I picked up Irmgard Keun’s 1932 novel The Artificial Silk Girl at the Neue Galerie in New York, basically on a whim. It promised to be a dizzying tour of Weimar Berlin, last call before Hell and all that, from the perspective of a young, single woman whom the introduction compares to Madonna’s “Material Girl.”
Certainly our heroine, Doris, is materialistic in a certain sense. She pays her bills by dating men. Her closest relationship is with her stolen fur coat. (The letter she writes to the coat’s rightful owner is a terrific, tilt-a-whirl study in ambivalent amends.) But she isn’t hard-headed; her desires are a collage of sentiment and hunger. She maintains her girlish figure easily, since throughout most of the novel she can’t actually afford food. She writes her hopes and dreams in the notebook she’s covered with little paper doves:
I’m going to be a star, and then everything I do will be right–I’ll never have to be careful about what I do or say. I don’t have to calculate my words or my actions–I can just be drunk–nothing can happen to me anymore, no loss, no disdain, because I’m a star.
Kathie von Ankum’s translation is full of sharp, funny cockeyed lines, usually describing men—”his usual politics is blonde,” for example. But Doris goes through some truly rough times, and the most memorable sections of the book are its most poignant. This book made me choke up over a dead goldfish: “Put him back in the water!”, this universal human desire to reverse the irreversible. There are parts of this book which sound like Walker Percy:
So they have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.
I don’t really like him all that much, but I’m with him, because every human being is like a stove for my heart that is homesick but not always longing for my parents’ house, but for a real home–those are the thoughts I’m turning over in my mind. What am I doing wrong?
Perhaps I don’t deserve better.
The future does hang over this book, and thin acrid drifts of it waft through the novel here and there: Doris ruminates on being asked whether she’s a Jew; she gets caught up in the ecstasy of a political rally. Berlin is filled with the desperately poor, especially veterans. It’s a city of people who have slipped down many rungs of life’s ladder, and Doris begins to feel herself slipping too.
I ended this book loving poor Doris, and Keun seems to love her too. She strains to come up with some kind of demi-happy ending for her heroine, Doris who believes that “it is particularly those things you have stolen with your own hands that you love the most”; but she can’t quite reach happiness, and settles for chastening.