Translated from German by Geoff Wilkes
When I first read Keun’s most famous novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, I disliked it so much, I couldn’t see me reading anything more from her pen. Nor have I for 12 years. But here I am, concentrating on the year 1931 for my Age of the Weimar Republic reading project, and there is the recently published Penguin Modern Classics edition of Keun’s debut ….
First up, and most thankfully, Gilgi is no Doris. At the start of the novel she knows what she wants and has a clear plan in how she is going to achieve it. She wants independence and to live in her own apartment. She is an ambitious secretary working in a hosiery factory, learning languages to improve her marketability. She has the wherewithall to extract herself from the unwelcome advances of the boss. Her focus is clear and unclouded.
But you know how life loves to interject obstacles …
Firstly her solid, decent parents, the Krons, surprise her on the occasion of her 21st birthday with the revelation that she is not their child. Nothing to worry about, says Gilgi, but then sets off to find her birth mother. The resulting revelations shake her confidence somewhat. Then she falls in love for the first time. A case of opposites attract, maybe. Martin is older, irresponsible and lives from day to day. Soon they are living together in a friend’s apartment with Gilgi in the role of breadwinner. It’s not a relationship that going to do her any favours.
Gilgi’s thoughts are made explicit throughout.
I suppose it’s nothing new if a woman is changed simply by love. The only bad thing is that one half of you has changed, while the other hasn’t and now you consist of two halves which don’t fit together at any point, which are always struggling with each other, and neither wants to retreat even a hairsbreadth. …. Maybe you want too much. You want to keep your whole life from before, with its joy in getting ahead, its well-oiled approach to work, with its strict allocation of time, its brilliantly functioning system. And you want another life on top of that, a life with Martin, a soft, contourless, heedless life.
Something will have to give, but Gilgi has a lot to learn before that point is reached. Besides the feckless Martin, there are the economic realities of the early 1930’s. Instability, loss of jobs and income, the inevitable pregnancy. Gilgi faces a dilemma. Will she continue to let Martin ruin her or will her own internal resources help her break out of the downward spiral?
Keun’s narrative is extraordinary. A prime example of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). Realistic and frank to its core. Gilgi’s provenance (if I may call it that) enables an exploration of class and social issues. Moral values too – the petit-bourgeois Krons most definitely at odds with Gilgi’s new bohemian ways, though Hertha’s tragedy provides a foreshadowing of Gilgi’s future, if she’s not careful. A mix of third and first person narration switches seamlessly between the two. As for those broken, clipped sentences, representing the heightened pace of life for the working girl in the metropolis (Cologne, not Berlin – what a refreshing change), I loved them.
I’m quite fond of Gilgi herself, who is “one of us” in the sense of a modern woman of the late 20’s / early 30’s, seeking to live unfettered by the traditional roles of women in the family. To understand just how radical a portrayal of women’s issues of the time Keun’s novel was, take a look at this article: Unruly Daughters and Modernity: Irmgard Keun’s Gilgi-eine von uns by Barbara Kosta. (Contains spoilers)