Carrie Bradshaw or Bridget Jones. I think these comparisons are totally off base. Doris has an edge of desperation, experiences real danger, and lives in an early 1930s German society that doesn't support the attainment of her dreams. She reminds me much more of the heroines of Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado (in her restless search for relationship) and especially Stefan Zweig's Post Office Girl (in her sense that she deserves much more and life has unfairly limited her due to circumstance). Keun's sense of the society she is writing within and about is very strong, and the light tone of Doris' words is often belayed by the sense of what she is relaying. For example, she meets some early Nazis in the bars from whom she cheekily refuses a proposition by airily saying she is Jewish.

I found this book fascinating; Doris was unapologetic about her need to be admired, supported and loved, but seemed to be searching in all the wrong places for her dream. She didn't fit within the small German town or family structure she came from, and fled to make a life for herself. I admired her even while pitying her situation. The story was brash and didn't try to make Doris likeable or pitiable; Keun is an honest writer who expresses her story clearly. Perhaps that is why her books were banned by the Nazis as they came into more power, and she eventually left Germany and shortly thereafter published After Midnight, a much more damning presentation of the Hitler government. Keun is a great discovery and provided a bracing reading experience.


  1. Ohhh: I hope my library gets a copy of this. It sounds fascinating!

  2. I had gotten a copy of this from Netgalley, but the download expired and the book was archived before I got a chance to read it. Now I'm sorry I didn't get to it! Meville House has just published another of her books (After Midnight), which I do have from Netgalley. I'll try to get to that one before it's too late, and keep an eye out for this one at the library.

  3. Eva - I am pretty sure you would love it!

    Teresa - fortunately for me, our library has both this one and After Midnight, which I've just finished -- it's a little darker, but just as startling. I really liked it.

  4. I love books set in the the 30's.

  5. I have never heard of this before, but it does sound really good. Thanks for the review!

  6. eclecticreader - it's certainly different - Germany in the 30's is a lot less charming than other places!

    Kailana - I'd only heard of it a few weeks ago, and was lucky to have it cross my desk almost immediately afterward

  7. I really like the sound of this. I've been fascinated by diarists for a while now.

  8. Vintage Reading - I love epistolary novels, and especially love novels written as journals/diaries (when it is done well) This was subtle but very good.


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