“Something Which Bites or Stings”: Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight

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Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight was published in Holland in 1937, the year after she left her native Germany. As Geoff Wilkes writes in his informative afterword to this newish edition—well, maybe not so new, it was published five years ago—Keun’s relatively late departure meant that she had experienced National Socialist Germany more fully than those émigrés who left shortly after 1933.

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For the opening scene Keun drew on her experience of Hitler’s visit to Frankfurt on May 19, 1935, where she was living at the time. Sanna Moder, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, is trying to return to her brother’s apartment with her friend Gerti when the SS block off the streets in order that the Führer and other Nazi bigwigs might more easily reach the opera.

The friends don’t care about the officials; they’ve got other things on their minds. Sanna has finally had a letter from her boyfriend in Köln after a silence of several months. Gerti’s family wants her to marry Kurt, a member of the SA, the paramilitary group that helped bring Hitler to power, but she’s in love with Dieter, who, as a Jew, is “what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.”

What seems like blithe insouciance can be read as sly critique. Sanna—it’s short for Susanna—seems clueless, and it’s true that the most important thing on her mind is a party her sister-in-law wants her to help plan. Gerti by contrast seems much more politically conscious, coolly snubbing the attentions of some SS men by pretending to be Jewish. But Sanna is keenly aware of how much Gerti risks in such moments. Similarly, stringing Kurt along so that she can continue to see Dieter is a dangerous game.

But the longer we spend with Sanna, the more her ingenuousness starts to seem like a strategy to undermine fascism’s fathomless self-regard. Here she is, for example, standing in the crowds who have gathered to see the Führer but who must content themselves with a sighting of Göring, recognizable to all by his fancy suits:

[W]e all know from photographs that he likes to wear stylish suits. Though by now he’s really so well known he doesn’t need to make his mark by wearing striking clothes. … Then again, however, even established film stars can never let up—they have to keep showing their public the latest thing in fashion and elegance. I expect someone like Göring is obliged to think hard all the time, if he’s going to keep offering the German public something new. And men like that have to find time to govern the country as well. Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well.

This is wonderful, especially, to me at any rate, that parenthetical description of the pictures Hitler has to take “indoors and out of doors”—I don’t know why that makes me laugh so much, but it does. And then of course there is the joke about Wagner—more obvious, maybe, but it comes with a sting, in its criticism of the idea of German (healthy) art as opposed to the degenerate art created by so many of Keun’s circle.

Keun had already perfected her use of the faux-naïve female narrator in her second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932). It’s a wonderful book, you should absolutely read it, it reminds me of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the targets (big city sophisticates) are less dangerous, less necessary than those in After Midnight. The passage about Göring and Hitler is so brilliant because Sanna does sort of believe what she’s saying (she really does start out rather naïve, though she doesn’ end that way: even though the main action of the novel takes place only over two nights, Sanna ages a lot over the course of the book). Yet her reflections aren’t simply artless or simplistic. She shrewdly diagnoses fascism’s love of spectacle, and the energy it devotes to what is in some sense an endless publicity campaign for itself.

Keun suggests Sanna is able to see through appearances precisely because she is so attuned to them. Here she is describing a woman so desperate for a fox fur that she condescends to buy one from a Jewish furrier, a secret she must hide from fellow party members at all costs: “When she wears it, they look like a rich fur taking a poor woman for a walk.” At times like this, Sanna reminded me of the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels, though Sanna has better luck than they do. Yet Rhys shares with Keun her belief in the observational power of otherwise disempowered, marginalized young women.

Whatever seems blithe, even careless in Sanna’s narration reveals itself as sly, even cutting. Indeed, she is more effective than more established critics of the regime, such as her stepbrother Algin, a once famous but now blacklisted writer who considers writing an epic poem extolling Hitler in order to get back into the regime’s good graces, or the journalist Heini, who “hardly writes at all these days—for political reasons again,” and whose only resistance now comes from introducing virulent anti-Semites to Jews without their knowing, then delighting after the fact in how readily they had become chummy with someone they purport to hate, a dismayingly risky tactic that might explain why he is so filled with self-loathing.

In a climactic speech, Heini explains that he “can’t be a witty and humorous journalist in this country or anywhere else with screams from German concentration camps in your ears.” Keun admires Heini but she doesn’t like him. Her novel imagines less official or perhaps officious or at any rate less male forms of resistance. But Heini isn’t entirely disparaged. His concluding peroration ends with some resonant sentences distinguishing today’s émigrés from those of previous generations:

It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

At the end of the book Sanna’s lover, Franz, finds her after several months of silence. It turns out he has been locked up by the Gestapo after having been informed on by a disgruntled neighbour. After his release he murders the man and is now on the run from the police; the end of the novel finds the couple on a train heading for the border, hoping to make it out of the country. Although sobered by recent dramatic events, Sanna once again finds herself inhabiting a position of strategic subordination that seems to be women’s lot in the novel: “My head is in Franz’s lap. I must seem to be weaker than I am, so that he can feel strong, and love me.” Shortly after this statement, the novel repeats Heini’s words:

 “The roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.”

The sentences are presented in quotation marks, but it’s unclear who says them. Does Sanna relate them to Franz? Or is she saying them to herself? But the previous line—“It will be all right, Franz, I am happy, we’re safe, we will live”—is not quoted, which suggests Sanna isn’t simply repeating Heini’s words to herself. It’s as if the words are coming from the text itself, from some position greater than Sanna’s. Are we to take the peculiar, unanchored appearance of Heini’s speech as a refutation of his prediction? In other words, is it a sign that the lovers will get away? Or is it a confirmation that they won’t?

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Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s a statement of Sanna’s predicament: to live in a world that doesn’t always take her seriously. “The language that you hear is not spoken for you”: that could be a description of the way Sanna is always threatened to be sidelined or disparaged. And yet of course she is the one in this novel who wields language so wittily and compellingly. In this sense, Keun argues that readers shouldn’t join in the cultural tendency to dismiss young women like Sanna (or indeed, like herself—she was only 32 when After Midnight was published). For in voices like Sanna’s we might find a resistance to authoritarianism worthy of the name.

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After Midnight is translated by Anthea Bell. She’s kept that vivid voice of Sanna’s that is so vital to the novel’s success. Yet I did wonder at some of her choices. Here’s the novel’s opening paragraph, in the original and then in Bell’s translation:

Einen Briefumschlag macht man auf und zieht etwas heraus, das beisst oder sticht, obwohl es kein Tier ist. Heute kam so ein Brief von Franz. “Liebe Sanna”, schreibt er mir, “ich möchte Dich noch einmal sehen, darum komme ich viellercht. Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben, aber ich habe oft an Dich gedacht, das hast Du sicher gewusst und gefühlt. Hoffentlich geht es Dir gut. Viele herzliche Grüsse, meine liebe Sanna. Dein Franz.”

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. I had a letter like that from Franz today. “Dear Sanna,” he writes, “I want to see you again, so I may be coming to Frankfurt. I haven’t been able to write for some time, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I’m sure you knew that, I’m sure you could feel it. All my love, dear Sanna, from Franz.”

Already in the first sentence, Keun indicates that this text will bite. But why does Bell say “living creature” rather than the more fitting “animal” or “beast”? And why does she use a modal auxiliary (can) to make this conditional when the original presents this as something that simply or always happens? Throughout we find subtle additions and elisions. Why does Bell add Sanna’s location? (Keun doesn’t mention Frankfurt.) Are English-language readers so unable to have their understanding deferred? And since she proves herself (rightly) willing to break English syntax and embrace comma splices, why does she break the long sentence starting “Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben” in two, and, in so doing, to add a parallelism (“I’m sure you”) that isn’t there in the original? Lastly, why does she cut an entire sentence? (Before his salutation, Franz says, “I hope you are well.”).

I’m no translator, and Bell probably has good reasons for her choices. What’s more, his translation reads so smoothly and supplely that I was surprised, turning to the German, to see the alterations he’d made. But maybe that’s the point—to write something that sounds great in translation maybe you need a strong editorial hand. Anyone have thoughts on this?

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I started reading Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight the weekend before the US Presidential election: the book felt cautionary. I had to set it aside and couldn’t come back to it until the weekend after: now the book felt urgent. These are dangerous times. We need all the stories of resistance to power that we can get.

I wrote this review as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. There are many wonderful posts to read across the blogosphere.

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A Little Henry Green for Remembrance Day

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, as I persist in calling it; I’ll never get used to Veterans Day. About some things I am immune to cant, unable, for example, to clap for our men and women in uniform on airplane flights (that was a thing for a few years after 9/11, not so much any more), but about others I’m terribly sentimental. And always at this time of year I think about the deliciously solemn Remembrance Day assemblies of my Canadian childhood, the lusty intoning of “In Flanders Field” (how I loved that poem), the reveling in the myths of Vimy, the crucible that forged a nation, etc, etc. I know there’s pious and even pernicious hooey surrounding the holiday, but I miss wearing a poppy, I really think that’s a beautiful tradition, and I also miss the weather, which in my memory anyway is blustery and miserable with a little sleet or snow in the air.

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My feelings about Canada are especially turbulent this week, after the US election debacle. As someone who really could go to Canada, but who can’t figure out what he’d do once he got there, I’m at once even more susceptible than usual this week to nostalgic feelings for home and yet not entirely convinced that it still is home. Indeed, there’s nothing like finding out that half of the electorate is fine with overt misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, Islamaphobia and hatred of of people of colour generally to make you question what home really means.

At any rate, in honour of Remembrance Day, here’s a passage from the incomparable Henry Green’s memoir Pack my Bag, published in 1940 when, he notes, he was only thirty-five, because he was convinced he would die in the coming war. (He served in the Auxiliary Fire Service during the Blitz, dangerous work described vividly in Caught, one of his nine beautiful and elliptical novels.) About a third of the way through the memoir, Green describes how his wealthy family’s estate was turned into an officer’s convalescent home during the First World War. Twelve-year-old Green is fascinated by the men, especially a shell-shocked Australian:

Unattractive in every way, small, ugly, with no interests one could find, he had haunted eyes as though death to which he was still so close and which walked arm in arm with him through our meadows could be a horror worse than what he was still suffering. He did not sleep, he hardly ate, he shook all day and he was like an old specimen jar which is cracked and irreplaceable, others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same, so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces, so that if one laughed he always screamed. If forty yards away you banged the door he screamed.

Green’s amazing, idiosyncratic, and amazingly idiosyncratic syntax is on full display here. The soldier isn’t exactly appealing—the use of “ugly,” which at first seems redundant, suggests that the opening modifier is about something more essential than his looks, though they’re clearly not up to much either. Yet by the end of the passage we sympathize with him, partly through the upending of the pastoral tradition (et in Arcadia ego), in which death is intimately present (walking arm in arm with him though the meadows) yet nonetheless subordinate to a trauma of such magnitude it can only be described indirectly (“what he was still suffering”). I can’t quite figure out how “still” is being used in that first sentence. It appears twice—does it mean the same thing each time? He’s still so close to death—which presumably refers to the battlefields he’s ostensibly convalescing from—but he’s still suffering from shell shock. Death and horror are differentiated from, even opposed to, each other, but the soldier nonetheless seems to experience both at the same time.

If anything, the next sentence is even harder to parse, offering a fine example of the wayward rhythms of Green’s prose, which sometimes seem to replicate speech, or more accurately a particular kind of associative logic that characterizes speech rather than anything one might actually say. The old specimen jar is presumably an antique jar, but it could be a jar for an old specimen, which is what the solder seems to be to the boy Green. Specimen is from the Latin “to look”—it’s a jar you’d put moths or plants or other living things into. In this sense the soldier is said to be preserved but also stifled or entombed, as if the jar were a mausoleum, yet a broken one that is nonetheless valuable (“cracked and irreplaceable”). The almost parenthetical observation “others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same” suggests both outmodedness and singularity, assuming that “the same” means “the same as the cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar that the soldier is like” and not “the same as each other,” which admittedly would be weird since it would suggest the newfangled models are unique rather than mass-produced.

This clause—“others are made which may be better but they do not know how to make them the same”—is even harder to figure out because we can’t at first be sure of its relationship to the next one, which reads “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces.” At first I thought this clause modified the one about the other jars that might be better but aren’t the same, as if the reason they aren’t the same, that is, the reason they seem to have something wrong with them even though they’re supposedly better is that they’re cracked and ready to break at the mere sound of a shout. But if that were the case, Green ought to have said “enough to shatter them in jagged pieces.” I realized, then, that this clause is actually connected to one before the one before it, namely, the original description of the man as a cracked but irreplaceable specimen jar. That’s what’s “so cracked that a shout will set up vibrations enough to shatter it in jagged pieces,” the echo or half-rhyme of the double consonants in “shatter” and “jagged” imitating the sharp, abrasive quality the words are describing.

All of which leads us to the final clause, “so that if one laughed he always screamed.” Initially we might take it to be parallel with the previous one—after all they both start with “so”—but we soon see isn’t. “So” means something different in each case. The first “so” (“so cracked that a shout”) is an intensifier (the jar is very cracked); the second (“so that if one laughed”) is a coordinating conjunction meaning “such that.”

After this extraordinary sentence—which like many others in Green’s books must be read several times before they can be parsed—the passage’s concluding sentence is much simpler but no less moving for that. It’s an extension of the previous sentence, which has told us that a laugh, which apparently is felt by the man as a shout, makes him scream. Even something as simple and distant as the banging of a door does so too. We’re left with the image of a man so raw, so broken that ordinary life has become terrifying and intolerable.

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Of course we already know this, because in the sentences just before the passage I’ve focused on here Green tells us: “He was no longer human when he came to us. He committed suicide when he left to go home [to Australia], he found the bustle on board ship to much for him.”

To you from failing hands we throw the torch, etc, etc.