Irmgard Keun was born in Berlin (Charlottenburg) to Eduard and Elsa Charlotte Keun on February 6, 1905. 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 then landed stage roles in Greifswald and Hamburg, these were only somewhat successful, and she decided to abandon her acting career in 1929. Encouraged by German writer Alfred Döblin, she turned her hand to writing.
In 1932, she married the writer and director Johannes Tralow. They divorced in 1937.
Keun's first novel, Gilgi - One of Us, made her famous, as well as her next book and best-seller, The Artificial Silk Girl.
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!". 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 synopsis 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.
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)
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