Hiding in Plain Sight

The Irrepressible, Brilliant Irmgard Keun

By Richard Byrne

Volker Weidermann's Ostend (Pantheon, 176 pages, $24.95) takes its title from the Dutch seaside resort that provided a temporary haven in 1936 for a number of literary exiles from the Third Reich. At its heart, the book is a slim but powerful meditation on the friendship and rivalry between two of the most notable of those exiles: Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth.

Ostend's shimmering evanescence fits its subject perfectly. The brief idyll Zweig and Roth shared before their eventual personal tragedies came in a season when Europe's doom shifted irrevocably from impending to all-too-real. That summer of 1936 was the moment of Spain's bloody coup and descent into cataclysmic war. It was also the high-water mark of Nazi propaganda at the Olympic Games in Berlin. By 1939, Roth found an end to his decades-long quest to drink himself to death in Paris. And Zweig's exile proved restless, peripatetic and agitated, despite his wealth and international success. He and his wife, Lotte Zweig, committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, just before Midway and Stalingrad turned the tide of the World War II.

Weidermann's book is steeped in sadness, yet one personage in Ostend shines out brightly and insistently in the chatter of anxious émigré café talk: German novelist Irmgard Keun. Buoyant and bubbling over with charm and talent, Keun traveled to the North Sea to escape her own increasing difficulties with the Nazis. Her first two novels – Gilgi, One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (1932) – were international successes, but their modernity and frank sensuality (and clear distaste for Germany's creeping fascism) landed them on proscription lists and bonfires with works by Zweig, Roth, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann.

Weidermann relates that when Keun first turned up in Holland, she met with the writer and editor Hermann Kesten, who later described the meeting:

Her white silk blouse and her blond hair fluttered as if in the wildest wind, her eyes and her hands spoke volumes too, and she talked both from her heart and her head. She was naïve and brilliant, witty and despairing, folksy and fiery and no longer a girl you wanted to go dancing with, but a prophetess in accusatory mode, a chiding preacher, a political creature watching an entire civilization silt up. With every fiber she talked and laughed and mocked and mourned. 

A few days later, in Ostend, Keun fell hard (almost instantly) for Roth. She became his lover, fellow desperate drinker, and writing partner, traveling through Europe with Roth until his jealousy and despair finally sank the relationship in January 1938.

Ostend only scratches the surface of Keun's dazzling body of work and topsy-turvy life. Keun instigated a lawsuit against the Nazis for banning her books. She also was one of the very few who escaped into exile only to sneak back into Nazi Germany in 1940 with an illegal passport and a faked suicide covering her tracks.

Keun was born in Berlin in 1905. Her family moved to Cologne late in her childhood, where she studied acting, and she performed in theatres in Hamburg and Greifswald before moving back to Cologne in 1929. According to Keun, she traded acting for writing fiction on the advice of Alfred Döblin (author of the epic Weimar novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz) whom she met when Döblin visited Cologne.

Döblin apparently was impressed by a tour of the city Keun gave him on that visit, and if it was anything like the sharply-drawn portrait of Cologne in her first novel, Gilgi, One of Us (translated by Geoff Wilkes as Gilgi and published by Melville House in 2013), one can see what impressed him. Searching for a friend, the title character walks through streets in the old town of Cologne where "[i]f you stretched your arms out you could touch the houses on both sides with your fingertips" to arrive a sleazy wine bar:

What a depressing joint! Red-and-white paper streamers are hanging down from the ceiling, a few lanterns with red paper shades are swaying back and forth over the piano. A fat bald man is stretched out at the bar, two traveling salesmen are sitting in the corner opposite to Gilgi, one with a girl on his lap... Both the traveling salesmen are shouting with laughter, probably because that's part of the experience, and because tomorrow they'll want to tell everyone else what a great time they had. Two battered sample-cases are lying neglected beneath the table.

Keun's second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie van Ankum and published by Other Press in 2002), followed in 1932. The novel follows Doris, an actress who moves to Berlin and lurches gamely but penuriously through the wicked city. The Artificial Silk Girl is an even more tough-minded and gloriously descriptive book, and it is among the best snapshots of Berlin at the last gasp of the dirty, fractious Weimar era.  

Keun's two Weimar novels show that she possessed immense skills as a writer from the very start. Her intellect is omnivorous, and her writing luxuriates in sharp descriptive language. Yet she also commands a fierce emotional intelligence that gives her books a moral – but never moralizing – thrust. After one unhappy assignation, the narrator of The Artificial Silk Girl observes:

So I washed my face. It was a dark morning and I saw his face in bed, and it made me feel angry and disgusted. Sleeping with a stranger you don't care about makes a woman bad. You have to know what you're doing it for. Money or love.

So I left. It was five in the morning. The air was white and cold and wet like a sheet on a laundry line.

The irrepressible spirit and candor of Keun's writing – and her status as a popular woman writer with no love for the new regime – made her books an obvious target for the Nazis. But she attempted to make a go of the new regime after Hitler took power in 1933, despite the fact that her first two books were banned.

Looking back, it's hard to understand why anti-Nazi writers like Keun or playwright and novelist Ödön von Horváth – who also stayed on in Hitler's Germany for a few years before being driven into exile – would think it possible to do so. Many of Horváth's classic plays produced before 1934, including Sladek, The Black Soldier, Italian Night, and Tales from the Vienna Woods, are biting attacks on the Nazis' thuggish paramilitary methods, and the intellectual and moral rot of Germany and Austria's middle class that allowed them to triumph.

One reason that Keun and Horváth lingered on in a Germany that sank quickly into totalitarianism is they did so without immediate risk. Prominent Jewish writers like Zweig and Roth, or Communist fellow travelers like Bertolt Brecht, were compelled to flee immediately upon Hitler's ascent to power. Horváth even made a successful application to join the Third Reich's literary union, which was designed to weed out Jews and political undesirables. Membership was mandatory to publish anything in Nazi Germany. Not surprisingly, Horváth wrote nothing of lasting consequence in the years when he stayed in Nazi Germany. His brilliance only blossomed again in a second wave of plays and novels written in two years of exile before his untimely death in Paris in 1938.

Keun suffered even more keenly as she stayed on in Germany. She married (and became quickly disenchanted with) Johannes Tralow – a director and writer who somehow thrived in Weimar and Nazi Germany, and later become a cultural official in East Germany. Records from the Third Reich show that her books were often targeted as unsuitable for libraries and reading rooms. Her application to be a member of the writer's union was rejected, but Keun did manage to place a few articles in newspapers.

Eventually indignation or frustration (or a combination of the two) finally bubbled to the surface. In October 1935, Keun took the audacious and reckless step of suing the government for the income she lost when her first two books were confiscated and banned. In her action, Keun claimed that her income had plummeted from thousands of Deutschmarks a month to less than one hundred. 

Keun's suit was dismissed quickly – and she had to pay a fine for articles she had placed when not a union member. She appealed for another hearing and was turned down in April 1936, which also resulted in her arrest and interrogation. She was released, however, and turned up in Holland by May. Tralow was so upset and affrighted by her actions that he sent a letter to the writer's union notifying them that he'd initiated divorce proceedings against her. The divorce was eventually finalized in 1937.

By then, Keun had long abandoned Tralow for an affair with Jewish doctor, Arnold Strauss, who eventually fled to the United States. Much of what we know about her years of exile and her time with Joseph Roth come from a selection of letters to Strauss – who had moved to America – published in 1988 as Ich lebe in einem wilden Wirbel (I Live in a Wild Eddy). But even more revealing than the letters, however, are the pair of magnificent novels – After Midnight and Child of All Nations – that Keun wrote in her new position as an exile.

After Midnight (translated by Anthea Bell and published by Melville House in 2011) is a devastating account of life in Frankfurt in the days after Hitler visits the town in 1935. The novel literally reeks of paranoia and fear. Neighbors report on neighbors for pleasure and profit, as the three typewriters in the local Gestapo office are "clattering away steadily and inexorably." (Keun clearly put her memory of interrogation to excellent use.)

How efficiently and comprehensively the Nazis perverted or silenced the intellectual class that remained in Germany is a key theme of the book. The moral compass of the book is a rumpled and profane journalist named Heini (who bears a passing resemblance to Roth), who utters this very memorable summation of the relation of art to politics in Hitler's Germany:

This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn't need writers. There's no literature in Paradise. Can't have writers without imperfection around them, can't have poets. The purest of lyric poets needs to yearn for perfection. Once you've got perfection, poetry stops. Once criticism's no longer possible, you have to keep quiet. What are you going to write about God in Paradise? What are you going to write about the angels' wings? Cut too short this season, worn too long? They're neither one nor the other. Perfection renders words unnecessary. 

As Gilgi translator Geoff Wilkes observes in an afterword appended to the translation of After Midnight (still the best account we have of Keun's life in English), After Midnight was so damning that its initial publisher, Dutch émigré press Alert de Lange, dropped the book. Keun's novel was taken up by another Dutch émigré publisher, Querido, which also brought out Child of All Nations and another book, D-Zug dritter Klasse ("Third Class Express") in 1938, just before the Nazis turned their tanks toward Western Europe.   

Child of All Nations (translated by Michael Hoffmann and published by The Overlook Press in 2008) is narrated by a precocious nine-year-old named Kully, who's already been hardened by the exigencies of her parents' émigré existence. (Indeed, she is left behind more than once in hotels and restaurants as human collateral while her father pawns something to pay the bill.)

The novel is a frantic and exhausting whirl of passports, visas, begging, cons, and keeping up appearances. At one point, Kully wears her continuing ordeal and the practical lessons it's taught her as a badge of honor:

I can also follow the exchange rates in the newspaper, and convert guilders into zlotys, and zlotys into Belgian francs. That's the most important aspect of mathematics. You must know that having ten dollars is a thousand times better than having one mark. The children here are really dim, not to know that.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of Keun's life revolves around how she cadged a passport in 1940 to sneak back into the Third Reich, where she spent the duration of the war living with her parents in Cologne and surviving the massive Allied bombings of the city in 1942 and 1943.

Unraveling the strange tale of Keun's return to Nazi Germany is complicated by the fact the she never offered an authoritative account of the hows and whys. We know that after breaking up with Roth in January, Keun traveled to England and then United States and then back to Holland – where she was living when the Nazis invaded on May 10, 1940.

Keun somehow (she never said how) managed to obtain a German passport under her former husband's name and smuggled herself back into Germany. Reports of her suicide that bubbled up in the British press and literary groups – including Arthur Koestler's inclusion of Keun among the writers who took their lives after fleeing Germany in the dedication of his 1941 account of his time in a Nazi internment camp, Scum of the Earth – might have helped cover her tracks.

In the afterword to After Midnight, Wilkes observes "[i]t is not known whether Keun initiated the story of her suicide, or whether it arose from others' inadvertent or deliberate misreporting." But the reports were believed in Germany itself, where Keun's death was mentioned as a just retribution for her sins against the Reich in the Nazi literary magazine Neue Literatur.

Her irrepressible nature may have saved Keun from the Nazis and the stresses of exile. But her subsequent career as a writer was damaged permanently by the years spent running and hiding.

Keun had a daughter in 1951 (never naming the father) and wrote a few works that have not been translated into English in the decade after the Second World War, including a novel and collaboration with Heinrich Böll, 1972 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. But Keun largely disappeared from prominence, and even ended up in a hospital for six years (1966 to 1972) dealing with an assortment of health issues, including her lifelong alcohol abuse.

An intensive reexamination of Weimar and exile literature that began in Germany in the early 1970s proved to be the impetus for Keun to be rediscovered and celebrated anew in the few years before her death in 1982. And reading her work again gives a new understanding of why she cuts such a vivid and appealing figure among the heavyweights in Weidermann's Ostend. Keun's prose has a sharpness and concision that seems to have resisted the ravages of time, and she distills the extremity of totalitarianism powerfully – as she does in this passage in which the narrator of After Midnight expresses her sense of being in Cologne as the Nazis consolidate power:

We're all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is. It's only the Government can go running around free.

Published April 13th, 2016


Richard Byrne is a playwright and journalist in Washington, DC. He has written about culture for the Washington Post, The Guardian, Time, The Nation, BookForum, New York Press and The Baffler.