Inspired by the example of Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925), Keun set out to write the German answer to the bestselling novel from the US (a book I haven’t yet read). That’s how The Artificial Silk Girl was born, first published in the early 1930s in Germany at a time when the Nazis were in power. Not surprisingly, this book, along with many of Keun’s writings, was banned at the time.
The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.
Our narrator and protagonist is the feisty Doris residing in a mid-size town in Germany with her parents. When the book opens, Doris finds herself stuck in a staid, stifling job with a legal firm, which requires her to insert commas in the appropriate places in letters. Not only does she not enjoy this role, she is not particularly good at it, something she tries to make up for by flirting with her boss. But it’s a job that pays even if half of her salary goes to her domineering father who wastes it away.
Inevitably, Doris loses her job but through her mother’s connections manages to find an opening in the glittering world of theatre. Theatre life is full of politics and backbiting but Doris is street-smart and carves a place for herself by falsely letting on that she’s in a relationship with the director. Subsequently, a competition with the other girls for a one-line part in the play ensues. Doris bags the part, although she is eventually fired when her lies are exposed. She steals a fur coat from the dressing room and makes her way to the big city, Berlin.
In those first heady days, Doris is dazzled by the grandeur and splendor of Berlin.
Berlin is so wonderful. I would like to be a Berliner and belong here. The Resi, which is behind Blumenstrasse, isn’t a restaurant really. It’s all colors and whirling lights, it’s a beer belly that’s all lit up, it’s a tremendous piece of art. You can find that sort of thing only in Berlin. You have to picture everything in red and shimmery, more and more and more, and incredibly sophisticated.
She has ambitions of becoming a movie star and leading a glittering life filled with glamour and romance. There’s one section where Doris is in conversation with her blind neighbour Brenner with whom she’s possibly having an affair, which is particularly fascinating in the way Doris describes the vibrancy of Berlin. For Brenner, Doris is his eyes for a view of the big city. To his recurring question, “What did you see?”, Doris embarks on a stream of consciousness style narrative that depicts Berlin in a series of dazzling images following one after the other.
“I see – swirling lights with lightbulbs right next to each other – women without veils with hair blown into their faces. That’s the new hairstyle – it’s called ‘wind-blown’ – and the corners of their mouths are like actresses before they take on a big role and black furs and fancy gowns underneath – and shiny eyes – and they are either a black drama or a blonde cinema.
But it dawns on her that the reality is quite different, made all the more apparent when she takes Brenner out for a night on the town. Wandering through the streets and visiting cafes and restaurants, Doris desperately aims to convince herself and Brenner that Berlin has the power to entice and seduce with its myriad diversions.
I just want him to like my Berlin.
But what is visible instead is the grimness of urban life and a sense of existential angst, which seeps through the core of their beings, disillusioning them both. Doris begins to experience these harsher realities in everyday life as well as she struggles to find a place to stay and call home and has to rely on men for money and some company. The only thing she can hold onto is her fur coat which gives her not only warmth but also a sense of self.
In The Artificial Silk Girl, Irmgard Keun has painted a memorable character in Doris, who is both naïve and streetwise at the same time. While Doris somehow has the guts to navigate the tougher side of Berlin, she harbours romantic illusions of making it big as a movie star, dreams that do not come to fruition.
The latter half of the novel particularly takes on a darker undertone, the bleakness of which is blunted to some extent by Doris’ unique and breezy voice. I could not help but think of Jean Rhys’ novels when reading the last section. In a way, while depending on the company of men for money and warmth, Doris bears a lot of resemblance to Rhys’ heroines in Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. And yet, I couldn’t help but think that despite the similar circumstances, the heroine in Keun’s novel is not as defeated as in Rhys’.
But it’s a good thing that I’m unhappy, because if you’re happy you don’t get ahead.
In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, transmitted to us by an unforgettable protagonist.