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 – “
Mini-Germanathon Book 3 is Irmgard Keun’s one-time bestseller of 1932 – the tale of Doris in the dying days of the Weimar Republic in general, Berlin in particular. Having stolen a fur-coat that makes her feel like a film-star, she flees to Berlin, the same decadent cabaret of a place as portrayed by Christopher Isherwood. Unable to achieve the transition from bit-part actress to international superstar, she ricochets from man to man living from handouts and charity, one step away from walking the streets for a living and unable to see the crassness and superficiality of her life. Her(r) Berlin is anything but golden and glorious.
Her life ebbs and flows. There are good moments. There are bad. The text, Doris’s notebook, reflects this. The literary highlight being the night she takes a blind WWI veteran out on the town. Her words describing the city she inhabits. Her blind companion wanting only to know if there are stars. The truth being: occasionally there’s half a star coming out but it can’t compete with the neon lights and all that buzz around us. As the evening progresses, Doris forced to recognise the truth All the people are in a hurry – and sometimes they look pale under those lights, then the girls’ dresses look like they’re not paid off yet and the men can’t really afford the wine – is nobody really happy? Now it’s all getting dark. Where is my shiny Berlin?
And this is where things go awry. Because Doris, displaying a lack of intelligence that leaves me with little patience, chooses to live in the same superficial vein for the second half of the novel. Life has further cruel lessons to teach her (including unreciprocated love) but she seems insistent on not listening and not learning. Her existence merely repeating the same mistakes, the same montonous loop.
Putting aside my antipathy to Doris and to the style of the narrative – the present continuous presenting a continuous bore – the novel works better as a commentary of life as it was led at the time. Written in 1931 with no prescient knowledge of the cataclysm to follow, Doris’s unknowing befuddlement at gratuitous thuggery erupting from nowhere reflecting the majority of the German population caught up in events they understood only too late.
There are round oranges and cheese and meat on the buffet.
And then Else’s shoulder slides away from under me and there’s noise – shoes, lots of shoes were comng – the girls were screaming and throwing the windows open. Schanewsky’s eyes were looking softly at me from the corner – the room burst with ten blond windbreakers – they are their enemies and again it’s got something to do with politics. And they threw themselves at the buffet and under that kitchen lighting they looked pale and starved and they threw the oranges on the floor and ate all the sausages. And made a tired ruckus. And stuffed down all the sausages. And then they left. What was that all about?
Although effective as a piece of social commentary, I found the whole thing yawnsworthy and quite frequently sleep-inducing, becoming alert only on reading the translator’s note and Maria Tatar’s introduction (the latter read only on completing the work …) Kathie von Akum, who translated Keun’s original in 2002, maintains that Doris is the antecedent of modern-day Bridget Jones, Carrie Bradshaws and Rebecca Bloomswood. (Well yes, but the modern counterparts are, at times, belly-laugh funny ….). Maria Tatar’s introduction quite illuminating with regard to the Germanic literary antecedents, many of which languish in my TBR including Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Fortunately not Schnitzler’s brilliant Fräulein Else, which, while written by a man, is far more succinct and involving than Irmgard Keun’s effort.