My love for the writing of Irmgard Keum remains undiminished even if the books are devilishly difficult to get hold of in translation. First discovered thanks to a friend's recommend of The Artificial Silk Girl, then I found a copy of After Midnight and now Child of All Nations, first published in German in 1938, subsequently banned by the Nazi regime and now republished by Penguin. and that the sum total of my Irmgard Keun shelf.
Translations by Michael Hofmann never disappoint. He is amongst others responsible for my undying love for the writing of Joseph Roth after all and Child of All Nations must have been uber-challenging because there is the challenge of eight year-old Kully's first person narrative voice to pin down onto the page.
Kully, the bright sparky child of wandering emigré parents; a child whose education has been in the School of Life rather than the classroom through the early 1930s.
The emotionally needy gambling, alcoholic writer father who harbours deep within a soft, kindish heart. A man who will live by the word of a lie yet can't stop himself giving away the family's last groat to someone whose need appears even greater than his own.
The ditzy, confused equally needy mother living on her nerves, moved from hotel to hotel and left in hock with Kully as human pawn whilst her husband criss-crosses Europe ostensibly in search of a publisher and funds but also women.
And then Kully with her multi-lingual ease of learning and childlike assessment of a situation, yet with an understanding and experience way beyond her years and who cares desperately for them both.
As a fictional account of an emigre childhood this could not be bettered as Irmgard Keun, through Kully's voice, traces the anxieties and by inference leaving the reader to add in the true analysis of the family's plight as they wander around a Europe on the brink of a catastrophic war.
There are many wonderful moments of humour as this serious world is viewed through the eyes of a child,
'In Bordighera we went first to the station, but my grandmother wasn't there. We needed to find her, because we didn't have any money except for the Bottom Dollar. The Bottom Dollar was a ten-dollar note, which my mother kept in her knickers for emergencies and must never be spent.'
Turning the final page not quite the bereft disappointment I usually feel for a writer who I know I'd love to read more of if I could only find the books in English, because there beckons the most insightful afterword from Michael Hofmann.
Plenty of background information and the observation that, having spent several years travelling around Europe in the company of Joseph Roth there is strong supposition that Irmgard Keun may well have based the character of Kullys' father on Roth. All strongly denied by Keun in her lifetime but as Michael Hofmann points out she, like Roth, was an accomplished liar so we can but suppose and enjoy.
Irmgard Keun's own account of Joseph Roth during those years of exile,
'I felt here was someone who was simply about to die of sadness. His round blue eyes were almost blind with despair and his voice sounded as though buried under tons of grief. Later on, that impression blurred a little, because at that time, Roth wasn't just sad, he was also the greatest and most impassioned of haters...'
Fascinating lives and how good it would to be able to read biographies of both in English translation at affordable prices.
Irmgard Keun's exile in 1936 from Nazi repression and subsequent return to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name all suggests a life about which I'd love to know more,
'There was something about her honesty, her spark, her refusal of indoctrination, her subversiveness that riled them.'
My vintage and antiquated drawer of paper files also yields an Irmgard Keun folder containing more.
According to Michael Hofmann in a Guardian article of a year ago, Keun linked favourably with that cohort of writers from the 1920s and 30s, Jean Rhys, Anita Loos, Rosamund Lehmann, Vicki Baum and later Sybille Bedford,
'clever, fast-moving, important and unburdened with the turgid intellectual purpose of so many men's books of the time...a chronicler of the atmosphere of Nazism's rise..'
I'm in danger of repeating myself I know and I'm beyond thankful for Child of All Nations, but we still need much more Irmgard Keun.