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A young woman in pre-war Berlin dreams of becoming a star, but after a promising start, slowly slides into destitution. The Artificial Silk Girl follows Doris into the underbelly of a city that had once seemed all glamour and promise. Originally written in 1931 by 22-year-old German writer, Irmgard Keun, The Artificial Silk Girl became an instant best-seller. Just a year later it was banned by the Nazis, and all copies were destroyed. Kathie von Ankum's English translation will bring this masterwork to the foreground once more, giving a new generation the chance to discover Keun for themselves.
The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (translated by Kathie von Ankum), $22, at booksellers nationwide.
The Artificial Silk Girl
July 1, 2002
A particularly vivid, gritty new English translation of a 1932 novel set in Berlin between the world wars, whose expatriate author (1905-82) enjoyed early critical and popular success, incurred the displeasure of Nazi censors, spent two years as the mistress of the great Austrian writer (also an expatriate) Joseph Roth, and wrote, pseudonymously, in obscurity (having returned to Germany) until her death. Keun's once-famous novel is the defiant (and anything but confessional) "confession" of its narrator Doris, an ambitious would-be actress whose drift into petty theft, poverty, and disillusionment is observed by a sharp unsentimental eye that also provides numerous vignette-like glimpses of the seaminess and heartlessness of a vibrant city stifled by the imperatives of Nazism. As we learn from scholar Maria Tatar's helpful introduction, this was conceived as an "answer" to Anita Loos's popular potboiler "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." It's more than that: a commendably deft work of social criticism and understated character portrayal. A most worthy rediscovery.
Los Angeles Times Book Review 2002
Artificial Silk Girl
By Susan Salter Reynolds
Sunday, June 30, 2002
The Artificial Silk Girl, written in 1932 by Irmgard Keun, then 23, was blacklisted a year later by the Nazis for its anti-German portrayals of businessmen and bureaucrats. In the 1950s, it was resurrected as a feminist manifesto: the diary of a working girl in Depression-era Berlin.
Damned by the Nazis, hailed by the feminists. You'd think there's hardly anything left to say about the poor novel, except that it is a truly charming window into a young woman's life in the early 1930s.
Portland Phoenix 2002
The Artificial Silk Girl
First published in 1932, this unusual novel might well have been subtitled "Social Climbing through Bed-Hopping in the Last Days of the Weimar Republic." Initially a commercial success, it was soon banned by the Nazis for the racy, irreverent musings of its narrator, Doris, an office worker who decides that her best chance of improving her lot is to exercise her considerable libido as she tries to find a rich Mr. Right. Her strategy succeeds for brief periods, but Doris also goes through several down-at-the-heels phases as her various affairs come apart; at a particularly perilous moment, she is almost forced into prostitution. Her most consistent candidate for true love is a man named Hubert, who wanders in and out of her life. When he disappears, Doris takes a stab at life in the theater before a problematic affair ends that venture. Doris's frank, outrageous comments on the foibles of her various suitors keep things entertaining until the one-note romantic plot begins to wear thin. Readers may be disappointed that Keun (1905-1982) has little to offer on the politics of the era, save for her portrayal of a brief date in which Doris gets rejected when she pretends to be Jewish. That lacuna aside, this is an illuminating look at the much-mythologized social and sexual mores of Weimar Germany.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
San Francisco Chronicle 2002
The Artificial Silk Girl
J. Alex Tarquinio Sunday
July 28, 2002
Christopher Isherwood and Bertolt Brecht narrated the chaos of Weimar-era Berlin, and today their "Berlin Stories" and "Three Penny Opera" are hailed as early 20th century classics. But how many people have heard of Irmgard Keun, author of "The Artificial Silk Girl," a popular German novel in 1932 that nearly vanished from literary history after the Nazis banned it a year later?
Other Press has a new English translation, the first since 1933 and an improvement on the original, which was marred by a translator who added political passages to keep pace with German politics. This could only have blemished the subtle political vision of the book's author, who was just 22. Although Keun's anti-Nazi stance is now known (she eventually fled Germany), the Nazis could not have banned her book in 1931 because of any overt political message. Rather, they must have been annoyed by the heroine's blase' attitude about her many random sexual encounters.
The book is the fictional journal of Doris, an 18-year-old runaway who goes to Berlin to seek her fame and fortune. Doris punctuates the passages in which she encounters politics and racial violence with statements of profound indifference. In the only episode in which she shows any interest in politics, she stumbles into a peace rally and is caught up in the emotion of the moment. A man takes her off to a pastry shop, where she hopes he will give her a lesson in German politics. But that is clearly not his intention, so she slips away from him. "And I was sad about not having gotten any political education. But I did have three pieces of hazelnut torte -- which took care of my lunch, which couldn't be said about a lesson in politics."
It must have been around twelve midnight last night that I felt something wonderful happening inside of me. I was in bed — I had meant to wash my feet, but I was too tired after that hectic night the day before, and hadn’t I told Therese: “You don’t get anything out of letting yourself be talked to on the street. You owe yourself some self-respect, after all.”
Besides, I already knew the program at the Kaiserhof. And then all this drinking — I had trouble getting home all right, and it’s never easy for me to say no in the first place. “The day after tomorrow, then,” I told him. But no way! A guy with knobby fingers like that and always just ordering the cheap wine from the top of the menu, and cigarettes at five pfennigs apiece — when a man starts out that way, where is it going to end?