Sometimes we happen to come across a little gem of a book that had disappeared, literally, for decades. After Midnight, written by Irmgard Keun in 1937 during her exile in Holland, is just one such book. Now translated into English by the admirable Anthea Bell, the first since the original translation in 1938, it belongs into a select treasure collection of recently re-discovered notable German fiction, written either just before or right after World War II. Each novel depicts, in diverse ways, aspects of ordinary people's daily life during the early years of the Nazi regime. Among these authors we find books by Hans Fallada (eg. Every Man Dies Alone
), Hans Keilson (eg. Death Of The Adversary
) and Irmgard Keun (eg. Artificial Silk Girl
). To this distinct collection of novels by 'contemporary witnesses' we can now add AFTER MIDNIGHT. In some way it can be regarded as a 'prequel' to Child of All Nations
, written in 1938, that tells the story of one family's life in exile, seen from the perspective of a ten-year old girl.
Keun's three novels mentioned above open a window into a time and place that is difficult for us to imagine in detail. Her style is conversational and easy-going, with localisms and vivid images sprinkled in. In this novel, the author endows her narrator, 19-year old Susanne with an independent voice and a mind that roams with great ease between recounting what she hears and observes around her and pondering her own inner thoughts that either add humorous commentary on the people she meets, ask questions, or take her mind to past problems in her young life. Some readers might find Keun's writing a bit too casual and seemingly lightweight for the realities she deals with. However, there is much irony and depth in Susanne's comments and for us readers with hindsight, a wealth of astute observations.
Susanne, 'Sanna', has recently arrived in the big city (Frankfurt) to escape the clutches of the Gestapo and to leave her mean-spirited aunt who had denounced her to the authorities together with her first love and now fiancé, the quiet, diffident Frank. With regret she had to leave him behind... but, as the novel opens, she has finally received a letter announcing that he is on his way to meet her "one more time"... Sanna worries about that little phrase, but life in the animated society circle of her step-brother Alvin, a popular and affluent writer, and his beautiful, luxurious wife, Liska, is too exciting to worry for long. Sanna is a pretty young woman of the time: enthusiastic, naïve and trusting. She is not interested in politics and can just as easily flirt with a man from the SS, the SA or the Jewish doctor, who is one of her brother's friends. Sanna and her close friend Gertie, are often also joined by the funny, sarcastic journalist Heini who is highly entertaining despite, or because of, his falling out of favour with the authorities. He is the first to feel the wind of change and his ironic and witty commentary alone would make the book worth reading. "I used to be a quick-witted and humorous journalist", he laments. "What I believed I had to say, I have said, in my own way and language. Now, in this time of widespread 'word inflation', is it not a pity when a thinking person moves on to total silence?" Alvin, in the meantime, has also been included in the Nazi blacklist and can no longer find a publisher; his existence is quickly reduced to nothing and his mind to despair. As the story moves to its dramatic climax - "after midnight" - the pace in the narration speeds up, the different strands of the story come together, overlap and ...
Keun's novel is first of all a fascinating document for its time. Yet, it is more also. It is an entertaining story to read that, with her typical light and ironic touch, provides us with a highly perceptive portrayal of a society on the cusp of disaster. Keun has filled her story with some memorable characters and their discussions on where the country is headed brings out different points of view, not all presented with the same level of seriousness as the Jewish doctor's consideration of possible exile, a move that does not appeal to Heini:"... poor émigré. [...] You will become a torment to yourself and a burden to others. The roofs that you see have not been built for you. The bread that you smell, is not being baked for you. And the language that you hear will not be spoken for you." [Friederike Knabe]
*) having read the novel in its original, all translations are mine.