The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

I have long wanted to read the German writer Irmgard Keun, ever since Grant and TJ started to cover some of her books – Gilgi and After Midnight – on their respective blogs. Then last summer, Karen reviewed another of Keun’s novels, The Artificial Silk Girl, and when I read her post, I knew this was the one for me – well, as a starting point at the very least. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin.

First published in 1932, Silk Girl is narrated by Doris, a striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start. It reflects her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Doris longs for the finer things in life, fashionable clothes and accessories, the bright lights and the big city. She dreams of becoming a successful actress in the movies. Instead, she’s stuck in a provincial town, in a dead-end office job she’s barely qualified for, trading on her charms and good looks to keep on the right side of the boss. Moreover, Doris is forced to pass the majority of her wages to her lazy father who promptly uses the money to get drunk. What little is left over goes on a treat, in this case a new hat – well, a girl’s got to keep up appearances, especially if she wants to get ahead.

But I immediately bought a hat for myself with the 50 marks I had left, with a feather and in forest green – that’s this season’s fashion color, and it goes fabulously well with my rosy complexion. And wearing it off to the side is just so chic, and I already had a forest green coat made for myself – tailored with a fox collar – a present from Käsemann, who absolutely almost wanted to marry me. But I didn’t. Because in the long run, I’m too good for the short and stocky type, particularly if they’re called Käsemann. But now my outfit is complete, which is the most important thing for a girl who wants to get ahead and has ambition. (p. 5)

Shortly after getting the push from her job by knocking back the advances of an amorous attorney, Doris lands a small break as an ‘extra’ with the theatre company in her hometown. Once there, she uses all her womanly wiles and a few white lies to move forward, securing a walk-on part with a spoken line in the process. However, it’s not long however before Doris is found out, leaving her no other option but to hightail it to Berlin with little more than a stolen fur coat for company. On her arrival, she is dazzled by the new environment, the sights and sounds of this glamorous city.

Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated. (p. 77)

All too soon the harsh realities of life kick in and Doris finds herself moving from one temporary room to another, her fortunes ebbing and flowing according to the generosity (or not) of the people she encounters along the way. With the police possibly on her tail and no official papers to hand, Doris knows it would be difficult for her to find a short-term job – in any case, she doesn’t particularly want one, not if her previous experiences of conventional work are anything to go by. There are various encounters with men – some kind and charming, others less so – but the most promising ones always seem to have a wife or another woman tucked away somewhere. Doris is smart enough to know her own value, so she uses her looks and personality to blag herself some decent clothes and a few drinks every now and again. Even though life in the city can be tough and lonely, Doris is determined to follow her own path in an effort to get on. The conventions of marriage and domesticity are not for her, something she learned a while ago by observing the lives of those other girls back home.

But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead. I learned that from Lorchen Grünlich, who married the accountant at Grobwind Brothers and is happy with him and her shabby tweed coat and one bedroom apartment and flower pots with cuttings and Gugelhupf on Sundays and stamped paper which is all the accountant allows her to use, just to sleep with him at night and have a ring. (p. 69)

Rather cleverly, the story is conveyed through a series of reflections, ostensibly presented as a set of journal entries that capture Doris’ thoughts as she strives to survive. In some respects, Doris is like a camera, recording and portraying the highs and lows of life in Berlin. There are some dazzling passages here, presented in a compelling stream-of-consciousness style, particularly the impressionistic sections in which Doris relays the vibrancy of Berlin to her blind neighbour, Herr Brenner, complete with all its characteristic lights and colours. The journal entries also reveal elements of Doris’ backstory – in particular, her impoverished and less-than-happy childhood – along with her sharp observations on the social order of the day, especially the situation for women. The last quote is a great example of this critique of society’s views and expectations.

While the narrative begins in a very breezy, upbeat manner, the tone darkens significantly as the story progresses. The initial surface glamour of life in Berlin soon falls away, leaving Doris hungry for a little food, warmth and affection – things she knows she may have to rely on a man to provide.

So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds. (p. 118)

Keun’s heroine has been likened to Sally Bowles from Christopher Isherwood’s seminal novel Goodbye to Berlin. While there are undoubtedly similarities between the two characters, particularly in terms of their attitudes and the Weimar-era setting in which they find themselves, the women I was most reminded of while reading Silk Girl were those from the works of Jean Rhys. In this scene, Doris is so desperate that she allows herself to be picked up by a man, a stranger who stops her in the street, probably in the belief that she is a prostitute. It could have come straight out of one of Rhys’ early stories.

And we talked to each other at a restaurant and I was supposed to order wine and I would much rather have had something to eat. But that’s just like them – they don’t mind paying large sums for something to drink, but as soon as they have to pay just a small amount for something to eat they feel taken advantage of, because food is a necessity, but having a drink is superfluous and therefore elegant. (pp. 125-126)

All in all, The Artificial Silk Girl is a very impressive novel, an evocative insight into a city on the cusp of political change – in this respect, it would make a great companion piece to the Isherwood I mentioned a little earlier. Doris is such a wonderful creation, an instinctive woman who turns out to be more sensitive and fragile than she appears at first sight. (In fact, the book itself is also much deeper than its initial breeziness suggests – more thoughtful and considered in many respects.) It can be so hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but Keun nails it here, giving us a very convincing portrait of this feisty yet vulnerable girl about town.

I read this novel for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month which is running throughout November – there’s some info about it here. If you’re interested in learning more about Irmgard Keun, you might want to take a look at Max’s review of Volker Wiedermann’s book, Summer Before the Dark, which includes passages covering Keun’s relationship with the writer Joseph Roth, whom she met in Ostend 1936. It’s a very poignant story, all the more so because we know what was looming on the horizon for the years that followed.

The Artificial Silk Girl is published by Other Press; personal copy.

58 thoughts on “The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

  1. MarinaSofia

    I’ve now read quite a lot about this book, enough to know that I would really enjoy it. But somehow, I’ve never managed to get my hands on it. Thank you for such a comprehensive and thoughtful review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. I’m pretty sure you would like this too, Marina. It’s actually a lot darker than I expected, especially towards the end…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. It’s not quite as bleak or tragic as some of Rhys’ stories, but even so it does has several moments of darkness. The balance between light and shade is very effective.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          From what I’ve read about her other novels, I get the impression that Keun’s protagonists have more agency than Rhys’ – a stronger will to survive, perhaps?

          Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    Super commentary as always Jacqui.

    this sounds very good. I read Keun’s After Midnight which I found to be excellent. That also featured a young woman as protagonist whose voice was vivacious and genuine. I would like to read more books from this author so I should move on to this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I must have missed your review of After Midnight when it came out – I’ll take another look later. It sounds as if strong female protagonists were Keun’s speciality. The narrative voice here was very compelling – so engaging and yet heartbreaking too.

      Reply
  3. realthog

    This sounds pretty amazing, Jacqui, as does Keun’s After Midnight. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never heard of the autrhor before. One to sus out . . .

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s a good chance you’d like this, John. It’s quite cinematic at times, a little like Isherwood’s Berlin stories or some of the darker elements from Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. I could imagine it playing out as a film in my mind…

      Reply
  4. A Life in Books

    I’m attracted to all things Berlin so was already predisposed to want this but you clinched it with your mention of Summer Before Dark which I found fascinating. Great review, as ever, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah – thanks, Susan. Berlin is such a fascinating city, isn’t it? Like you, I’m attracted to stories that are set there, especially when they hark back to this particular period in time – it’s probably my favourite era. I listened to the audio version of Summer Before the Dark when it featured on Radio 4’s Book of the Week last year – a very poignant listening experience particularly towards the end.

      Reply
  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    Thanks for the link, Jacqui. And thank you for reminding me that I really have to read more by Irmgard Keun. This is the first I’m hearing of this book, but it will be the next one of Keun’s book I’ll read. I am so intrigued after your review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Thank you for helping to encourage me to read Keun in the first place. I’m so glad I finally got around to her! I’d love to hear how you think this compares to her other novels. Which one would you suggest I try next, Gilgi or After Midnight (assuming you’ve read both)? Looks like After Midnight is going to be horrendously hard to get hold of in paperback over here, so I might have to go down the kindle route if I plump for that one.

      Reply
      1. TJ @ MyBookStrings

        I have only read After Midnight, so I can’t say which one to read next. I’m sure you’ll enjoy both. Have you tried Abe Books? Sometimes, you can find great deals on harder-to-get books there, although shipping charges might make it expensive.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I couldn’t recall if you’d read Gilgi! Yes, you’re right – I’m fairly sure I would enjoy both. Abe is a good suggestion, thanks. I’ll take a look at their site.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. There’s a very good chance you’d like this. If I remember rightly, Karen likened Doris to Flammchen from Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel. That’s not a bad reference point, especially for the early section of the novel which is a little lighter in tone than much of the Berlin segment.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review as always Jacqui. And I agree that the darker elements of the book place this much closer to Isherwood or Rhys than to Loos. Keun was a fascinating character and the books I’ve read by her have been very rewarding.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I must read the Loos at some point, a book that’s been sitting on my TBR pile for far too long. It’ll be interesting to see how it compares. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m fascinated by this era and setting too, the dying days of the Weimer Republic. I can’t recall if you’ve read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels? But if you have and you liked them, chances are you’d enjoy this too.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s the mix of horror and decadence that fascinates me, the sense that everything was done to excess. No, I hadn’t heard of Anita Berber. I just looked her up on wiki – it sounds as if she lived quite a life!

      Reply
  7. banff1972

    Glad you enjoyed, Jacqui. Keun is wonderful. I wrote about After Midnight at my blog for German Lit Month last year. Recently I’ve been reading Jason Lutes’s Berlin comics. Do you know them? Set in the late 20s, early 30s. I think you would really like them.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah – apologies, Dorian. Please feel free to add a link to your review of After Midnight. I’ll drop by a little later to take another look. Delighted to hear you are a fan of her work!

      No, I don’t know those Berlin comics you mention. Very intriguing. I’ll have to look them up. :)

      Reply
    2. Max Cairnduff

      Was the third of the Lutes’ ever published do you know? I have the first two but hadn’t started them as I thought I’d wait for the promised third, but if it’s not coming out I may as well read those I have.

      Reply
      1. banff1972

        Not yet I don’t think. But I was on the Drawn & Quarterly site recently and the individual installments still seem to be coming out (although the pace has slowed a lot). So I think Vol 3 will be published eventually. I think they are pretty amazing. So beautifully drawn and really informative about a period I just can’t seem to get enough of.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s interesting to reflect on how quickly the atmosphere must have changed during the years that followed. Quite a contrast with the decadence and openness of the late ’20s/early 30s. I think you’d like this one, Stu. It’s very engaging and compelling.

      Reply
  8. The Reading Life

    I read this and her After Midnight for German Literature Month in 2015. Thanks for mentioning Jean Rhys, I see it for sure now. In my conclusion on this novel I said. The Artificial Silk Girl is not a “heavy read” like The Death of Virgil or a work of genius like We all Die Alone by Hans Fallada but for sure it gave me a feel of what it must have been like to be broke, young, female, pretty and without a family or any real friends in the early days of Nazi Germany. Slowly it becomes a city of whores, johns, pimps and assorted passeers by on Alexanderplatz.

    I found her After Midnight, focusing on two young single women in Weimar Berlin a better work. I enjoyed reliving Silk Girl through your very well done post

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mel. It’s very effective in that respect – you really get a feel for the sense of loneliness and despair in Doris’ life as she tries to get by from one day to the next. Keun’s portrayal of the city is incredibly evocative too, very much in line with the view Christopher Isherwood puts forward in Goodbye to Berlin (especially in the closing chapters where the atmosphere seems to turn darker by the day).

      After Midnight sounds like the one to go for – I think you’re the fourth reader to recommend it! I shall have to seek it out.

      Reply
  9. Max Cairnduff

    I’ve long had this on a wishlist, though on kindle for some reason. How is the book as a physical book?

    The quotes are excellent, which doesn’t surprise me. She stood out to me in Summer Before the Dark where she was (very briefly) quoted and her language just sang from the page.

    Interesting to see the Jean Rhys comparisons too. I can definitely see it in that last quote. Very nice piece Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m pleased to hear that you’ve already got it on a wishlist – it’s definitely a book I would recommend to you, no doubt about it. Yes, I recall you highlighting that line in your review of Summer Before the Dark, the one about her skin saying ‘yes’ to Joseph Roth. It’s a great quote, very striking indeed.

      I love the prose in this, it’s so engaging. It can be hard to strike the right note with a first-person narrative, but everything feels so refreshingly natural here, not in the least bit contrived. The book itself is lovely, beautifully produced by Other Press (attractive cover, good quality paper etc.), I’m glad I managed to find a reasonably priced copy in the end. It’s worth looking around for one.

      The similarities with Rhys really hit home in the second half of the novel. The way that Doris becomes so dependent on the passing fancies of men reminds me very much of the women in those early stories by Rhys. Well, that and the protagonist’s fascination with clothes, another parallel with Rhys’ heroines. Also, the feeling that the conventional roles of wife and mother were just not for them, they weren’t cut out for that kind of life. (Doris has more get-up-and-go than Anna from Voyage in the Dark. So, you get the sense that Doris could hack it in the traditional workplace if she put her mind to it whereas Anna would almost certainly drown. That said, the similarities are there in the broad themes these writers are addressing i.e. society’s view of women and the expectation that they should conform.) It’s interesting to note that Keun and Rhys were writing at broadly the same time. I wonder if they were aware of one another?

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    Thanks fir participating, Jacqui. It’s a wonderful review of a book I loved when I read it. Actually at about the same time as Rhys. I can’t see any similarities at all but that probably because I read the Keun in German and the tone is very different. Her voice is so strong and unique and flavorful. Not sure that came through in English. I need to get back to her some day.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. I’m so glad you loved this one too. Isn’t it interesting how differently we can respond to the same book or a particular character in literature? I think it was Doris’ situation that reminded me of the women in Rhys’ novels (especially towards the end). In particular, the way she became somewhat dependent on the passing fancies of a stranger for a little warmth and sustenance felt very reminiscent of Rhys. The tone was different though, I’m with you there. What a wonderful character Keun created in Doris, such a distinctive and compelling narrative voice! :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Deepika. I’m glad you like the sound of this. It’s a great book, especially if you like first-person narratives – Doris’ voice is very engaging. I hope you get a chance to read it one day.

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    Thanks for the link. It’s interesting you mention the narrative voice – this is something Keun does extremely well, perhaps one reason she makes you think of Rhys. The voice seems to immerse us immediately in the time and place because her characters live in the moment – often because they have to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. Thanks for encouraging me to give her a try – your post was very instrumental in that respect! Yes, there’s definitely a sense of Doris living in the moment in this one. She just takes every day as it comes without really knowing what it might bring.

      Reply
  12. bookbii

    This sounds like an interesting read, bittersweet with a veneer of charm that, perhaps, masks its more serious undertones. I can understand from the quotations why you would make the association with Rhys. The character seems bitter but insightful, cutting in some ways, but perhaps not as despairful as one of Rhys’s characters. Interesting review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, it’s much darker than it appears at first sight. Not quite as bleak as Rhys, but even so it has its moments. It’s interesting how both of these writers gave a voice to a certain type of experience, one not often featured in literature at the time. They seemed ahead of their time in that respect.

      Reply
  13. madamebibilophile

    As I was reading your review I was reminded of Jean Rhys, so it was interesting to see that was the parallel you found! It sounds great, and I so much enjoy Rhys, I’ll definitely look out for this.

    Reply
  14. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  15. juliana brina

    Lovely review, Jacqui! I really liked Gilgi, and when I saw you were reviewing anther book by Keun, I was curious. The fact that it reminds you of Jean Rhys made me want to read it soon :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Julia. I hope you get a chance to read it fairly soon. It’s a great book and Doris’ voice is very compelling. Gilgi sounds excellent too – one for the future, I expect. :)

      Reply
  16. Emma

    Strangely, I’ve never read Rhys, only read reviews of her books but this story reminded me of the one by Rhys with a young girl in Paris, taking lovers to support her and trying hard to survive in the big city. And they you mentioned her.
    The Artificial Silk is not availble in French. Translation tragedy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That is a tragedy – we’ll have to hope it gets translated one day! The comparison with Rhys is very striking, especially in terms of Doris’ position and reliance on men. I couldn’t help but think of one of those early ‘Paris’ novels where the heroine drifts around the city stumbling from one lover to another just in an effort to get by. Doris has a bit more get-up-and-go than Rhys’ protagonists (she’s less dispirited or disillusioned) – even so, the parallels are there.

      Reply

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s