Sunday, November 3, 2013

After Midnight by Irmgard Keun


This post is part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy over at Lizzy's Literary Life.




After Midnight by Irmgard Keun (1905 – 1982) is set Nazi Germany in 1936. It is told in the first person by 19 year-old Susanne Moder, also known as Sanna. The novel’s protagonist spends her time interacting and socializing with a host of family members, friends and acquaintances, and falling in love with her fiancé, Franz.


 This post is not a comprehensive review of the novel, nor is it an analysis of most of the complex, well drawn out and interesting characters. These characters range from seemingly frivolous party boys and girls, intellectual writers and anti–Nazis, as well as Nazi members of the SS and Brownshirts themselves. Instead I will focus upon Sanna and Keun’s motivation for creating her.


Sanna is a most remarkable persona. She is clever, extremely perceptive and sharp witted. However, she is anything but an intellectual. Unlike many characters that I am drawn to, she does not articulate composite viewpoints, opinions or judgments in her head. For the most part, she lives in the moment. Left to her own devices, she is primary concerned with her social life, romantic interactions and small squabbles with family and friends.


Yet, Sanna is very disturbed by what the Nazis do. When she witnesses or becomes aware of it, she objects to the political and ethnic persecutions and the ceaseless propaganda. At the same time, she is amused by Nazi theatricality and the savvy way that they use the media of the time. She does not put it all together into a coherent worldview, however. On the other hand, several of her friends and associates spend much time with theorizing and pontification their belief systems, which range from anti Nazi to pro-Nazi.


Oddly, I would compare Sanna to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain’s creation, she is seemingly naive and she has no consistent political, social or philosophical views. She is mostly interested in her family and social life. On the other hand, also like Finn, Sanna is a fountain of satiric and cynical insights about the world that are based on an underlying morality. For instance, her take on the reading habits, or lack thereof, of many people is insightful and amusing. At one point, she comments about Kurt Pielmann, a member of the SS who is in love with her best friend, Gerti.


“The likes of Kurt Pielmann will be sure to send her the constructive literature, if only because then he can believe he’s read it himself. I know about this sort of thing through my father, and Aunt Adelheid, and a good many other people too. They find reading far too much of a strain, far too boring. You can bet your sweet life they haven’t read Mein Kampf from beginning to end yet. Not that I have either. But they’ve bought it, and glanced at it now and again, and in the end they believe they’ve read the whole thing. “


Another example involves a sarcastic view of Hitler and his supposed abilities and sacrifices,


“Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well. “


These witty observations are as far as Sanna goes, however. She never moves on to strong and definitive opinions organized around the big picture.


Based upon Keun’s biography, the author seems to have been something of a deep thinker. She held strong and sophisticated views on an entire range of subjects and likely associated with similar folks. In Sanna, she was creating a very different person than herself. Sanna seems to be a representation of natural human reaction and understanding of many of the world’s ills, including outright evil. She does not over rationalize or analyze, but unlike many who are around her, she recognizes wrong, hypocrisy and propaganda, as well as plain old dumb behavior.


According to several sources that I have read, Keun’s biography is in many ways more interesting than fiction.  A successful writer of novels that explored the role of women in the modern world, she became a vehement anti-Nazi even before Hitler came to power. She maintained this position before, during and after World War II.  Initially remaining in Germany with the intention of resisting Hitler, she was eventually forced to flee the Reich before the war. It was during this period in exile that After Midnight was written. Her exposure to Nazi oppression was not over, however. She subsequently was trapped in the Netherlands after the German invasion.  After planting a fake story purporting her own suicide, she successfully hid out in Germany for the duration of the war. In the postwar period, though plagued by bouts of mental illness, she lived to see resurgence in the popularity of her works in the 1970s.




This book is a fantastic character study. As I alluded to above, in addition to Sanna, there are several rich and compelling characters that have all sorts of interesting things going on. I read the Anthea Bell translation of this work. At least in this version, the writing is lively and engaging.  Where this novel falls short is its brevity. I feel that these other characters had the potential for much more development. At less then 200 pages this book could have been twice as long. Nevertheless the virtues of this work are strong and I highly recommend it.

32 comments:

Caroline said...

I'm so glad you liked it. I'm a great fan of Irmgard Keun, her work and her life. I think her end was somewhat tragic.
I thought the fatct that she portrayed a naive young girl and let's us see Hitler and his regime through her eyes magnifies it. It's quite chilling.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I only read the briefest little online biographies of Keun. I got the impression that though she went through terribly difficult times after the War, that she found some level of redemption beginning in the 1970s. But as I mention my knowledge is superficial at best.

Sanna's view of the Nazi's is really insightful and unexpected.

BookBelle said...

Brian, have you read "An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork" by Etty Hillesum? It is an autobiography of a young woman who voluntarily goes to a concentration camp with her family even though she did not need to go - at least quite so soon. This is a woman of strong character right to the bitter end. Her letters were found and published after her death. It is one of the best I've ever read. Belle

Suko said...

Susanne--or Sanna--does sound like a fascinating protagonist, Brian. Excellent review! I had not heard of this book before but it seems like a good one to peruse for this reading challenge.

Tony Malone said...

I've never quite got around to reading anything by Keun, but I'm sure I will (this one sounds good)...

...just not this year ;)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Belle - I have not read that one but it does sound extraordinary. Having read a few non fiction accounts of folks who lived through such horrors I can say that that even when they illustrate human strength, they can be difficult to take.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Indeed I love books with such dynamic characters. I found this one to be a good choice especially since I wanted to go follow this year's focus on finding German women writers.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tony - there is indeed so much to read one cannot get to all the worthy ones.

Tracy Terry said...

It sounds like the author has done a wonderful job with Sanna. At first I was worried she may have been written as a bit of a one dimensional character but the more I read your wonderful pot the more I came to realise this wasn't the case.

Sharon Henning said...

This is exactly the sort of book I love. Sanna represents those who live in the moment. They see events, can even laugh at them but can't really create a cohesive whole or form definite conclusions. I'm sure the author showed things in a truer light by using this sort of person as a medium.

I am going to get this book and it looks like I need to read the biography as well.

Take care!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - Thanks for the kind words.

In a way I think Sanna is even more complex then if she were an intellectual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As always thanks for stopping by.


Living in the moment is a really good and accurate way to describe Sanna.

Naida said...

Interesting that you compare Sanna to Huckleberry Finn. She does sound like a great character.
The authors own history looks like it could make for a great book as well. Faking her own suicide and everything.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - The thing about Huckleberry Finn was that from an seemingly innocent perspective he delivered biting criticism of the society around him. I see Sanna in a similar light.

Keun's story is also a very interesting one.

Guy Savage said...

You mentioned somewhere that you were going to review this author for GLM, and I;m glad you did. I have one of her titles floating around here somewhere and I've been meaning to get to her.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I am really glad that I choose Keun too. I have heard that many of her books are good so I would be curious if you revised some of her other novels.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

It's good if you finish a book and think - this should have been twice as long. Better to want more from a book than be bored by it.
Enjoy the German Literature Month, I've wanted to join you and Caroline for this event for a while but this month is not the perfect time for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia- Vert true, better too short then too long!

It can really be a challenge to fit the time in for these events. There is so much that we all want to read!

bookaroundthecorner said...

Hi Brian,

Great review.
Do you think the author meant Sanna to be an example of "people wisdom"? In other words, does she show how non-intellectual people can have a better grasp at a situations because they're not blinded by reasoning and rationalization.
She seems to understand what's going on at a deeper level than the others but doesn't have the tools to shape her gut feeling into words.

I'm going to look for this book in French.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Thanks for the good word.

I think that "People Wisdom" is a good description. ThoughI never liked the term, "Street Smart" might also apply.

James said...

Irmagard Keun seems to be a master of the miniature character-based novel. Your insightful comments remind me of my experience reading her novel The Artificial Silk Girl, in which she, in slightly more than two hundred pages, managed to create an indelible character study of a young girl in the wild Berlin of the nineteen-twenties. Thanks for sharing some of your thoughts on the work of this neglected author.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi james - i have not read the The Artificial Silk Girl or any of the other Keun novels but I want to now.

From what I can tell from snippets of information online, Keun's works are enjoying a resurgence in interest.

Harvee said...

How fascinating to have this point of view revealed in the novel.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Indeed Sanna is a most unusual protagonist in a work like this. I think that her character is typical, but in a different kind of book.

So many books, so little time said...

I really like the sounds of this, whilst war isn't always my first choice I do think this sounds good. Thanks for reviewing.

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Actually we tend to think of the NAZIs as associated with WW II but this takes place before the war.

Lindsay said...

I've never read this author, but this book sounds fascinating. Sad not to have managed to take part in German Lit Month this year, but great to find all these wonderful reviews.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lindsay - Thanks for stopping by.

I had never read Keun before but I now think that she is well worth reading.

There are so many reading events and so much to read. I find that I cannot participate in all those that I want to.

JaneGS said...

What an interesting book and I like the angle you took for your review--it does sound like the author's biography would be compelling.

Actually, Sanna reminds me a lot of Martha Dodd, daughter of the American ambassador to Germany during this time--her story is told in Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.

This is a fascinating time to study, both historically and culturally.

I think I would like this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I have heard much about Garden of Beasts but have not read it. Interesting that this was work of fiction written so many years before.

Maria Behar said...

I've never heard of this writer, or this book, for that matter. Both sound very interesting, although I do wish that Keun had made Sanna more of an intellectual. Still, this novel is definitely an important contribution to literature, as well as a strong stand against tyranny and oppression.

I'm fascinated by your comparison of Sanna's character to that of Huckleberry Finn. I must sheepishly admit that I've never read Twain's classic novel. I have read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer", though. I'm going to make a note to myself: READ "Huckelberry Finn" sometime soon, and then pick up Keun's book. It should prove to be a totally engrossing experience!

Thanks for posting a review of this book! I'm adding it to my Goodreads TBR and Amazon wish list at once!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - Like yourself I love reading and interacting with folks who intellectualize things and who think, think and think! However, we have so much of that type of material in relation to Nazism and oppressive regimes in general. I think that one nice thing about this book is that for a change, we see a gut level, emotional, but still moral reaction yo living under Nazism.

I compared Sanna to Huckleberry Finn because I think he had a similar reaction to the ills that he encountered in his society, particularly slavery.

If you read Huckleberry Finn I would love to read what you think.