‘Das kunstseidene Mädchen’ (‘The Artificial Silk Girl’) by Irmgard Keun (Review)

The first few weeks of this year’s German Literature Month have been dominated by male writers, but fortunately I did get around to buying a couple of books by women a while back, and they’ll be the focus this week.  Next time out, I’ll be returning to an old favourite, but today I’m trying a new (old) writer – although I suspect that for once, many of my readers will have got there well before me.  Let’s take a trip to Berlin, then, to meet a young woman hoping to strike it lucky in the big city – and prepared to do almost anything to do so.

Irmgard Keun’s Das kunstseidene Mädchen (The Artificial Silk Girl) is the story of Doris, an eighteen-year-old secretary living somewhere in Germany in 1931.  She’s an ambitious soul, if slightly lazy, and it isn’t long before she throws in her job, next finding herself as an extra in a stage production.  Still, despite being slightly closer to her dreams of riches and fame, the acting life doesn’t quite work out either, and after a couple of unfortunate incidents, she’s compelled to make a quick exit, eventually landing in Berlin.

The artful young woman decides that this is where she needs to be, and she begins work on making a name for herself, scouting out all the best places to be seen and to find men to care for her and her needs.  This is just the start of a rollercoaster ride for our artificial silk girl as she does her best to pass herself off as the real deal, hoping to find a man willing to pay her way.  The problem is that given her background, will any man she really wants want her – and will she be satisfied once she’s found him?

Keun’s novel is one I’ve seen many people mention over the years, a fun romp through pre-Hitler Berlin.  Das kunstseidene Mädchen was a huge success on publication, but shortly after, Keun’s work became one of many victims of the Nazis and their book burning (which, of course, makes it compulsory reading!).  After being relegated to the shadows for a good while, the writer’s novel were rediscovered decades later, and there seems to have been a recent boom in the Anglosphere as well.

As you’d expect, the novel is all about the intrepid Doris, and is actually told by the young woman, too, in her own words:

Und ich denke, daß es gut ist, wenn ich alles beschreibe, weil ich ein ungewöhnlicher Mensch bin.  Ich denke nicht an Tagebuch – das ist lächerlich für ein Mädchen von achtzehn und auch sonst auf der Höhe.  Aber ich will schreiben wie Film, denn so ist mein Leben und wird noch mehr so sein.
p.8 (Ullstein, 2020)

And I think it’s a good idea if I describe everything, because I’m an unusual person.  I’m not thinking of a diary – that’s ridiculous for a girl of eighteen and not really the done thing, anyway.  But I want to write like films, then that’s how my life is and will be even more so.
*** (my translation)

She describes herself as unusual, which is true in some ways, with Doris certainly finding ways to stand out from the crowd.  However, you suspect that this is a story repeated thousands of times over every year, that of a young woman with dreams of a life beyond her means, with Keun’s heroine just one of many hoping to find a better life in the big city.

One of the more interesting aspects of Das kunstseidene Mädchen is Doris’ character, which is ambiguous to say the least.  While she dabbles in acting, her true occupation is finding men who will make her path through life a little easier, providing her with free meals, drinks, a bit of cash and good times in return for company and, well, you know.  When things don’t go her way, she’s not above taking things that don’t belong to her, hence her swift move to Berlin.

Yet the more we get to know her, the more she reveals of a softer, more generous side.  One of her first actions on arriving in the capital is to help a woman with labour pains, staying to help her through the first night.  Later, she spends time with a blind soldier living downstairs, keeping him company when his exhausted wife no longer wants to talk to him.  In fact, even when she’s out on the town, looking for victims, there’s an ethical side to her behaviour.  On one occasion, while talking with her latest meal ticket, she comes to a sobering realisation:

Denn er hängt an seiner Familie.  Und das merkte ich nach und nach, mir schmeckte der Wein nicht.  Ich hätte sein mögen mit einem, der nachts Geld ausgeben kann, das ihm morgens nicht fehlt. (p.91)

Because he cares for his family.  And I gradually realised that, the wine lost its taste.  I would have liked to be with someone who can spend money in the evening that he won’t miss the next morning. ***

Still, there are plenty of men out there who do have that money, and whose behaviour allows Doris to repress her principles and morals.  Here Keun cleverly sketches the world of 1931 Berlin, with people scrambling for money, casual anti-Semitism rampant and well-founded fears of a future war.

In critic Annette Keck’s eight-page take on the book that’s included in my edition, there’s a distinct focus on class issues.  Keun shows how Doris’s background will always hold her back, including several examples of her lack of knowledge, something she wants to work on without really knowing how to.  She’s a girl with an aura, and a talent for making men comfortable, but she doesn’t have that certain something, the solidity of a middle-class upbringing, to keep the men she finds, or find a better one.

Das kunstseidene Mädchen is an interesting novel, and very funny in places.  Keun skilfully lets her creation reveal herself in her journal, exposing not only her cheery manner and insights into men, but also the naïvety she unwittingly shows in places.  If I’m honest, though, I probably didn’t like the book quite as much as many other readers seem to have.  One reason for this was the chatty, fragment-laden style of the journal.  This wasn’t really something for me, even if I could see how well it was done.

Still, it was an enjoyable read, and Doris is undoubtedly a superb literary creation, one who will linger long in the memory of most readers.  As we follow the ups and downs of a young woman hoping to become someone special, we wonder if she’ll be destroyed in the attempt, or whether she’ll manage to settle for something less.  There’s only one way to find out, and with an English-language version available from Penguin Modern Classics, in Kathie von Ankum’s translation, you have no excuse for not giving it a try…

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