Monday, December 28, 2020

Reading group: The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

Ann suggested this short book which, newly reissued as a Penguin Classic, was a bestseller on its publication in Germany in 1932 but banned by the Nazis a year later, all German copies destroyed. It's the fictional journal of eighteen-year-old Doris who, longing to be a 'star', leaves her provincial home town for the heady lights of Berlin, only to end up in poverty and living off men in various ways.

The greatest admirer of the book in our group was Jenny, and most others appreciated it as a vivid portrayal of Weimar Berlin and a searing indictment of the plight of women in such a society, forced into a bitter choice between two types of transactional relationships with men, sexual or domestic. We noted the similarity to Jean Rhys's protagonists, but also the differences: Doris is a feisty working-class girl, and the diary mode is lightly satirical, exposing Doris's moments of naivity or lack of self-awareness in spite of her cynicism about men. Similarly, although she is spectacularly politically unaware, there are moments when she brushes against the political situation, such as the episode when 'blond windbreakers' enter a Jewish bar where she is drinking and trash it. She simply makes the vague comment: 'they are their enemies and it's got something to do with politics', and muses after the intruders have left, 'What was that all about?', her very innocence of the political implications underlining their import. There is an even stronger resemblance to Sally Bowles in Christopher Isherwood's later novel, Goodbye to Berlin, which we discussed here. (We suspected that Isherwood had been influenced by Keun's novel ). As John pointed out, however, the fundamental difference is that this book is written from the woman's point of view (whereas Sally Bowles is of course seen through the male narrator's eyes), making it more politically dynamic and indeed feminist. 

One problem with the book that Ann, John and I had was that at times we found it difficult to grasp Doris's tone. We wondered if this was a problem of the 2002 translation used in the new Penguin edition which we'd all read. Certainly we were brought up short by occasional Americanisms, and even anachronisms - 'women's lib' was a phrase that jumped out at us all. There were also frequent unfamiliar idioms I assume to be literal translations surviving from the original English translation, which sit oddly with the linguistic updating and are slightly confounding. (Ann said she had read that Doris's diary was in fact written in a very colloquial pre-war working-class German, which must have been difficult to represent in translation.) For instance, at one point a man asks Doris if she's a Jew:

My God, I'm not - but I'm thinking: if that's what he likes, I'll do him a favour - and I say: 'Of course - my father sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.' ... and he got all hostile ... At first they pay you all sorts of compliments and are drooling all over you - and then you tell them: I'm a chestnut! - and their chin drops: oh, you're a chestnut - yuk, I had no idea.

While reading I found the unfamiliarity of that word 'chestnut' disconcerting, and later looked for it without success as a slang or abusive term for a Jew. Further investigation reveals that the German der Fuchs, meaning 'fox, or 'cunning devil', is also used to mean 'chestnut' (the colour of a fox), and so the racist pun becomes clear, but it doesn't survive the literal English translation. 

Some of us also found that the novel dragged a little in the middle as Doris becomes involved in a string of identically doomed transactional relationships with men. Clare appreciated this as formal depiction of the static trap in which Doris is caught, but though I could see this, it didn't stop me being frustrated by the lack of forward narrative movement, and the sense of repetition without much variation, encounters and liaisons merging one into the other with, for me, a consequent retrospective lack of vividness or memorability. John, in fact, felt this more strongly than I did.

However, the only entirely negative response came from Doug. He wasn't at all convinced that a young girl from such a provincial background would run away to the city as Doris did. And none of our objections - that she had a violent father, that she had stolen a fur coat and was afraid of being arrested for it, and above all, isn't that what young girls with stars in their eyes classically do? - cut any ice with him: he still found the book unconvincing and unengaging.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 


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