The German writer Irmgard Keun lived a fascinating life. Having enjoyed great success with her first two novels Gilgi, One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (both of which I adored), she found herself blacklisted when the Nazis swept to power in 1933. By 1936, Keun was travelling around Europe in the company of her lover, the Jewish writer Joseph Roth. After Midnight (1937) and Child of All Nations (1938) were written while Keun was in exile abroad, with the writer finally returning to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name – possibly helped by a false newspaper report of her suicide. A final novel, Ferdinand, the Man with the Kind Heart, was published in Germany in 1950 but has only recently been translated into English by Michael Hofmann in 2021.
Ferdinand differs from Keun’s earlier novels by virtue of its focus on a male character. So while Gilgi, Silk Girl and Midnight, all feature strong women, full of determination and life, Ferdinand is narrated by a dandyish daydreamer with a tendency to drift. Consequently, Ferdinand seems to lack the narrative drive of Keun’s previous work, which makes for a somewhat frustrating read (for this reader at least). Nevertheless, there are still various elements to enjoy here, although it’s probably best suited to die-hard Keun fans rather than first-time readers of her work.
Set in post-war Cologne, where black-market trading and other dodgy activities are rife, the novel reads like a series of pen portraits and sketches as our eponymous hero, Ferdinand Timpe, tries to make his way in a rapidly changing world. Just like Ferdinand himself, the narrative meanders around, bumping into various acquaintances and members of the extended Timpe family, each one more eccentric and absurd than the last. Take Ferdinand’s brother Luitpold as an example, a furniture maker in southern Germany – a man who always manages to stay afloat, despite his dire money management.
Luitpold represents the type of good fellow who in nineteenth-century novels gets into trouble by issuing bonds for unreliable friends, allowing bills to fall due, paying allowances to children who were not his, and opening his heart and his wallet to impoverished widows. By the rules of our rough new world he is classified as a noble idiot. (p. 105)
Ferdinand’s future mother-in-law is another strange one, eagerly combing the bombed-out city for all manner of booty from typewriters to louche paintings.
The city seemed wiped out, destroyed. But some things weren’t. In the midst of the ruins there were a few intact, abandoned houses and flats in pallid, ghostly glory. Everything belonged to everyone. Insatiable and obsessed, my forget-me-not-blue mother-in-law went on the prowl, and snaffled among other things as sewing machine, various typewriters, four rugs, seventeen eggcups, a gilt frame, a bombproof door, a poultry cage, and a pompous drawing-room painting depicting a voluptuous woman lying prone in pink, puffy nudity, a blue moth teetering on the end of her pink index finger, and the whole thing somehow casual. (p. 60)
Funnily enough, the stolen painting gives rise to a particularly amusing anecdote when the former owners of the artwork appear on the scene. But despite this troublesome development, Ferdinand’s mother-in-law, Frau Klatte, insists that the painting is a treasured heirloom, passed down through her family from one generation to the next. As far as Frau Klatte sees it, the former owners are ‘awful people’ who are ‘not even properly married’, and a protracted tussle over the item subsequently ensues.
At heart, Ferdinand lacks ambition, which contributes to his rather aimless approach to life. As such, he recognises his lack of suitability for various professions, ranging from teaching and academia to administration and business. In a case of mistaken identity, Ferdinand lands a gig as a writer for Red Dawn, an emerging literary journal, but he struggles to settle on a subject for his story. Eventually though, another job turns up, with Ferdinand acting as a kind of agony aunt for unhappy wives looking to let off steam about their husbands’ shortcomings.
Most women would rather be married unhappily than not at all. Besides they are rarely as unhappy as they think they are. Some have an inborn martyr complex and take suffering for a sign of moral superiority. They like to be pitied. For these wives I have a pained frown in the corner of my mouth and a look of melancholy sympathy. That sees me through, and I don’t even need to speak. (p. 117)
As Ferdinand makes his way through the city, he is also on the lookout for a new suitor for his fiancée, Luise. Having allowed himself to become engaged to Luise before the war, Ferdinand now wishes to extricate himself from the arrangement. In truth, after a stint as a prisoner of war, he really wants to live alone for a while as he adjusts to a world of freedom. The trouble is, there are Luise’s feelings to be considered, hence our protagonist’s quandary on what to do for the best. As the novel draws to a close, an ironic development comes to Ferdinand’s rescue, but I’ll let you discover that for yourself should you decide to read the book.
The novel ends with a party at Cousin Johanna’s place, a reunion of sorts as various friends, relatives and strangers come together, fuelled by an assortment of music and drink. It’s a fitting end to a somewhat disjointed novel – but maybe that’s a perfectly accurate reflection of life in post-war Cologne, shortly after Germany’s currency reform in 1948.
So, in summary then, not an entirely satisfying experience for me, although Keun’s pithy observations on human nature and various aspects of 20th century life are always interesting to read. For other (more positive) views on this book, Grant’s review and Max’s summary are worth reading, accessible via the links.