Irmgard Keun (6 February 1905 – 5 May 1982) was a German author of novels. She is noted for her portrayals of the life of, especially women and girls, during the Weimar Republic and the early years of Nazi Germany with characters portraying the flapper new woman and written in a style associated with New Objectivity. Her books were banned by Nazi authorities but gained recognition during the final years of her life.
Irmgard Keun was born on 6 February 1905 in Charlottenburg (at the time an independent town, now part of Berlin) to Eduard and Elsa Keun. Her father was an agent for a company that imported petrol, her mother a housewife. Keun later recalled her mother as "stark hausfraulich eingestellt, auf eine sehr schauerliche Weise" (quite domestically inclined, in a very horrible way). She and her family, including her brother Gerd, born in 1910, lived in the city until 1913, when they moved to Cologne. There Keun attended a Lutheran girls' school, from which she graduated in 1921. She worked as a stenotypist, but also attended acting school in Cologne from 1925-1927. Although she had stage roles in Greifswald and Hamburg, these were only somewhat successful, and she decided to abandon her acting career in 1929. Encouraged by Alfred Döblin, she turned to writing.
In 1931 Keun's first novel Gilgi, eine von uns was published and became a success. In 1932 a second novel Das Kunstseidene Mädchen (The Artificial Silk Girl) came out. Although there were allegations that she had plagiarised a novel by Robert Neumann (a claim endorsed by her erstwhile promoter Kurt Tucholsky - and disproven only much later), this novel also became a success. In 1932, Keun married the writer and director Johannes Tralow. They divorced in 1937, as she claimed after 1945, because he was a Nazi sympathizer. However, there is evidence that she stayed in close touch with him well after 1933, and that the reasons may have been much more personal in nature.
In 1933/34, her books were confiscated and banned by the Nazis. In the spring of 1933 she met and fell in love with the Arnold Strauss, a Jewish doctor who wanted to treat her for her alcoholism. Strauss, as a Jew, lost his position at the Berlin hospital that employed him and went to the USA in 1935; however they stayed in touch (and many of their letters survive). Keun continued to publish in Germany after 1935, occasionally using pseudonyms, but after she was finally banned from publishing by the authorities - and after she had tried to sue the government for loss of income, and her final appeal to be admitted to the "Reichsschrifttumskammer" (the official author's association of Nazi Germany) was refused - she went into exile to Belgium and later the Netherlands in 1936. Between sometime in 1936 and 1938 she lived with writer Joseph Roth, while, at the same time pursuing her relationship with Strauss in the US. Invited by Strauss, she even visited him in Norfolk in 1938, yet returned to Europe that same year. In 1940 she returned to Cologne from the Netherlands, where she lived through the war years using an alias. How she managed to do this remains unclear. Keun claimed she seduced a Nazi official in the Netherlands and, however that may be, her cover back in Germany may have been helped by the fact that the British Daily Telegraph (among others) reported her suicide in Amsterdam on 16 August 1940.
Keun received great acclaim for her sharp-witted books, most notably from such well-known authors as Alfred Döblin and Kurt Tucholsky, who said about her, "A woman writer with humor, check this out!". Keun utilizes her characters from her novels to highlight and critique the social problems of the early 1930s. Keun's biggest criticisms of consumerism and the complexity of a feminine identity are displayed through the female protagonists' relationships with men. Breaking the archetypal mold, Keun's characters offer depth to the feminine identity and challenge the idea that a woman must be placed into a category.
She counted among her friends such literary notables as Egon Erwin Kisch, Hermann Kesten, Stefan Zweig, Ernst Toller, Ernst Weiss, and Heinrich Mann. From 1936 to 1938, she had a romantic relationship with Joseph Roth, a relationship that at first had a positive effect on her literary output. She worked together with Roth, traveling with him to various cities such as Paris, Wilna, Lemberg, Warsaw, Vienna, Salzburg, Brussels and Amsterdam. After the German invasion of the Netherlands, she returned in 1940 to Nazi Germany. Protected by false reports of her own suicide, she lived there undercover until 1945.
- Gilgi, eine von uns (1931), novel, translated into English as Gilgi, One of Us 
- Das kunstseidene Mädchen (1932), novel, translated into English as The Artificial Silk Girl 
- Das Mädchen, mit dem die Kinder nicht verkehren durften (1936), teenage novel, translated into English as Grown-ups Don't Understand (UK) and The Bad Example (US) 
- Nach Mitternacht (1937), novel, translated into English as After Midnight
- D-Zug dritter Klasse (1938), novel (Third Class Express)
- Kind aller Länder (1938), novel, translated into English as Child of All Nations
- Bilder und Gedichte aus der Emigration (1947) (Pictures and poems of emigration)
- Nur noch Frauen... (1949) (Only women left)
- Ich lebe in einem wilden Wirbel. Letters to Arnold Strauss, 1933-1947 (1988)
- Ferdinand, der Mann mit dem freundlichen Herzen (1950), Novel (Ferdinand the kind-hearted man)
- Scherzartikel (1951) (Joke object)
- Wenn wir alle gut wären (1954), Short stories, translated into English as If we were all good
- Blühende Neurosen (1962) (Neuroses in full flower)
A summary of "Gilgi, eine von uns" (Gilgi, one of us)
The novel (published 1931) is based in Cologne, and was an overnight sensation, shocking much of the still conservative population for its honest portrayal of modern life. The protagonist is a lower class stenotypist called Gisela, or Gilgi, aged twenty-one. She has an affair with Martin, a wealthy middle-aged bohemian business man. The main thread of the narrative deals with this, but also in the subplot we find out that Gilgi is anxious to trace her real parents. Gilgi gradually discovers the identity of her supposed natural mother, who is a seamstress, but when Gilgi actually discovers her, she is living in desperate squalor, and Gilgi discovers that what her adoptive mother had told her was a ruse to hide Gilgi's true background. The seamstress had been paid to take on Gilgi as her own child, and in fact Gilgi's true identity is that she is the illegitimate child of a wealthy and still prominent family.
The novel opens with Gilgi working as a legal secretary. Gilgi is a structured and ordered person at the beginning, living with her parents; she takes English, Spanish and French language classes at night, so that she is less likely to be unemployed in the mounting unemployment crisis. Additionally, she rises early every morning to do a strict exercise and beauty regime, which she is obviously proud of. After falling in love with Martin, Gilgi quits her job, and abandons her former lifestyle (including the independence she was so proud of), and she begins a life of leisure supported by him.
Gilgi later meets a former colleague of hers, Hans, who has been forced to make a living as a door-to-door salesman, a job which brings in barely enough to sustain him, his wife, and two children. On a second encounter, she finds out that Hans will be imprisoned if he cannot raise 500 marks before the end of the day. Gilgi is shocked into action, and she decides to seek out her real, wealthy mother to ask her for the money. She finds her, and the meeting turns out to be something of an anti-climax, as she is so preoccupied with raising the money to help Hans that she forgets to ask about the identity of her real father. Gilgi's mother is unable to get cash at the last minute, so she gives her all of the jeweled rings that she is wearing.
However, when Gilgi returns home and encounters Martin, he misunderstands her garbled account of events, and, assuming that Hans is an ex-lover, he begs Gilgi not to deliver the jewels to Hans, but to stay with him instead. Gilgi does, but the next morning she learns that Hans has committed suicide, gassing not only himself, but also his whole family.
At the close of the novel, Gilgi has left Martin, and is moving to Berlin, where she will go back to work once more, and raise the child she is expecting as a single mother. So, in effect, she returns to her former independent lifestyle, and makes a brave choice to be alone as a single mother: something which was still somewhat of a social stigma in Weimar Germany. In a subplot, Gilgi tries to procure an abortion, but decides not to go through with it.
Important themes dealt with in the novel include sexual harassment, the concept of the "New Woman", and labour, domesticity, and femininity in the Weimar Republic. After being invited to dinner by her boss, Gilgi arranges for a friend to turn up at just the right moment to rescue her from his predatory advances. In the Weimar Republic, Gilgi epitomised the "New woman" that so fascinated contemporaries. There was an explosion in the number of female office workers in both Germany and France after 1920. Popular press and literature often promoted these professions. Women were attracted by the promise of greater freedom as empowered and emancipated working women and city dwellers with lots of opportunities in their leisure time. Women in the office were seen as the epitome of modernity, although the reality was often very different.
There are definite similarities between the author, Irmgard Keun, and the protagonist, as Keun also lived in Cologne and was a stenotypist. However, the novel is not autobiographical. Between 1933 and 1934, Keun's books were prohibited by the Nazis.
The protagonist Gilgi takes on a cold, matter-of-fact air that was previously only associated with young men. She declares, in her own words, that modern women need an ice-cold Sachlichkeit (matter of fact-ness) and the air of a Strassenjunge (street kid) about them to succeed. So, her effort to assert her independence involves adopting male roles, rather than creating a new, female interpretation. Thus, the author shows us that women's progress in the 1920s was still subject to serious socioeconomic limitations.
A summary of "das kunstseidene Mädchen" (The Artificial Silk Girl)
Keun's second novel, "The Artificial Silk Girl" was originally published in 1932, then released again in 2011 by the Other Press. The novel is based in Berlin during the bustling Weimar Republic. Doris is our Artificial Silk Girl, and informs the reader of her daily life through her diary as she meets and greets various men to entertain her. Her dream is to obtain a many to help elevate her to the top of the social ladder, meanwhile giving her funds to divulge in her expensive lifestyle. However she also desires having the freedom from being a traditional wife, even though she lacks effort to put forth towards her own success.
In her interactions with men, she is simultaneously the consumer and the product. She constantly shifts her appearance and identity in order to “sell” herself to the men she sees. And through her sex appeal and social graces, she is able to manipulate men; therefore granting her freedom to choose and also establishing control within her relationship dynamic. Doris desires to be boundless and independent, in which this lifestyle grants her, but simultaneously allows for her to have no responsibility in working for the life she wants; which is appealing to her.
Meanwhile, some of her ideas of how a man should care for a woman, and her ideas about romantic relationships are a product of an outdated time. Through Doris’ serious relationships, we see the absolutes of each. In Doris's Relationship with Brenner, her appearance is not evaluated due to his blindness. However, Doris is only given affection, and cannot be granted any glamorous lifestyle, or be provided for like she believes a man should do for a woman. And in her with her relationship with Ernst, she is granted an attractive lifestyle, in which she is expected to do no real work; however, she receives no real love.
Only through the failure of both of these relationships does Doris conclude two things. First, she comprehends the challenge of being a ‘modern woman’ ; having to hastily adapt to societal expectations and progressive feminine values that are different than her own domestic mother’s. Second, she realizes that she can no longer be akin to ‘artificial silk’ if she is to find lasting happiness.
Despite Doris’ tragic failure of all her relationships (due to her own accord), she never loses her vivacity, and still maintains a semblance of hope for her future even though she knows that adversity is certain. With this, Keun creates a positive message for young women, but also maintains a sense of realism when it comes to dealing with strife.
The character of Doris, in The Artificial Silk girl, brilliantly conveys many of the confused social values and a shifting desire for power that women of her own time, as well as women today can accurately relate to. Through a manipulation of sex appeal and a natural charisma, Doris is able to attract men to provide for her without having to commit her dutifulness and virtue to them. Doris gains power by staying above romantic affiliations, and reducing her interactions with men to business transactions. Doris’ tactful ‘business’ allows her to have the best of both worlds: independence, and irresponsibility. Doris maintains a semblance of power by choosing her ‘business’ partner, and taking the resources she gains. However, it is not a power that is admired because she uses manipulation to gain it.
In 1960, Julien Duvivier directed a film based on "The Artificial Silk Girl" called The High Life (La Grand Vie) which focuses more on the romantic aspects of the novel than the additional social criticism that Keun imbedded in the novel.
Works about Keun
- Stefanie Arend, Ariane Martin (Hrsgg.): Irmgard Keun 1905/2005. Deutungen und Dokumente. Aisthesis Verlag, Bielefeld 2005, ISBN 3-89528-478-5.
- Carmen Bescansa: Gender- und Machttransgression im Romanwerk Irmgard Keuns. (Mannheimer Studien zur Literatur- und Kulturwissenschaft; Bd. 42). Röhrig Verlag, St. Ingbert 2007, ISBN 978-3-86110-424-7.
- Heike Beutel, Anna Barbara Hagin (Hrsg.): Irmgard Keun. Zeitzeugen, Bilder und Dokumente erzählen. Emons, Köln 1995, ISBN 3-924491-48-8.
- Hiltrud Häntzschel: Irmgard Keun. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2001, ISBN 3-499-50452-9.
- Ingrid Marchlewitz: Irmgard Keun. Leben und Werk. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 1999, ISBN 3-8260-1621-1.
- Liane Schüller: Vom Ernst der Zerstreuung. Schreibende Frauen am Ende der Weimarer Republik: Marieluise Fleißer, Irmgard Keun und Gabriele Tergit. Aisthesis Verlag, Bielefeld 2005, ISBN 3-89528-506-4.
- Volker Weidermann: Das Buch der verbrannten Bücher. Köln: Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 2008; ISBN 978-3-462-03962-7. (Zu Keun Seite 188-191)
- Much of Keun's biography is shrouded in mystery - or mystification - considerably by her own making. During the course of her life she told numerous stories, many of which have been debunked, while, on the other hand, some seemingly unlikely episodes turned out to be true - or at least feasible. Her biographer Hiltrud Häntzschel states: "Irmgard Keun hatte zur Wahrheit ihrer Lebensumstände ein ganz spezielles Verhältnis: mal aufrichtig, mal leichtsinnig, mal erfinderisch aus Sehnsucht nach Erfolg, mal phantasievoll aus Lust, unehrlich aus Not, mal verschwiegen aus Schonung." ('Irmgard Keun had a very special relationship with the facts of her life: sometimes she was straight-forward, sometimes careless, sometimes inventive because she longed for success, sometimes willfully inventive, dishonest out of necessity, sometimes discreet to protect.') Consequently all biographical statements based on her own statements have to be treated with great caution. Hiltrud Häntzschel: Irmgard Keun, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, p. 7
- Letter by Tucholsky to Keun, 16 July 1932, in which he states that while, on first reading the novel he had recognised similarities to Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, it was only that after other people pointed him to Neumann's novel Karriere, that he realised the plagiarism.
- Hiltrud Häntzschel discusses this in detail and concludes that the claim was unjustified, p. 41-43
- "Blacklisted, exiled, mistreated, forgotten... the unsinkable Irmgard Keun » MobyLives". Melville House Books. Retrieved 2016-12-12.
- see Hiltrud Häntzschel, p.45
- see the Strauss Family Papers at Old Dominion University
- see Hiltrud Häntzschel, p.101-113
- unsinkable Irmgard Keun
- Life of Kaun
- Amazon. Melville House https://www.amazon.com/Gilgi-Neversink-Irmgard-Keun/dp/1612192777/ref=la_B001HOZOWW_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1481574302&sr=1-2&refinements=p_82%3AB001HOZOWW.
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- Amazon. Other Press https://www.amazon.com/Artificial-Silk-Girl-Irmgard-Keun/dp/1590514548/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481574481&sr=8-1&keywords=artificial+silk+girl. Retrieved 12 December 2016.
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- Amazon. Harcourt, Brace https://www.amazon.com/bad-example-Irmgard-Keun/dp/B0007E20RU.
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- After midnight on Melville House Books
- Child of all nations on Amazon
- Tenz, Courtney. "Novelist Irmgard Keun's Weimar-era tales find a new audience". DW: Made for Minds. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 11 December 2016.
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