Thursday, November 17, 2011

Familiar and unimportant as my big toenail

After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun, is a deeply affecting novella. Had I had any inkling as to what this story was actually about, and had I not already been seduced by Keun's voice in The Artificial Silk Girl, I probably would not have picked this book up, and I'd be the sorrier for it.

First published in 1937, it's a pretty scathing commentary on daily life in Nazi Germany.

"[...] When I get home now, Sanna, I'll find my old man sitting there grumbling, 'Elvira,' he says, 'this place is no better than a concentration camp.' 'Fancy you not noticing that before,' says I. 'We're all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it's only the Government can go running around free.'"

It is chilling, even while ostensibly recounting the tales of a party girl. I guess this excerpt is fairly representative of the sort of reality check or punch in the gut the book delivers ever few pages. What this excerpt fails to convey, I think, is how light the overall tone is, how the narrator is young and vibrant, worldwise yet naive.

Then they said Göring would be talking on the radio that evening. All the ladies were going to stay at Aunt Adelheid's to hear him. Thinking nothing of it, I said I'd rather not hear him, because I always got the feeling he was telling me off. And that was absolutely all I said on the subject, but even so it was far too much. It's true, though: one of those speeches begins harmlessly enough, going on about the magnificent German nation which will overcome everything, and you feel you're being praised and flattered for listening to it. Then the radio lets out a sudden flood of abuse, saying everyone who offend against the nation's will for reconstruction will be smashed, and those who go in for harmful carping criticism will be destroyed.

My heart always stands still when I hear those speeches, because how do I know I'm not one of the sort who are going to be smashed? And the worst of it is that I just don't understand what's really going on. I'm only gradually getting the hang of the things you must be careful not to do.

It turns out I know next to nothing about Nazi Germany. What I do know centers around wartime and the Holocaust. Reading about the time before is somewhat horrifying. It's like Nineteen Eighty-four, only real.

People are denounced, their neighbours denounce them, on the slightest pretext. They are questioned and jailed and worse.

Suddenly I remembered something Paul had said. I'll never forget the evening when he told us about countries where you can say what you like, where you don't have anything to fear as long as you don't break God's ten commandments. There are countries, he said, without any hidden dangers, where you can greet people any way you like — and you can weep on days of rejoicing and laugh on days of mourning, just depending how you feel at the time.

And suddenly it was all too much for me. Here I sat, going to be punished and I didn't know why. I didn't know what was good any more, I didn't know what was bad any more. I thought of those countries obeying God's ten commandments, where good is good and bad is bad. I though to the far-off foreign lands Paul talked about. I could not keep from crying harder than I'd ever cried in all my life before.

Pretty easy to see why the book had trouble getting published, why it was censored.

Beyond politics, Keun also manages to show great emotional insight at an individual level. For example, Algin takes no notice of his wife Liska, who flirts shamelessly with another man.

Having got to know Liska the way a man gets to know a woman only if he lives with her for years, sleeping with her all that time — well, he's got not to know her again. It's like reading a wonderful poem, and learning it off by heart because you like it so much and you want to be able to recite the whole thing. And when you do know it off by heart you can slowly begin to forget it again. Which is what people generally do.

Everybody's so bloody ineffectual. As citizens. As lovers.

Despite all the heavy shit of history to grapple with, despite all the heavy emotional shit of love and jealousy and boredom, the prose is fresh and clear.

But Algin was there. He was alive. Drunk, but alive all right. Sitting there with an old man with a bristly haircut. I knew the man by sight. He sits in Bogener's wineshop every afternoon and every evening, by himself, circumspectly drinking half a bottle of claret. I knew his way of beckoning to the waiter. I knew his way of giving a tip. I knew his usual seat. I knew the newspaper he read, I knew the wine he drank. I knew when he came in and I knew when he left. I'd never spoken to him, never thought much about him, but he was familiar to me, familiar and unimportant as my big toenail. And to see him sitting in a different part of the café talking to Algin struck me as strange, mysterious and not quite right, as if my big toenail had suddenly taken the place of my eyelashes.

This is a tough book to write about even though it's relatively short (less than 200 pages). It's a love story, and it has a gossipy tone, but then it's something much, much more serious.

The Artificial Silk Girl was a smooth read and interesting as a historical artefact. But this book — After Midnight — is on an altogether different level. I look forward to more of Keun being available in English.

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My favourite image: "The streets were shiny black, like eels. Wet and slithery."
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