After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

after midnightThe author of After Midnight, Irmgard Keun, once sued the Gestapo.

I’m not sure that we should admire her for this, but it certainly took guts. We can admire her for her novel After Midnight, a satirical look at life in Nazi era Germany, translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

After Midnight is a very funny book, maybe I should say witty.  It didn’t make me laugh out loud, more of a series of slightly guilty smiles.  Take this scene for example:

Gerti and I sat in the Esplanade while the place got emptier and emptier around us, quite deserted.  All the Jews were leaving.  Speeches came roaring out of the loudspeaker like a storm.  The cafe was full of them: speeches about the Fuhrer who would soon be here, about a free Germany, and about the enthusiasm of the crowd.  Two elderly ladies came in, thin and neat, looking like spinsters of slender means, maybe small-town schoolteachers on a visit to the city.  They ordered coffee and apple tart with cream. Just as they were about to start eating, the Horst Wessel Song came over the radio.  The old ladies put their spoons down, stood up and raised their arms.  You have to do that, because you never know who may be watching, who may denounce you.  Perhaps they were afraid of each other.  Gerti and I stood up too.

There is so much delicious stuff going on in this little scene.  Hitler is about to make a visit to Frankfurt where the scene is set so everyone is getting ready.  Speeches are every where, even in outdoor cafes.  The recorded speeches seem to slowly drive the cafe crowd away, starting with the Jewish customers until just the young narrator and her friend remain along with two old ladies who might be a vision of their future.  The old ladies raise their spoons to begin eating only to have to stand and raise their arms while a song plays.  There seem to be just four women in the cafe at this point, all four standing out of fear that one of them will report them if they do not.  Are Gerti and the narrator afraid the old ladies will report them or do they each fear the other?

Life under fascism.

After Midnight is exceptional because its satirical view is not historical fiction; it was written in 1937 shortly after the author went into exile in the Netherlands.  Her previous books had been banned by the Gestapo’s cultural arm.  Keun filed a lawsuit against the Gestapo claiming lost income.  She lost.

Goeff Wilkes’s fascinating afterword describes how Imgard Keun survived the war, how she tried to continue writing during and after the war.  She wanted to remain in Germany for as long as she could as a way to establish her own right to criticise what was going on there.  She returned to Germany under an assumed name when the Nazis arrived in the Netherlands after publishing a false story about her own death.  As a result of this she faced de-nazification procedures after the war while other writers who had fled the country did not.  I’m not sure what to make of this history myself knowing that Keun could have fled to America where she could have continued writing.  I’m glad that it’s not a decision I have to make.

In the end, After Midnight is a fascinating book, entertaining as well.  It provides a first hand look into life during the early years of the Nazi government by focusing on a group of writers who tried to resist as much as they could, though there was very little they could do once they could no longer write.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    I’d forgotten about this book for a couple of years, James, so it was nice to be reminded about it here. Hopefully I’ll read it before I forget about it again! The satirical angle makes one think that some of the unpleasantness Keun alludes to might go down more smoothly than it might have otherwise.

  2. hastanton says:

    This sounds like a fascinating read ….great review

  3. Sounds rather good. I like that your edition had some background in the afterword too.

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