A perceptive commentator on here last week flagged up that English foible we seem to have of only feeling the need to speak one language and expecting everyone else to speak it too.
It is to my eternal regret that I was put into a Latin class on the assumption that being good at French meant I'd go to University and would need Latin more than German.
The logic of this thinking has always eluded me, as has just about all my Latin (apart from the odd medical term like mane and nocte) most of my French, as did University etc etc and it would have been far more use, with apologies to Miss Vanstone my Latin teacher (who has found me here and stops by with her red pen every so often) to have found myself in Frau Schamasch's German class.
Never is this more obvious than when I start to research the background to a writer like Joseph Roth and now Irmgard Keun.It's all out there but it's all in German and therefore inaccessible to me.
I was completely steam-rollered by Irmgard Keun's The Artificial Silk Girl on first reading.
Doris one of the saddest and most memorable of characters and the book a prescient foreshadowing and darkly foreboding account of life in Berlin between the wars. The writing was on the wall and read with innocence by Doris, but with the addition of hindsight with great clarity by any reader, thus making the book even more startling. So I wasn't sure what to expect when I picked up After Midnight, published in Amsterdam in 1937.
Since 1933 her books had been banned and confiscated by the Nazis and Irmgard Keun was in exile, but having a romantic relationship with Joseph Roth. They travelled extensively across Europe together and who knows quite how Joseph Roth may have influenced the writing of After Midnight as Irmgard Keun writes,
'There have been too many atrocities.One dreadful day revenge will come, and it won't be divine revenge, it will be even more atrocious, more human, more inhuman, And that atrocious revenge which I both desire and fear will necessarily be followed by another atrocious revenge, because the thing that has begun in Germany looks like going on without any hope of an end. Germany is turning on her own axis, a great wheel dripping blood'
Irmgard Keun's courageously and transparently honest writing style is immediately evident and what followed was a book I had to read in a single sitting.Hers is a prophetic lone voice and through nineteen year old Susanne's detailed fictional portrayal of everyday life in urban Germany in the years immediately before the war, possibly a far more telling account of the insidious effects of Fascism than any explicit account of atrocities.
Told at a slant, the fear and the oppression, the anti-semitism and the deceit that had become part of everyday life seem even more shocking. Susanne's life spent looking over her shoulder, with no sense of who to trust and the constant fear of saying the wrong thing is beautifully expressed in an analogy that was bound to appeal to me
'My head's full of confused, random thoughts, like a ball of wool I must knit into words. I must knit a stocking of words. It takes so long, and I forget what I was going to say a minute ago, as if I'd dropped a stitch.'
Eventually you understand why, with her friends, she becomes as 'disconsolate as unredeemed pawnbroker's pledges' , eventually 'weary to my inmost soul' and finally fleeing the country, surely Susanne's fears of exile mirroring those of Irmgard Keun herself?
'The roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the speech that you hear is not spoken for you.'
Those understated obervations arguably the most powerful expression possible at the loss of homeland and much more besides.
As I read I was, as always, aware that inbetween my reading and Irmgard Keun's writing lay the hand of the translator and my thoughts turned to wondering quite what magic one of my favourites, Michael Hofmann might work on the writing of Irmgard Keun? His translations of Joseph Roth are matchless.
Thence to wondering why Irmgard Keun isn't up there with Irene Nemirovsky right now?
She may have survived the war but who can begin to imagine the fear engendered as Irmgard Keun feigned suicide, returned to Nazi Germany in 1940 and lived there under cover until the end of the war?
Apart from The Artificial Silk Girl the few books written are out of print or not translated.
Imagine then my delight as I sauntered through Amazon to discover that Penguin are publishing Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun in January 2008 translated by none other than Michael Hofmann.
Joy should definitely be unconfined because in his hands expect to be hearing much more about Irmgard Keun any day.