Translated from the German by Kathie van Ankum
The Artificial Silk Girl follows the adventures of a sexually adventurous, rather mercenary young woman, Doris, living in Berlin before the Second World War. The novel was first published as Das kunstseidene Mädchen in 1932, and was published in English a year later (though my translation dates from 2001). My book club chose it as one of our two reads for the autumn (the other being Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments), after a friend of a friend recommended it.
I’m interested in Weimar Berlin, so the book immediately appealed to me. And I thought it would be great to get a feel for the famed decadence of the era from a female perspective. Indeed, the Introduction to the book suggests that it was inspired in part as a response to Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
There have been lots of reviews suggesting that the book remains modern in its outlook many years after its first publication, with comparisons drawn with contemporary writers such as Helen Fielding and Candace Bushnell. The books is notably very open in its descriptions of Doris’s entanglements with men and drunken nights out. And passages such as this do highlight issues that remain relevant today, such as patriarchal judgements on female sexuality:
“If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.”
However, I didn’t love the novel. I found Doris vapid and annoying and utterly devoid of interiority. The book could still have worked for me, except that I found the prose disjointed and incoherent. The punctuation is eccentric, and the accounts of Doris’s plotless, episodic ups and downs were consequently strangely difficult to follow. While the book’s unstructured breathlessness is no doubt supposed to evoke Doris’s giddiness and effusiveness, I simply found it irritating. It reminded me a bit of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s amazing memoir The Copenhagen Trilogy, but that is far, far more engaging and I recommend it unreservedly!
Banned by the Nazis, Keun’s work was rediscovered in the ’70s. She went into exile in the mid-1930s, although she managed to return to Germany under a pseudonym after false reports of her suicide were published; her life was sadly blighted by alcohol addiction.
Although to me the novel seemed resolutely apolitical, her bafflement at anti-Semitism is evident:
“The industrialist dropped me already. And it’s all because of politics. Politics poisons human relationships. I spit on it. The emcee was a Jew, the one the bike was a Jew, the one who was dancing was a Jew…
So he asks me if I’m Jewish too. My God, I’m not – but I’m thinking: if that’s what he likes, I’ll do him the favour – and I say: “Of course – my father just sprained his ankle at the synagogue last week.”
So he says, he should have known, with my curly hair. Of course it’s permed, and naturally straight like a match. So he gets all icy; turns out he’s a nationalist with a race, and race is an issue – and he got all hostile – it’s all very difficult. So I did exactly the wrong thing. But I didn’t feel like taking it back. After all a man should know in advance whether he likes a woman or not. So stupid! … you are exactly the way you were before, but one word has supposedly changed you.”