Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne. First published in 1931, and subsequently banned by the Nazi authorities, Gilgi (One of Us), was Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, announcing its author as a powerful new voice in German literature.

The novella revolves around Gisela Kron, affectionally known as ‘Gilgi’, a twenty-one-year-old secretary living and working in Cologne. Gilgi is smart, resourceful and efficient. She works hard during the day, barely stopping to catch her breath; then at night she studies languages to improve her prospects, diligently applying herself to each task at hand. Despite living at home with her rather conservative adoptive parents, Gilgi rents a place elsewhere, a room of her own where she can study, be herself and work on her translations.

Idleness is anathema to Gilgi. She has little time for those who appear bored or lifeless. For Gilgi, progression is everything – she wants to work, to get on, to be ‘self-supporting and independent’. Hopefully she’ll save enough money to have her own apartment in a few years’ time, maybe even start her own business if everything goes well. Whatever it takes, Gilgi has the tenacity to succeed – even where men are concerned, or so she thinks…

Gilgi is an experienced girl. She knows men, and what they variously want and don’t want, and how this is betrayed by the tone of their voices, their expressions, and their movements. If a man and a boss like Herr Reuter speaks in an uncertain voice, he’s in love, and if he’s in love, he wants something. Sooner or later. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s surprised, offended, and angry. (p. 10)

One day, just when she’s least expecting it, into her life comes Martin, a charismatic free spirit in his early forties. In many ways, Martin seems the complete opposite to Gilgi; he is something of a vagabond, an idler who lacks ambition, viewing work as a means to an end, a way of funding his travels in a rather haphazard way. And yet, despite her fierce sense of independence, Gilgi is attracted to him, hoping that he might stay, preferably for a while.

…she’s not some sentimental goose, she doesn’t need anyone, she gets by on her own. She knows what she wants to do, and knows that she can do what she wants to do. And the whole time she’s telling Martin this, she grips his hand as though she was afraid that he could suddenly stand up and disappear, never to be seen again. He mustn’t do that, he must stay with her, for a long time yet… (p. 65)

Before long, Gilgi moves in with Martin, joining him in the beautiful flat he is looking after for an absent friend. Nevertheless, the pair have little time to spend with one another, especially with Gilgi’s translation work in the evenings. Money is a complication for the couple, too. While Gilgi can afford to pay her way, Martin’s sources of income are more meagre. He has a modest allowance from some capital invested in his brother’s business – just about enough to get by on his own, but nothing more.

In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction. Before Martin appeared, Gilgi always knew what she wanted from life with 100% certainty. Now, however, these beliefs are being tested, to the point where Gilgi begins to question her aims, actions and ultimate limits.

Gilgi loves Martin with a depth and intensity she has never experienced before; and as the narrative progresses, she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Ultimately, it is the attempted reconciliation of these opposing forces that drives Keun’s novella forward.

Everything’s fine, you thought, when you moved in with Martin. Nothing’s fine. 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. You don’t want to give up the first life, and you can’t give up the second one. (p. 85)

Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging ‘voice’. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, which are often in a state of flux. Like any young woman in the early stages of adulthood, Gilgi discovers how complex love can be – a state that makes one feel very protected one day and completely exposed the next. 

Interestingly, Keun seems to move seamlessly between first-, second-, and third-person narration throughout the book – a technique that sounds as if it might be quite confusing, but in reality feels anything but. It works beautifully on the page, giving the story a sense of vibrancy and fluidity to match Gilgi’s personality. The writing is wonderful – full of sharp observations about characters and life. I especially loved this description of Gilgi’s birth mother, whom Gilgi meets for the first time towards the end of the tale.

As coolly and uninhibitedly as the casting director of a revue, Gilgi examines the petite, elegant lady who is standing before her. Doesn’t impress me. How to classify her type? Title character in a mediocre magazine serial. Quite good figure – style a little undecided – half coolly fashionable American girl, half older lady who’s kept slim by dancing with gigolos. A touch too expensively dressed – the usual tasteful but slightly impersonal uniform of the traveler in first class. (p. 162)

In many respects, Gilgi (One of Us) is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. In summary then, Keun has created an evocative, thought-provoking narrative featuring a strong female character, very much a precursor to some of her later work.

Coincidentally, Max has just listed Keun’s 1937 novella, After Midnight in his 2021 reading highlights, so it’s great to see this writer getting some much-deserved attention!

Gilgi, One of Us is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

36 thoughts on “Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great (re-)entry point to her work, very much the foundation for Silk Girl and After Midnight. I haven’t read Child of All Nations, so it’s impossible for me to compare. But putting that aside, I do think you’d like this one – or at least find it interesting!

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    I’ve read this and liked it a lot. I still remember her saying, when she sees her friends are serving, “What’s being done to people? What? What? You ought to help each other…”
    I find the title interesting too – “one of us” – it’s a kind of parable.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I love the way Gilgi speaks her mind without filtering anything out – at least, that’s how it comes across. I’m with you on the title, too – there’s a message in it, a sense of universality or wider meaning. I find Keun a fascinating author in her own right, but her links to other German luminaries are interesting as well. Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig, Heinrich Mann…the list goes on!

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Great review! Child of All Nations was one of my perpetually unread shelf warmers until last year, when I finally got around to reading it. I liked it quite a bit, without being totally wowed (well done child narrator but I thought the second half rambled a bit); well enough, anyway, to put Keun on my “read more of her” list. I, too, noticed that Max had put Keun’s After Midnight on his highlights list. Either that or Gilgi will most likely be my next Keun. As you say, she’s a fascinating writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I definitely get the sense that Child is not Keun’s strongest book, so it useful to have my expectations lowered somewhat in advance of going in. Funnily enough, I actually preferred the rawness of Gilgi to the complexity of After Midnight, although they’re both very good books. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of your next encounter with Keun, whichever you decide to read. (And I love your use of the phrase ‘shelf warmers’. I’ve got a fair few of those myself!)

      Reply
  3. Tredynas Days

    I’ll return to this when I finally get round to reading it. Like others who have commented, I’ve long intended trying her fiction, having read many positive things about it.

    Reply
  4. Jane

    What a wonderful book to start the year with! She sounds a compelling protagonist and this is a new author for me so some exploring to do!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely! Keun is very good at portraying these spirited female protagonists, largely by channelling some of her own experiences and those of her contemporaries, I suspect. Gilgi would be a good one to begin with, if you’re ever minded to give her a try.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You would like this, I think. There’s also her 1932 novella, The Artificial Silk Girl, most of which takes place in Berlin. If anything, it’s even better than this one.

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    This sounds excellent, I’ve read The Artificial Silk Girl and Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun and really want to read more. I love the sound of this protagonists, that conflict between independence and a satisfying relationship. It really does sound like a quite modern, forward thinking novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. It does feel quite progressive for its time, and nuanced too. I think you’d really enjoy it. A possibility for your feminist book group, perhaps?

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    After being so impressed with After Midnight this past year, I wanted to follow up with more of Keun’s books especially those written after that one, but this also looks like one to explore. She does write young, female protagonists so very well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely. I can’t help but feel that there must be a semi-autobiographical element in these novels, such is the sharpness and authenticity of Keun’s female characters. Somewhat controversially, I think I preferred Gilgi to After Midnight, although both books are very good!

      Reply
  7. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A compelling, evocative review Jacqui that makes me interested to discover this author. Excellent themes/conflict to explore plus that unfiltered approach and the confronting yet little understood truth of what coming face to face with a birth mother for the first time in adulthood reveals.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like Keun, Claire, and Gilgi would be a good one to try to get a sense of her themes and style. I like the way her young women say what they feel, without worrying too much about the consequences – the unfiltered aspect you’ve homed in on is very much part of their charm.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post as always, Jacqui. Interestingly, although I own this I don’t think I’ve read it – the Keuns I can be sure of are After Midnight, Silk Girl and Child. Of the three I definitely thought After Midnight was the best so I’m keen to read this one sooner rather than later to see what I think of it. Keun certaintly does create some wonderfully sparky protagonists and I agree that it’s great she’s getting more attention now.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I need to re-read After Midnight at some point as it’s the one I remember least clearly! From what I recall, it seemed more complex and polished than Gilgi, but somehow I preferred the rawness and vivid nature of the latter. I’ll be interested to see what you make of it…

      Reply
  9. Grier

    I bought The Artificial Silk Girl after you mentioned that it was inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and haven’t got to it yet but will move it to the top of the stack. This one interests me, too, and I’ll look out for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, brilliant! I really hope you like it, Grier. She’s a terrific writer, like a more positive version of Jean Rhys in some respects, partly because her female protagonists have a degree of agency or spirit that Rhys’ seem to lack.

      Reply
  10. jenniferbeworr

    Your appreciation for this novel is infectious, Jacqui. I’ll happily look out for Keun going forward!

    Reply
  11. 1streading

    I love the character of Gilgi and, like you, find her very modern. Your review is spot on – and the tension between her ambition and her love is one that is easy to identify with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant! Yes, it feels very progressive for its time. The sort of story that could have been set in the 1960s or ’70s (or even much closer to today). No wonder Keun’s books are resonating with a whole new generation of readers almost a century later!

      Reply
  12. madamebibilophile

    I was googling Weimar novels the other day and this passed me by, so thank you very much for putting it on my list Jacqui! Gilgi sounds so wonderfully portrayed. The movement between first/second/third person is really tricky so it’s impressive how Keun manages it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, how fortuitous! I think it’s a fascinating period of history that still holds an interest today – and the return of Cabaret to a West End theatre is testament to that view. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book – it seems right up your street.

      Reply
  13. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  14. Marcie McCauley

    This sounds so satisfying. With a whiff of Anita Brookner’s young woman with bookishness scene. But, it sounds like, more energy and confidence, maybe. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and I particularly like the contradiction in the quotation about the independent spirit and the gripped hand.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that quote is very representative of the conflicted emotions Gilgi experiences once she has fallen for Martin – a need to maintain her independence coupled with her wish to feel loved and desired. I’m so glad you’ve picked up on this!

      Reply

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