Monday, August 22, 2011

Artificial silk

I'm sure Hubert didn't see me, but it still hit me like a bullet — his black coat from the back and his fair neck — and I had to think of our outing to the Kuckuckswald, where he lay on the ground with his eyes closed. And the sun made the ground hum and the air was trembling — and I put ants on his face while he was sleeping, because I'm never tired when I'm with a man I'm in love with — and I put ants in his ears — and Hubert's face was like a mountain range with valleys and all and he would pucker his nose in a funny way and his mouth was half open — his breath came out of it like a cloud. And he almost looked like a looney, but I loved him more for his sleepy face than for his kisses — and his kisses were quite something, let me tell you.

The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun, was written in 1932 in Germany. An English translation was recently republished by Other Press.

Comparisons to Bridget Jones' Diary and Sex and the City totally miss the mark. A single girl's romantic-sexual adventures in the big city — there the similarity ends. Bridget, Carrie, and friends are fun-loving, ambitious, independent-minded (and Doris is all these things), but they are at times (often) also pathetic. Doris, on the other hand, the eponymous artificial silk girl (a woman should never wear artificial silk when she's with a man, it wrinkles too quickly), is tragic. She shares more with Holly Golightly (both the literary and film versions) and Letty Fox.

[I haven't given a whole lot of thought as to what I see as the difference between pathetic and tragic. I'm using these words with their common meanings, not as precise literary terms. I dunno, I just feel there's a difference. Kind of like what Arthur Miller said.]

Doris is of a time where women were out in the world, they could make a living if they had to, or if they wanted to. When the novel opens she's working in an office ("True education has nothing to do with commas!"). But that's not to say it was easy. Opportunities are limited, and it's hard to be taken seriously.

Then there's love.

If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she's called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she's a whore and a bitch.

Contemporary chick-lit heroines should be sobered by Doris's account.

So this novella makes for a fascinating historical document as regards women in society, circa 1930. But it also paints a vivid picture of a certain slice of society in immediately pre-Nazi Germany, and it's impossible to read the comments about Jews (Doris didn't care if you were or you weren't, but some of her men did) and about politics without a historical eye.

Doris toys with the idea of educating herself about politics, but it bores her, and it never really sticks. But I wouldn't say she is clueless abut politics; simply, she prefers not to bother with it, it's too much trouble. ("Politics poisons human relationships.")

Is there any reason to read this book, then, aside from its historical interest? I think, yes, for its voice. Certainly, it would've been unique in Keun's time. And it's still fresh now, and fairly compelling.

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Keun has a gift for startling images. I highlighted several of these:

"Dear God, my letters are trembling on the paper like the legs of dying mosquitoes."

"He had the voice of a bowling ball that made my blood run cold."

"And with my last paycheck, I bought myself a honey brown dress with smooth pleats, quiet and serious, like a woman who forgets to laugh when she's being kissed by someone she likes."

"There's someone playing the harmonica next door with his forehead as crumpled up as his life."

"It's not always the face that makes a whore — I am looking into my mirror — it's the way they walk, as if their heart had gone to sleep."
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