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Artificial Silk Girl Hardcover – Apr 17 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
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 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Elle.com - Daily Essentials 2002
The Artificial Silk Girl
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."
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The book also presents a lively panorama of Berlin in the last days of Weimar era through the first person-narrative of Doris, who functions like a camera and creates vivid images of the city. The reader wanders in the streets of Berlin with Doris, gets lost in a crowd of beggars, prostitutes and men selling perfumes and naked women posters in every corner of Alexander Platz. In this respect, the book is almost cinematic, and it is a great choice especially for those who are interested in the social, cultural and political conditions of Germany in the early 1930s.
One year after it was first published Keun's book was blacklisted for its "anti-German tendencies" and "obscene" narrative. This book is a critical reflection of its time, and Keun does not give credit to euphemisms in her story. So I can say that The Artificial Silk Girl is a brave narration of the story a brave young woman. Through Doris's psychological insight, Keun reflects a dark and gloomy image of Berlin in an ironic style. I very much enjoyed my adventure with Doris in her search of wealth, love, luxury and glamour in the hidden corners of the city, and to witness her self discovery while she is looking for many other things. Original narrative, great story!
Running out of options to subsidize her meagre income as a less than competent typist, Doris dreams of making it big in the movies. "I want to be a shine" (Ich will ein Glanz sein) is her ambition. She has the looks for it and her choice of boyfriends is aimed at having them provide the necessary accessories for her status as a glamour girl. Options appear to open when she lands a one-line action part against stiff competition. Unfortunately she gets carried away with her brief moment of "Glanz", and walks off with a fur coat that "wants me and I want it - and now we have each other". Sensuality is prominent when Doris describes fabric, often linking it to smell, objects and the people she meets. Her closeness and loyalty to her former colleague and friend Therese is touching, relying on her as much as wanting to support her in turn. To escape being discovered with the fur coat, she leaves her mid-size town for Berlin, the centre of fashion, the arts and the movie business. Her luck goes up and down, depending on the circumstances and generosity of the current boyfriend. All the while she pines for her first and only love, Hubert. As soon as she feels settled into an almost "normal" life of some luxury with one partner, events force her to leave quietly or secretly. Yet, unflinchingly, she pursues her dream and the search for a Mister Right. Will she find him? As we follow Doris through a year's seasons, we realize that we take in much more: Keun's rich and detailed portrayal of Berlin and brilliant characterization of some of its multi-faceted people, always seen, of course, from Doris's perspective.
Not surprisingly, given Keun's topics and social critique, Keun's books were blacklisted and all available copies confiscated in 1933. No longer able to publish Keun went into exile to Holland, where she continued to enjoy great popularity among other German exile friends. When Holland was invaded in 1940 she had to flee again. Reports of her suicide enabled her to return under cover to Germany, where she survived until the end of the war. Unfortunately, Keun could not rekindle the public's interest in her writing; she died in 1982, lonely and poor. Her books were rediscovered decades later and have also benefited from recent re-translations. Read today, The Artificial Silk Girl (Das kunstseidene Mädchen) has lost nothing of its charm and relevance as a portrait of a working girl's life then (and now?). [Friederike Knabe]
So says Doris - so writes Doris, that is, near the last page of her thick black notebook, in which she started telling her life story after "something wonderful" happened to her in the middle of a night in 1931. "And I think it will be a good thing," she wrote in her first entry, "if I write everything down, because I'm an unusual person. I don't mean a diary -- that's ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write like a movie, because my life is like that and it's going to become even more so." There's a huge irony in that declaration, which the reader may only detect in afterthought; the whole point of Doris, as the literary creation of her author Irmgard Keun, is that she's NOT an unusual person. She's one of a horde of 'thoroughly modern Millies' on the loose in modern materialism. If her life is "like a movie", it's because the Director has cast her in one, choosing her specifically because she projects herself in a fantasy made up from movies and advertising. She's "artificial" in the sense of "artifice" -- make up -- instead of genuine stuff. In her worst moments, she admits to herself that she's a cheap imitation of glamour, synthetic rather than real "silk". She strives to be glitzy and contrives to be ditzy, but neither glitz nor ditz gets her what she wants, which is to be both secure and unconstrained. Safety and Freedom are hard to combine for anyone, but Doris isn't really capable of either. Her life is such a mess that one can't help admiring her power of fantasy. Here's an extended quote from her notebook:
""And there is ermine and women with Parisian scents and cars and shops with nightgowns that cost more than 100 marks and theaters with velvet, and they sit in them -- and everything bows down to them, and crowns come out of their mouths when they exhale .... And they are their own entourage and turn themselves on like light bulbs. No one can get near them because of the rays they're sending out. When they sleep with a man, they breathe on pillows with genuine orchids .... and foreign diplomats admire them and kiss their manicured feet in fur slippers and don't really concentrate, but no one cares ... it's an elegant world - and then you take the train to the Riviera in a bed to go on vacation and you speak French and you have pig leather suitcases with stickers on them, and the Adlon bows down to you -- and rooms with a full bath, which are called a suite.
I want it, I want it so badly -- and only if you're unhappy do you get ahead. That's why I'm glad that I'm unhappy.""
But Doris is her own artifice. Not only is she utterly uneducated, chiefly because she's so self-preoccupied that she can't imagine the value of learning anything outside her fantasized self, but she's not a pretty as she needs be in her fantasies. That's implicit in her confessions of affairs with men; none of them are as bedazzled by her as she requires. She's nothing special (though her creator Keun gives her a fabulous gift for words), and her "movie script" is a sad picaresque. In a way, she's 'Lazarillo de Tormes' in artificial silk drag; her script is one tawdry episode after another, but you can be sure that she won't be discovered to be lost heiress in the last chapter. Another odd comparison comes to mind, with the classic German novel "Green Henry". That huge "Bildungsroman" is also the first-person narrative of a young person without gifts or talents, blundering through sorrows, learning their essence and yet making the same mistakes again and again. "The Artificial Silk Girl" is a mere chapter in scope in comparison to "Green Henry", but both are brilliantly honest tales of self-delusion.
The cover of this English translation quotes a review from the Los Angeles Times: "Damned by the Nazis, hailed by the feminists ... a truly charming window into a young woman's life in the early 1930s." That's about as disingenuous as a blurb can be! But in fact "Kunstseidene Mädchen" was written when Keun was only twenty-one years old, published in Germany in 1932, an instant bestseller, and then banned - burned! - by the surging Nazi Reich. One has to wonder why the Nazis didn't 'appreciate' the book; after all, it depicts the tragic ugliness that will befall the decadent youth who don't belong to the Hitlerjugend. They could have chosen to read it as a "cautionary" tale; instead of a quick rise to fame and glamour, Doris descends into homelessness, near prostitution, and despair, and the jazzy allure of urban sophistication turns out to be bleak and fetid.
On the other hand, it's hard to imagine why "feminists" would hail such a depiction. It's certainly not a beatified image of womanhood. Doris is her own sex object. Her entire fantasy of glamour is constructed from her obsession with her own sexuality. She never forgets, not for a moment, her 'function' as an object of men's sexual neediness. When one man, Ernst, takes her in and pampers her without asserting sexual possession of her, she goes half nuts with insecurity and confusion about her self-constructed identity. The episodes of her 'script' are reminiscent of the sculpted plates of Judy Chicago, each one a v4g1n4 passively demanding to be gratified. But poor Doris lacks whatever "Eigenschaft" -- Quality -- one needs in order to be pleased.
This is an awfully great novella. I could write a review twice as long as the book itself exploring its perceptions and implications. The language is pungent and piquant, witty and winsome. Doris is as "real" as any woman in literature, and Irmgard Keun, who wrote so few books, was twice the writer Hemingway was or Fitzgerald aspired to be.
Review by Jeanne Stepanova