Last year I read and loved Irmgard Keun’s novel The Artificial Silk Girl, written in the early 1930s as a sort of German response to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos. (I liked it so much that it made my 2017 list of favourites, a belated write-up from April this year.) So, when the time came to look for something suitable to read for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, another Keun felt like a natural choice for me.
After Midnight was written and published in 1937 while Keun was living in exile in Europe having left Germany the previous year. Deceptively straightforward and engaging on the surface, the novel is actually a very subtle and insightful critique of the Nazi regime, written by an author who had experienced the challenges of navigating the system first-hand. It’s an excellent book, one that draws the reader in from its striking opening line.
You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. (p. 3)
The novel is narrated by Sanna, a relatively ordinary nineteen-year-old girl who has fled from Cologne to Frankfurt after being questioned by the Gestapo – a move prompted by the malicious actions of her aunt as a way of currying favour with the authorities. Regrettably, Sanna has had to leave behind her cousin and fiancé, the rather unassuming Franz; but as the book opens, Sanna receives a letter which suggests that Franz may be coming to Frankfurt in the hope of seeing her again, hence the mention of an envelope in that very first line.
As the story progresses, we learn more about Sanna’s life in Frankfurt – and through this, more about the perils of living in Nazi Germany, a society where almost every view expressed or every action taken can be used against someone, depending on how they are interpreted by others.
Much of the novel’s subtlety stems from Sanna’s seemingly simple observations on the nature of life in Germany. Her style is uncomplicated and conversational with a natural flow to it; and while some readers may feel these remarks are somewhat too breezy given the seriousness of the situation, her lightweight tone belies the strength and perceptiveness of the message underneath. Sanna’s comments are frequently as astute as they are ironic when she repeatedly points out the hypocrisies of the prevailing regime. In the following passage, Sanna is reflecting on her friend Gerti, whose lover is considered to be of ‘mixed race’, his father being Jewish and his mother non-Jewish – a dangerous position given the political environment at the time.
Why does a girl like Gerti have to go falling in love with a banned person of mixed race, for goodness’ sake, when there are plenty of men around the authorities would let her love? It’s hard enough to know your way around all the rules the authorities lay down for business—business, as we all know, can be very trickily organized—and now we have to know the rules for love too. It isn’t easy, it really isn’t. Before you know it, you may find yourself castrated or in prison, which is not pleasant. Love is supposed to be all right, and German women are supposed to have children, but before you can do that some kind of process involving feelings is called for. And the law says no mistakes must be made in this process. I suppose the safest thing is not to love anyone at all. For as long as that’s allowed. (p. 34)
Sanna and her friend Gerti have much the same preoccupations as any other young women of their age. They are not particularly interested in politics; instead, they just want to go out and have fun without worrying too much about the future. But the nation’s politics seep into every corner of life, to the extent that they cannot be ignored, even when it comes to love and family relationships.
While at first Sanna may seem somewhat unsophisticated and naïve, she is in fact sharp enough to see many of the dangers of living in an environment where suspicion and mistrust are rampant, where people will stop at nothing, even going as far as informing on friends and family to protect their own positions.
We are living in the time of the greatest German denunciation movement ever, you see. Everyone has to keep an eye on everyone else. Everyone’s got power over everyone else. Everyone can get everyone else locked up. There aren’t many can withstand the temptation to make use of the kind of power. The noblest instincts of the German nation have been aroused, and they’re being tenderly cultivated. (p. 100)
The novel is peppered with Sanna’s casually satirical observations, many of which are eminently quotable and on point.
Herr Kulmbach had been saying the Führer had united the whole German nation. Which is true enough, it’s just that the people making up the whole German nation don’t get on with each other. But that doesn’t make any difference to political unity, I suppose. (p. 33)
Keun is also particularly insightful on the dilemmas faced by writers under the Nazi regime. After travelling to Frankfurt, Sanna goes to stay with her older stepbrother, Algin, a once successful novelist whose books are now banned by the authorities. With the prospect of another purge of literary figures looming on the horizon, Algin is effectively caught in a Catch-22 situation – damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t when it comes to using his art to express a view.
He might yet save himself by writing a long poem about the Führer, something he has been most reluctant to do so far. But even that might be dangerous. Because National Socialist writers might take exception to his daring to write about the Führer without being an old campaigner for the cause. Similarly, he daren’t write a Nazi novel, because it wouldn’t be fitting. However, if he doesn’t write a Nazi novel that makes him undesirable. People still like reading his books, people still want to print them, and that’s not right either. (p. 97)
As another character, Heine, observes, the Nazi regime has effectively neutered Algin’s true voice and political conscience. For the love of his wife and their lifestyle in the city, Algin has compromised his own values, putting his name to pieces that go against his personal views to evade the threat of punishment.
A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world. A writer who is afraid is no true writer. (p. 98)
Heine, we discover, is a former journalist who now writes very little as a consequence of the poisonous climate. Heine is older and more forthright than Algin, such that his criticisms of the authorities are quite explicit and direct, contrasting starkly with Algin’s effective impotence and the veiled nature of Sanna’s critique of the powers that be.
While the novel is primarily concerned with highlighting the inhumanities and idiocies of Nazism as a doctrine, it does contain elements of plot, all of which culminate in a dramatic climax towards the end of the book. The scene in question takes place during a lavish all-night party hosted by Liska, Algin’s sophisticated and glamorous wife, who loves Heine with a fierce passion. As the story moves towards its shocking denouement, the mood darkens considerably and the tension rises. There is a sense of desperation and peril in the air as several of the characters seem poised on the edge of a precipice where the chances of securing a safe outcome seem terribly uncertain.
After Midnight is a fascinating book, one that provides a real insight into a country on the brink of self-destruction. Keun is particularly illuminating on how easily a society can shift such that the unimaginable becomes a reality as a new world order is established. The Melville House edition comes with an excellent afterword by German Studies expert, Geoff Wilkes, who goes into considerable detail on Keun’s life and literary career.
In Sanna, Keun has created a very engaging, relatable narrator, drawing on her own experiences in Germany and possibly the time she spent as an émigré in Europe. I’ll finish with a final passage in which Heine reflects on the concept of a life in exile, a proposition that holds precious little appeal for him, primarily due to the sense that one will always remain an outsider at heart irrespective of the country’s welcome.
You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you. (p. 143)