Friday, February 1, 2008

Discovered: Irmgard Keun

In the Guardian Book Review last Saturday there was a brief essay about Irmgard Keun, a German author who wrote mainly in the early-middle part of the last century. The title of the essay was "Bridget Jones of the 1930s," perhaps semi-trite of a title, but it relates directly to her female characters who struggled with career and life. In any event, it was a revelatory essay about a woman I had never heard of and look forward now to reading. Keun was born in Berlin in 1905 She began writing in 1920, after feeling defeated in her attempts to be an actress, and was soon printed worldwide, with titles such as "Gilgi,"(1931), "The Artifical Silk Girl," (1932), and "Child of All Nations,"(1938). Her subjects included the rising power and place of women during the war years, the reality of women feeling torn between seeking their own goals/desires and taking the required route of marriage and kids. Her work was subversive enough to cause unwanted attention and she was firmly anti-Nazi, so you see where the story goes...she was blacklisted, her books removed from the shelves and in 1936 she fled Germany. She continued to write in exile, during the late 1930s, a time in which she had left her husband and began living with the Austrian Jewish writer, Joseph Roth, up to his untimely death in 1939. After his death, she moved around quite a bit, including a brief time in America, but returned to Germany just before the end of the war, living very undercover. She continued to write after the war was over but she slipped into obscurity, in part because of a heavy problem with alcohol and hospitalization, until the 1970s when several European feminists, including the Nobel prize winning author, Elfriede Jelinek, rediscovered her work. She refused to ever write an autobiography and died in 1982 at the age of 77. The author of this essay, Michael Hofman, has translated one of her novels into English recently and he states firmly that had she been a man, her work would be in box sets and collected editions. As it is, they are not, but hopefully that will soon change.

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