THE ARTIFICIAL SILK GIRL by Irmgard Keun

Book Quote:

“And I think it will be a good thing 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. ”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (JUN 14, 2011)

There is nothing fake or “artificial” about the heroine of this surprising work of fiction. First published in 1932 in Germany, it was followed very quickly by its English translation in 1933. It was an immediate hit for a young author’s second novel; praised for its pointed sense of humour as well as the underlying critique of society. The story, written in the form of the central character’s musings and diary, blends a young woman’s daily struggles to make ends meet with, an at times sarcastic, yet always, witty commentary on daily life among the working classes during the dying days of the Weimar Republic.

Irmgard Keun cleverly uses her memorable character – Doris – who is as naïve as she is shrewd – to convey her own astute observations and critique of social and economic conditions of the time. While many aspects of the impending political disaster could not be predicted, Keun conveys her presentiments through Doris’s experiences. Despite the less than rosy picture it draws for Doris, the story is written in a deceptively light-hearted style, using the regional and working class colloquial language of her character with some Berliner phraseology and idioms thrown in. Keun’s vivid imagery and metaphors are often unexpected as they are hilarious. Kathie van Ankum’s new English translation captures Doris’s voice vividly and with great skill, even though Keun’s peculiar language with its grammatical mistakes and local idioms is close to impossible to transpose into another language.

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. Reading it 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 in Berlin of 1932. It is a rare glimpse into a society on the brink of dramatic change, seen through the eyes of a working class young woman. (Translated by Kathie von Ankum.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 5 readers
PUBLISHER: Other Press (June 14, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Irmgard Keun
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books brought back to life:

Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson

Esther’s Inheritance by Sandor Marai

Translated Bibliography:


June 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Character Driven, Classic, Germany, Translated, World Lit

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