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.