I first came across the name “Gilgi” on a page of my grandmother Kathe’s diary from 1932, tucked between mentions of “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich and a performance by the Jewish cabaret star Dela Lipinskaja. “Such courage!” Kathe wrote, of the character Gilgi. I was curious for any glimpse into my grandmother’s mind during this chapter of her life when she was an expressionist dancer in Hamburg and sported boyish haircuts and berets.
She had recently fallen in love with my grandfather Hermann and was summoning the courage to divorce her husband. From Wikipedia I learned that Gilgi was the first novel by a writer named Irmgard Keun (1905-82), who had been the It Girl of the German literary scene in the final years of the Weimar Republic. Intrigued, I ordered a copy.
When I read Gilgi I was struck by how contemporary the novel feels, with its portrait of a woman fighting to maintain control over her life and her body in a politically polarised society. Gilgi’s experiences of workplace harassment, her scruples about privilege and her unease with the narcotic effects of romantic love are all coloured by Keun’s left-leaning politics. But they’re sketched with a light hand: This is a beach-worthy read with a social conscience.
A female reviewer in 1932, praising the novel’s “wholesome freshness,” noted that “countless hard-working, industrious, healthy young girls recognised themselves in the heroine.” I suspect many members of our #MeToo generation will do so as well.
It’s impossible to trace the parallels between our time and those interwar years without thinking of what came next: a vicious backlash against female freedom and ruthless suppression of the open society that had made it possible.
The spectre of Nazism stays on the periphery of Gilgi like a weather front darkening distant skies. The novel’s protagonist, an office girl in a company that makes hosiery, lives at home with her middlebrow parents. On her 21st birthday the couple reveal to her that she was adopted, setting her on a search for her birth mother. One candidate is an indigent seamstress, another the then-teenage daughter of a wealthy family. Gilgi becomes painfully aware of how much she owes to the circumstances in which she was raised.
In the meantime Gilgi’s boss at the hosiery company is showing an unhealthy interest in his young typist. She concocts a plan to divert his attentions onto her more glamorous friend Olga, who will be able to shake him off without risk to her career. There are more roving hands and wounded male egos at the carnival parties in Gilgi’s native Cologne.
Like Virginia Woolf, Gilgi recognises the need for a room — and a typewriter — of her own. She rents a space where she retreats to do freelance work and listen to records. When Gilgi falls in love with Martin, a charming but work-shy writer, her discipline is tested. Suddenly the girl who juggled two jobs and evening language classes, took cold showers and exercised by the open window each morning finds it hard to get out of bed at all. Martin, bemused by what he calls her incurable independence complex, suggests she drop everything and emigrate somewhere more exotic.
But even with Communists and Nazis fighting in the streets Gilgi feels an obligation to stay — though she wants no part in shrill nationalism.
“Even at school I was ashamed when they sang ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles’ — such a revolting song — so oily when you were saying the words, so oily when you were thinking them, your whole mouth full of cod-liver oil. Those people — who force their love for the fatherland on you — do you understand that instead of being quite humble and grateful when they get the chance to love something they’re proud of it as though they’d created it themselves and they make what they’ve created into an obligation for other people.”
Gilgi has no time for the virtue-signalling of her activist friend Pit, who mansplains socialism to her and calls her a “superficial little thing” when she prods his vanity. And she certainly has no patience for the condescension of the “pathetic medical-school Mickey Mouse” of a doctor who delivers the news of her pregnancy.
“Listen, Doctor,” she says, “there’s nothing more immoral and unhygienic and absurd than making a woman have a child which she doesn’t want.” But in the end it’s not an abortion she chooses but single motherhood, a train ticket to Berlin and a chance to build a life on her own terms.
But there’s also something sadly familiar in Gilgi’s strained drive for self-actualisation. It shows in the hard edges of her can-do personality, on guard against unwonted sentimentality and unneeded calories, sidestepping leery co-workers with a breezy smile. The difference between Keun’s novel and women’s magazines today lies in the book’s shadows — the moments where Gilgi realises she won’t be able to have it all, or get ahead without leaving someone weaker behind.
When the Nazis seized power in 1933 they lost no time in silencing Keun, then 28. Her books, including a best-selling second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, were among those denounced as “asphalt literature with anti-German tendencies” and banned.
In a move of unequaled chutzpah, Keun went to court and sued for lost earnings. She also applied for membership in the Reich Literary Chamber, headed by Goebbels. Denied on both counts, she emigrated in 1936. From the Netherlands she published a bitter satire, After Midnight, about Germans adapting to the new regime. In it one character tells a writer that dictatorship has made his profession redundant because it has turned Germany into “a perfect country.” His advice: “Do yourself in, or learn the harp and play the music of the spheres.”
Those words would prove darkly prophetic. In exile Keun began a torrid affair with the Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth, who died in 1939 after hearing that a fellow Emigre writer had hanged himself in a New York hotel. Keun faked her own suicide and survived the war, unrecognised thanks to a pseudonym, in her native Rhineland. She wrote sharp-clawed columns in postwar newspapers, but by then public appetite for her blend of feminism and acid wit had paled.
My grandmother Kathe married Hermann in the spring of 1933. From there on photos show her in high-collared blouses with demure pinned-up hairstyles. A decade later war turned her city to rubble and her husband was hauled to a concentration camp as a political prisoner. Courage now meant walking up, unannounced, to the gate of Buchenwald and politely requesting to see the camp doctor. I found Kathe’s diary amid risque costume designs from her days as a dancer and her correspondence with the camp’s effects chamber as she fought for answers, possessions and ashes.
“There are two layers in me,” Gilgi thinks as she watches Martin sleep, contemplating what to do about her pregnancy. The upper one belongs to the “little clockwork girl” and dictates everyday words and actions. But beneath it lies a layer, Gilgi reflects, that is “always wanting, always searching, always longing and darkness and not knowing.” And, she continues, as she works up the courage to make her decision: “Cover your dark world with the diamond lie of shame — cover your dark world with the golden lie of the will, cover your dark world with the silver lie of contenting yourself, cover your dark world with the iron lie of belonging to the everyday but don’t cover your dark world with the tarnished copper lie of cowardice.”
–New York Times News Service