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Authors: Irmgard Keun


BOOK: Gilgi
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“Brief, important, and haunting.”


“Explosive … Even reading
After Midnight
today feels dangerous … Keun has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naïveté is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away … Haunts far beyond its final page.”


“I cannot think of anything else that conjures up so powerfully the atmosphere of a nation turned insane … One of those pieces of fiction that illuminate fact.”


“Acerbically observed by this youthful, clever, undeceived eye … This miniature portrait, rightly republished, is distinguished not only for its unfamiliar slant but for its style which is of a remarkable simplicity and purity, crystalline yet acid; a glass of spring water laced with bitter lemon.”


“The overwhelming power of Keun’s work lies in her surprisingly raw, witty, and resonant feminine voices.”


“Keun was possessed of a spectacular talent. She managed to convey the political horrors she lived through with the lightest possible touch, even flashes of humor … Her work stands as a brilliant record of the era she survived.”



(1905–1982) was born in Berlin and raised in Cologne, where she studied to be an actress. However, reputedly inspired by a meeting with Alfred Döblin, the author of
Berlin Alexanderplatz
, she turned to writing, and became an instant sensation with her first novel,
Gilgi, One of Us
, published in 1931 when she was just twenty-six. A year later, her second novel,
The Artificial Silk Girl
, was an even bigger bestseller. The rising Nazi party censured Keun, however, and her books were included in the infamous “burning of the books” in 1933. After being arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, Keun left her husband and escaped Germany. While wandering in exile, Keun conducted an eighteen-month affair with the writer Joseph Roth and wrote the novels
After Midnight
Child of All Nations
. In 1940, Keun staged her suicide and, under a false identity, reentered Germany, where she lived in hiding until the end of the war. Her work was rediscovered in the late seventies, reviving her reputation in Germany.

, a Lecturer in German Studies at the University of Queensland, has written extensively on the literature and society of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, with special attention to Irmgard Keun and Hans Fallada. He is the author of
Hans Fallada’s Crisis Novels 1931–1947



I was by no means the only reader of books on board the
Several other sailors were diligent readers, though their studies did not lie in the way of belles-lettres. Their favourite authors were such as you may find at the book-stalls around Fulton Market; they were slightly physiological in their nature. My book experiences on board of the frigate proved an example of a fact which every book-lover must have experienced before me, namely, that though public libraries have an imposing air, and doubtless contain invaluable volumes, yet, somehow, the books that prove most agreeable, grateful, and companionable, are those we pick up by chance here and there; those which seem put into our hands by Providence; those which pretend to little, but abound in much



Originally published in German as
Gilgi, eine von uns
by Universitas, Berlin, 1931
Copyright © by Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, Berlin
Published in 1979 by Classen Verlag
Afterword copyright © 2013 by Geoff Wilkes

First Melville House printing: November 2013


Melville House Publishing
8 Blackstock Mews
145 Plymouth Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
London N4 2BT

eISBN: 978-1-61219-278-9

Design by Christopher King

A catalog record for this title is available
from the Library of Congress.




About the Authors


Title Page


First Page

Afterword: A Writer in the Shadow of Nazism

Other Books by This Author


SHE’S HOLDING IT FIRMLY IN HER HANDS, HER little life, the girl Gilgi. She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela. The two
’s are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head. When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela. But she’s not at that point quite yet.

Six-thirty on a winter morning. The girl Gilgi has got out of bed. Stands in her cold room, stretches, holds it, opens her eyes to drive the sleep out. Stands at the wide-open window and does her exercises. Touches her toes: up—down, up—down. The fingertips brush the floor while the legs remain straight. That’s the right way to do it. Up—down, up—down.

The girl Gilgi bends and straightens for the last time. Slips her pyjamas off, throws a towel around her shoulders and runs to the bathroom. Runs into a voice in the dark hallway which hasn’t woken up yet. “Really, Jilgi, in your bare feet on the icy lin-o-le-um! You’ll catch your death.”

“Morning, Mother,” Gilgi calls, and considers whether she should shower in hot water before the cold, just for today. Away with temptation. No exceptions will be made. Gilgi lets the ice-cold water play over her narrow shoulders, her little convex stomach, her thin, muscle-hardened limbs. She presses her lips together in a firm, narrow line and counts to thirty in her head.

One—two—three—four. Don’t count so fast. Slowly, nice and slowly: fifteen—sixteen—seventeen. She trembles a little, and is a little proud (as she is every morning) of her modest courage and self-control. Keep to the daily plan. Don’t deviate from the system. Don’t slacken. Not in the smallest trifle.

The girl Gilgi stands in front of the mirror. Fastens a black suede belt firmly around the thick gray woollen sweater, hums the words of a melancholy hit song (she’s in a good mood), and looks at herself with an objective pleasure.

Give me your hand, dear, once more in farewell / Good ni-hight, good ni-hight … Rubs a touch of Nivea Creme on her eyebrows, so that they’re nice and bright, a touch of powder on the tip of her nose. Nothing more. Make-up isn’t for the morning, rouge and lipstick are reserved for the evening.

Give me your hand, dear, once more … A mirror like this is a friendly thing when you’re twenty years old and have a clear, unlined face. A face which you look after. Looked after is better than pretty, it’s your own achievement.

Ti-ta—ta-ti-ta … An assessing glance at the austerely impersonal room. White-painted bedstead, white chest of drawers, a table, two chairs, a peaceful pattern of little flowers on the wallpaper, and a little painting in a nondescript frame which—washed-out and unattractive as a girl whose man has left her—no longer cares to draw attention to itself. You should’ve got rid of it long ago, this sentimental blot of color. Gilgi raises her arm for the attack. Lets it fall again. Well, what’s the point? The thing was a present from Mother, some time or other. She’d be offended if
you chucked it out. Let it stay up there. It’s not doing any harm. It’s nothing to do with you, this room. Because you don’t live here, you just sleep in this virginal white bed. Give me your hand, dear, once more in fare … Three pairs of chamois-leather gloves, two collars, and a blouse to be washed. Gilgi jams them under her arm and heads for the bathroom. The door’s locked. A man’s voice, roughened by decades in bars, sounds out: “Jus’ a moment, Jilgi, almost finished.” Gilgi wanders up and down the hallway. And only because she’s got nothing at all to do right this minute, she thinks about Olga’s brother. A nice boy. What was his first name again? She can’t remember. He kissed her last night, in the car. He’s leaving today. A pity? Nah. But it was nice yesterday, with him. She hadn’t kissed a man for ages. There are so few that you like. The undiscriminating years between seventeen and nineteen are over. He was a nice boy. It was a nice kiss. But that was all. You don’t feel it anymore. That’s as it should be.

The bathroom door opens with a bang. A rotund figure in whitish underthings rushes past Gilgi, trailing aromas of Kaloderma soap and Pebeco toothpaste, which fill the hallway.

“Morn’, Jilgi.”

“Morning, Father.” Gilgi promptly forgets Olga’s brother and the kiss and devotes herself to Lux soap flakes, chamois-leather gloves, collars, and silk blouse. Give me your hand, dear, once more in …

A quarter-hour later, Gilgi is sitting in the living-room. Primordial furniture. Imposing sideboard, manufactured around nineteen hundred. Tablecloth with web-like embroidery and little cross-stitched flowers. Faded green lampshade with fringes made from glass beads. Green
plush sofa. Above it, a cloth rectangle: Our Little Nest By God Is Blessed. The letters wobble, as though they were embroidered by an epileptic, and cornflowers wind around them, as though they’re doing Saint Vitus’ dance. Or maybe it’s bindweed. And someone once gave this thing as a gift. Someone once accepted this thing and said: “Thank you.” Above the cloth rectangle, an epic painting: Washington. He’s standing in an unsteady boat which is making its laborious way through ice-floes, and he’s waving a flag at least the size of a bedsheet. Admirable. Not the painting, but Washington. Good luck trying to do what he’s doing: standing tall and proud like a gladiator in a little, storm-tossed boat, looking boldly forward, and waving a flag at least the size of a bedsheet. Only Washington could do that.

America For Ever. Germany Wants To See You. Deutschland, Deutschland über alles … If you like, you can believe that Washington, who’s painted in straight lines as though the artist used a ruler, is a representative of German heroism. Frau Kron believes that. She inherited the painting. For her, Washington, Ziethen, Bismarck, Theodor Körner, Napoleon, Peter the Great, Gneisenau, all blur into one. She knows as much about one as she knows about the next, which is to say: nothing. But the painting is patriotic, and that’s what counts. Deutschland, Deutschland …

Our Little Nest By God Is Blessed. The family is together. Father, mother, and daughter. They’re drinking coffee. Their own blend: one-fourth coffee beans, one-fourth chicory, one-fourth barley, one-fourth Carlsbad Coffee Spices. The liquid looks brown, is hot, tastes dreadful, and is drunk without demur. By Herr Kron for the sake of his
kidneys and of economy, by Frau Kron for the sake of her heart and of economy, by Gilgi out of resignation. And anyway, habit has broken the resistance of all three.

All three are eating rolls with good butter. Only Herr Kron (Carnival Novelties, Wholesale) eats an egg. That egg is more than nourishment. It’s a symbol. A concession to masculine superiority. A monarch’s badge of office, a kind of emperor’s orb.

No-one speaks. Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns. The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy. Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary. They love each other and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt. Something which has been carefully packed away in the nineteenth-century sideboard, a little tarnished like the wedding silver in the neighboring drawer. The tedium is the cornerstone of the stability of their relationship, and the fact that they have nothing to say to each other means that they feel no uneasiness about each other.

Herr Kron is reading the
Cologne Advertiser
. His reddish-brown, reasonably well-kept right hand raises the coffee cup to his mouth at regular intervals. His round face with its fresh complexion shows the shocked and anxious expression which all habitual newspaper-readers should assume. No decent person could possibly look pleased when reading: Polish Infantry on German Soil. Disgraceful, that is. “European Manifesto”: Briand Proposes Declaration in Support of European Peace and Reconstruction at Closing Session of European Council. The explanation
which follows this is a bit complicated for Herr Kron, which is a reason to look doubly anxious. Can you trust Briand? You can’t trust anyone. Next: Scandal in Budget Committee—Precious Stones Smuggled to Poland—Witnesses Named in Tausend Fraud Case—Robbery at Dairy. Nothing but unedifying reports. Heaven knows that, for the good of his health, the honest newspaper-reader has to accept sad news items with gloomy satisfaction, letting them stimulate his digestion. More Kruschen Salts stories: Bishop of Leitmeritz Dead—Another Weapons Cache Unearthed—and here … Herr Kron reads it aloud, in a voice that betrays his nightly beer-drinking: “Trag-e-dy on the Treptow Bridge, a woman an’ her child jumped into the water.”

BOOK: Gilgi
11.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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