Translated by Kathie von Ankum
Reviewed by Harriet
If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s called a whore and a bitch.
This pretty much sums up the philosophy of Doris, whose story this is. Pretty, bright, observant and intelligent, she is also uneducated, damaged and conflicted. How can she survive in the world without compromising her rather confused ideals?
It’s 1931, and Doris feels special. She’s convinced she’s not like the other girls in the office where she works – she sometimes feels ‘something wonderful’ going on inside her, and besides, ‘I speak almost without dialect, which makes a difference and gives me a special touch’. When we first meet her, she’s awake in the night, writing in her new black notebook with white paper doves cut out and pasted on the cover. She says she wants to write like a movie because that’s how she sees her life – and soon, she is sure, she will be in the movies. Meanwhile she just has to get through the days in the office, where her boss is constantly reprimanding her for the lack of commas in the letters she types. She’s managed to keep her job so far by giving him ‘sensual looks’, but she knows at some stage he will want more and she smells trouble. And soon enough we learn that he has indeed made a move and she has rejected him in no uncertain terms, so she’s got the sack. What will she do now? She dreams of handsome men and beautiful clothes, but she has no money, having spent her last fifty marks on a forest green hat with a feather. She’d like to be a model, but ends up as an extra in a small theatre company. The other actors treat her condescendingly until she pretends to have an intimate friendship with the director, which increases her popularity but also her anxiety as she’s terrified of getting found out. Eventually she succeeds in getting one line to say in the latest production, by means of locking a budding actress in the bathroom. But, as always in Doris’s life, she blows it, this time by stealing a fur coat from the cloakroom, necessitating a flight to Berlin.
And so Doris’s chaotic life continues. There are jobs from which she always gets sacked, relationships that never work out. Sometimes there’s extreme poverty, and she’s always on the brink of going on the streets, something she’s determined not to do – she has before her the spectre of a young prostitute she knew who ended up committing suicide. But though she won’t label herself that way, Doris often finds herself sleeping with men for money or even for a square meal. She tries to stay hopeful and positive but the overall arc of her life is downwards and by the end she has reduced her hopes and dreams to a tiny compass – she doesn’t want to work, but she’s in danger of starving and her options are severely limited.
For all her faults, Doris remains immensely loveable and it’s impossible not to be rooting for her even when you know in your heart that she’s bound to mess up even the most promising situations. One of the most tragic episodes comes towards the end of the novel when she is literally starving on the streets and is taken up by a kind-hearted man who has been living alone since his wife left him for another man. Ernst gives her a place to sleep and feeds her until she regains her health. Doris is quite sure he has ulterior motives but he never lays a finger on her or makes any other kind of move. From disliking and mistrusting him at first she becomes increasingly fond of him and starts to wish they could be together as lovers. But Ernst is pining for his wife and is too honourable to enter into an affair with Doris. He’s happy to continue to offer her a home, and in her gratitude she does something completely unselfish, but the consequences prove too much for her altruistic impulses and soon she has to move on.
The social setting of this novel is fascinating in itself, taking place as it does just before the Nazi party came to power. There are indications that all is not well in the political sphere – Doris at one stage gets taken up by a wealthy industrialist, whose views she is sickened by:
The industrialist dropped me already. And its all because of politics. Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it. The emcee was a Jew, the one on the bike was a Jew, the one who was dancing was a Jew….So he asks me if I’m Jewish too. My God.I’m not – but I’m thinking if that’s what he likes I’ll do him the favor…
So read this for the insight it gives into Weimar Berlin, read it because it makes you think about the position of women and wonder how much it’s really changed, but above all read it for the wonderfully conveyed voice of a protagonist you’ll never forget.
The Artificial Silk Girl was a bestseller in Germany following its first publication in 1932, only the second novel by Berlin-born author Irmgard Keun. But in 1933 the Nazis came to power and Keun was blacklisted, her books destroyed. After a failed attempt to sue the Nazis for loss of earnings she left Germany and travelled in Europe for several years before returning to her own country under an assumed name. Thanks goodness for Penguin Classics, who have reprinted this remarkable novel.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl, trans. Kathie von Ankum (Penguin Classics, 2019). 978-0241382967, 160pp., paperback original.BUY at Blackwell’s via affiliate link.