Book Review: After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

It is difficult to conceive of coming of age in a society where politics permeates and controls all aspects of life, from relationships to what you say or do. Even firsthand accounts of life in places like Nazi Germany are limited because they can largely reflect only the perspective of the author. As a result, novels by contemporary German writers often seem to carry as much or more impact on understanding the times. Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight is a notable part of that canon.

Susanne “Sanna” Moder, the narrator of the slim novel, uses almost naive political impressions, the views of others and her memories in casting cast an indelible portrait of “ordinary” life at the time. In part a love story set in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 1930s, even Senna’s simple, ingenue-like life is affected almost daily by Nazism and politics.

Keun’s book, written and first published in 1937 after she fled Germany, portrays Sanna as somewhat vacuous or at least generally ignorant of political details. To her, dresses, parties and love are the most important things in her life. When she hears speeches warning that those who impede the Nazi program will be smashed, her “heart stands still … because how do I know I’m not one of the sort who are going to be smashed?” But she is clever. Despite admitting she doesn’t understand the nuances, she does know there are simply certain things you shouldn’t talk about or do. Yet her observations, often unintentionally sardonic, help reveal life and society under Nazism. For example, when someone says Hitler united the whole German nation, Sanna thinks that’s fine but “it’s just that the people making up the whole German nation don’t get on with each other.”

Personal relationships certainly aren’t exempt. Sanna and her girlfriend, Gerti, are interested in their love lives and the story’s ultimate resolution revolves in large part around Sanna and the man she loves. But Gerti is in love with the son of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman. As a result, Sanna observes, he “is a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class — I can never get the hang of these labels.” Regardless of the label, Nazi race laws make the relationship illegal and the two risk their freedom by seeing each other.

Likewise, when Sanna recalls being summoned to a Gestapo office, it appears a “place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours.” There is also a less consistent stream of people looking for those who have “disappeared” but they “are not so well and kindly treated as the informers.”

Then there’s Sanna’s older stepbrother, Algin, a highly successful novelist — until his books were banned by the Nazis. Facing the fact that he will remain “undesirable” unless he writes a Nazi novel and even then be viewed with suspicion, he contemplates writing a long poem about Hitler. Yet as a journalist friend observes, the Nazis have made Germany “a perfect country, and a perfect country doesn’t need writers.”

With its descriptive yet sparse prose, After Midnight reveals the pervasive effect politics had on normal life in Nazi Germany. Sanna’s narration adds touches of innocence, satire and normalcy to a tale of people who, one way or another, have become outsiders in their own country. With the mix of people Sanna knows, her thoughts and their comments, the book provides a perspective on day to day life in pre-war Germany a work of nonfiction would find it difficult to capture.

Algin’s story seems to have a basis in Keun’s own life. She wrote bestselling novels but once the Nazis took power the books were withdrawn from circulation. Keun, in fact, even dared to seek damages from the Gestapo for lost profits after it seized unsold copies of the novels. While she fled the country in 1936, she published several novels in Amsterdam, including After Midnight. She then returned to Germany in 1940 under an assumed name and lived there until the end of the war.

After Midnight made its first U.S. appearance in 1938. This translation, by Althea Bell, was published in the U.K. in 1985 but is now the first release in Melville House’s Neversink Library, a series of “books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” In addition to being an excellent work, After Midnight is a superb start to that series.

We are living in the time of the greatest German denunciation movement ever, you see. Everyone has to keep an eye on everyone else.

Imgard Keun, After Midnight

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