The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun

Irmgard Keun~Germany

Tilli says: “Men are nothing but sensual and they only want one thing.”  But I say: “Tilli, sometimes women too are sensual and want only one thing.”  And there’s no difference.  Because sometimes I only want to wake up with someone in the morning, all messed up from kissing and half dead and without any energy to think, but wonderfully tires and rested at the same time.  But you don’t have to give a hoot otherwise.  And there’s nothing wrong with it, because both have the same feeling and want the same thing from the other.

I hope I can express my fondness for this book so that people will actually go to find it at a bookstore or library, and read it.  It was published in Germany in 1933.  Shortly thereafter, the Nazis banned Keun’s work and destroyed all remaining copies.  Fortunately, a British translation survived and Other Press has chosen wisely chosen to republish it.   After all, Keun was a contemporary of Alfred Doblin who encouraged her to write.  Thus, we have a story of a young woman who moves from a small German town to Berlin to make it as a an actress only to encounter homelessness, poverty and bouts with prostitution.  Now there’s a summer read.

Translated to perfection by Kathie von Ankum, this is a novel worth reading and savoring for Keun’s uncanny ability with description and to portray a woman, whether likable or not, by what she sees and does without a moment of self-pity.  Written in some way similar to a mock memoir, The Artificial Silk Girl gives a first -person account of Doris, a young German woman using her looks and charm to succeed.  She makes no excuses and shows no regret.  There’s something so utterly captivating about a woman who knows what she is, how she is perceived but doesn’t care what others think of her. She isn’t afraid to use manipulation or deceit, but it is never without warrant.  Rather she uses it as a reaction to the pretentious or dishonest behavior of other people. 

Doris is not very educated nor socially savvy, and although her cynicism is often hilarious, Keun makes her seem good at heart in a touching way that avoids being mawkish.  The voice is so well-developed that I could understand how, in Germany at that time, it would have become a bestseller and in turn create a scandal with its blunt honesty.  What I found interesting and cloying is that in the introduction by Harvard professor Maria Tatar, which overall is excellent, is that she uses The Artificial Silk Girl as a precursor to Bridget Jones’ Diary and Sex and the City.  As if sex and female independence are the currency used in all eras of feminism and The Artificial Silk Girl is merely an early form of chick lit.  I understand perhaps the inclination to couch it that way to the modern reader, but I cringed when I read this because Keun’s work is unique in voice and it’s original appearance was a form of political, historical and gender resistance whereas Bridget Jones and Sex and the City seem more like a reflection of the current times.  I am obviously not a Harvard professor so forgive if my ignorance is showing, but I couldn’t help but think of Lynn Freed’s The Mirror or even the works of Jean Rhys as a more appropriate parallel with their bleakness and female characters beyond redemption. 

When the novel opens, Doris is working in a lawyer’s office as a secretary.  From the opening pages, Keun’s gift for description is unmistakeable:

And for every comma that’s missing, I have to five that old beanstalk of an attorney – he hasp pimples too, and his skin looks like my old yellow leather purse without a zipper.

Or later when she describes a woman in a cafe who’s “…not all that young anymore and has boobs like a swimming belt.”  Doris knows she is about to be fired and pulls out every trick of sensuality she has, but in the end, she gets fired.  Doris has a softness with certain people that saves her from being harsh.  She has Therese from the office, Tilli with whom she shares an apartment with in Berlin and Herr Brenner, the blind man she offers sex to because she gets to use her eyes to describe the world to him:

“I saw –  men standing at the corners selling perfume, without a coat and a pert face and a gray cap on – and posters with naked and rosy girls on them and nobody looking at them – a restaurant with more chrome than an operating room – they even have oysters there – and famous photographers with photos in showcases displaying enormous people without any beauty.  And sometimes with.”

Again, later, when she is describing the scene at a Russian Restaurant in Berlin for Herr Brenner:

“…a handsome man just kissed a woman as a fat as a tadpole – old men are kissing each other – the music goes one-two, one-two – there are lamps hanging from the ceiling that look like Paul’s starfish collection stuck together – the music is covered with flowers like a chiffon dress which tears very easily – let me tell you, Herr Brenner, a woman should never wear artificial silk when she’s with a man.  It wrinkles too quickly, and what are you going to look like after seven real kisses?  Only pure silk, I say – and music -“

Doris’ demise is miserable but in the end there is an overwhelming and welcome sense of hope for her future.  Even though Doris may have facets that are materialistic, vain and shallow, Keun also created a woman of depth which manifests through Doris’ cinematic view of the world and her empathy for humanity.  The back of the book makes a comparison to Christopher Isherwood, (I can only imagine it must be The Berlin Stories) which is much more apt than a somewhat dismissive designation to chick lit.  If you need a read that is both intelligent, honest, entertaining and original, please read The Artificial Silk Girl.  It’s the presence so needed of female writer’s of the past who dared to talk of sex and independence at a time when it wasn’t accepted by society as easily as a Sex and the City sequel.

The Artificial Silk Girl
By Irmgard Keun
Translated by Kathie von Ankum
Other Press
Paperback, 216 pp.
ISBN: 9781590514542

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