The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

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.

Madonna in a Fur Coat – Sabahattin Ali (tr. Maureen Freely & Alexander Dawe)

Sabahattin Ali’s brief biography on the inside flap of my edition makes for interesting reading. He was considered one of the most influential Turkish writers of the twentieth century, and owned and edited a popular weekly newspaper, which became a target of government censorship. Ominously, he was assassinated in 1948 while travelling secretly to Bulgaria. But by whom he was murdered and where he was buried remains a mystery.

Madonna in a Fur Coat became a bestseller in Turkey, but it was little known outside the country before it was translated for a larger English speaking audience.  This is a book I read in January but am only reviewing now as the present worrying state of things have hampered my blogging a little bit.

Madonna in a Fur Coat begins in Ankara with our narrator reminiscing about the novel protagonist’s Raif Efendi – a humble and unassertive man.

Of all the people I have chanced upon in life, there is no one who has left a greater impression. Months have passed but still Raif Efendi haunts my thoughts. As I sit here alone, I can see his honest face, gazing off into the distance, but ready nonetheless, to greet all who cross his path with a smile. Yet he was hardly an extraordinary man. Indeed, he was rather ordinary, with no distinguishing features – no different from the hundreds of others we meet and fail to notice in the course of a normal day.

Our narrator has lost his job, but manages to secure a new position in a factory where Efendi is working as a translator of German. At first, our narrator finds Efendi’s lack of confidence annoying, but slowly the friendship between them grows. He is even invited to Efendi’s home. What he sees though is not a family living in harmony. Efendi lives not only with his wife but also with an extended family for whom he is responsible financially. What makes matters worse is that while these family members expect Efendi to provide for them, they display an utter lack of respect for him. Efendi takes it all on the chin and it is this passiveness that puzzles our narrator.

Things come to a head, when Efendi on falling very ill, calls our narrator by his bedside with a request to burn his diary. Our narrator, however, manages to convince him to read its contents before destroying them.

And this is where the second part of the story begins, set mostly in Berlin and written in his diary, as Efendi recounts his earlier life and the chain of events that culminate in his present tragic state.

Efendi in his early days is expected to join the family business of manufacturing soap, but he shows no aptitude for it. He decides to head to Berlin instead to study painting.

On one of his visits to a museum, he is captivated by a particular painting – that of a Madonna in a fur coat – a painting which draws him to the museum repeatedly. It is a self-portrait by the artist Maria Puder, of whom he knows nothing.

Suddenly, near the door to the main room, I stopped. Even now, after all these years, I cannot describe the torrent that swept through me in that moment. I only remember standing, transfixed, before a portrait of a woman wearing a fur coat. Others pushed past me, impatient to see the rest of the exhibition, but I could not move. What was it about that portrait? I know that words alone will not suffice. All I can say is that she wore a strange, formidable, haughty and almost wild expression, one that I had never seen before on a woman.

So caught up he is by this work of art that he fails to recognize the artist in person when she approaches him. Eventually they strike up a conversation and gradually this transforms into a relationship. But while Efendi is able to express his innermost thoughts very eloquently in his diary, he is unable to actually convey them to Maria. And this in a way proves to be his undoing.

It is hardly a spoiler to say that their relationship is doomed given what we know right at the start of Efendi’s present circumstances.

One of the themes Sabahattin Ali explores is the stereotypes prevalent in relationships between men and women. It is Maria Puder who takes the initiative in her romance with Efendi. She is attracted to him precisely because he is sensitive, kind and leaning towards the arts, which means that he is very unlike the typical man she normally comes across.

She said: ‘Now don’t you dare start thinking like all the other men…I don’t want you reading volumes into everything I say…just know that I am always completely open…like this…like a man…I’m like a man in many other ways, too. Maybe that’s why I’m alone…’

She looked me over before exclaiming: ‘And you’re a bit like a woman! I can see it now. Maybe that’s why I’ve liked you ever since I first set eyes on you…Yes, indeed. There’s something about you that makes me think of a younger girl…’

Madonna in a Fur Coat then is a beautifully written novel tinged with melancholia – the thought of what could have been, of things left unsaid and the consequences of not taking charge. Sabahattin Ali’s prose is languid and captivating and makes the reader feel sorry for Efendi’s plight despite his passive demeanour. There is a fascinating psychological depth to the novel, particularly in the way we learn about what continually torments Efendi’s mind and soul.

Indeed, while I read this novel in January, it continues to linger in my mind even now.

The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy

I have to read everything that Deborah Levy writes. I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that one and have gobbled up every work of hers since then. Last year, the second installment of her ‘living autobiography’ called The Cost of Living made it to my Best of 2018 list.

Man Who Saw Everything

The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything.

Abbey Road is the last major album that The Beatles recorded together before the band officially split in 1970.

But a few months earlier, on 8 August 1969, the band did a photo shoot for that album cover on Abbey Road outside EMI Studios. The photo shows the Fab Four crossing the zebra in a single file. John Lennon was first, followed by Ringo Starr, then Paul McCartney who was walking barefoot, and George Harrison at the end. It is now considered the most iconic photo of The Beatles.

This photo was clicked by the late Scottish photographer Iain Macmillan who stood on a ladder in the middle of the street while a policeman blocked the traffic. The whole shoot took roughly ten minutes. The photo also fuelled a weird conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney was actually dead and the man walking barefoot was a lookalike signifying a corpse, while Lennon was the priest and Harrison, the undertaker.

8 August 2019, incidentally, was the 50th anniversary of that iconic photo being taken.

abbey road pic
Image Source: Reuters & BBC

Coming to The Man Who Saw Everything, this is how the novel opens…

It’s like this, Saul Adler: when I was twenty-three I loved the way you touched me, but when the afternoon slipped in and you slipped out of me, you were already looking for someone else. No, it’s like this, Jennifer Moreau: I loved you every night and every day, but you were scared of my love and I was scared of my love, too. No, she said, I was scared of your envy, which was bigger than your love. Attention, Saul Adler. Attention! Look to the left and to the right, cross the road and get to the other side.

We move on to Part One, which is set in September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. The car’s mirror procured in Milan is in smithereens. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau.

It is Jennifer’s idea to replicate the iconic Abbey Road photo of The Beatles. But here, it would be only Saul crossing the zebra.

I asked her why she (Jennifer) was carrying a stepladder. She told me that was how the original photo of the Beatles on the Abbey Road zebra crossing was taken in August 1969 at 11:30 am. The photographer, Iain MacMillan, had placed the ladder at the side of the zebra while a policeman was paid to direct the traffic. MacMillan was given ten minutes to take the photo. But as I was not actually famous in any way, we couldn’t ask the police for five minutes so we had to work quickly.

Then Saul and Jennifer spend some time together before she abruptly breaks off with him. Jennifer has ambitions to pursue photography in America. While Saul, who is a historian, is set to travel to East Berlin shortly to research an article he is planning to write on the GDR (Germany is not reunited yet, and Berlin is divided by The Wall).

For this purpose, Saul has been assigned a translator in East Berlin, a man called Walter Muller. And Saul will be lodging with Muller’s mom Ursula and his sister, Luna.

Meanwhile, Saul falls in love with Walter Muller. And Luna, a big Beatles fan to whom Saul gifts the photos he clicked, is a nurse desperate to escape from the GDR. Then there is a friend, who the Mullers know, called Rainer, who may or may not be a Stasi spy.

This may all seem straightforward. But then some off-kilter moments begin to show up in the narrative.

Here’s one, in a conversation between Saul and Luna…

‘Listen, Luna.’ I felt as if I were floating out of my body as I spoke. ‘In September 1989, the Hungarian government will open the border for East German refugees wanting to flee to the West. Then the tide of people will be unstoppable. By November 1989, the borders will be open and within a year your two Germanys will become one.’

When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

As he lies in the hospital, various people close to him sit by his bedside and try to bring some coherence to his thoughts.

The Man Who Say Everything then is a wonderfully disorienting novel. If you are looking for a solid anchor, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. Reading this novel is akin to accepting that the ground you are standing on is not steady but is constantly shifting. Nothing is certain.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a novel of ideas, themes and recurring motifs.

Here are some motifs, which brilliantly display Levy’s play with language. Luna Muller is scared of jaguars prowling outside their family dacha in East Berlin. The car which hits Saul while crossing the zebra is a Jaguar.

Crossing the zebra on Abbey Road is another recurring concept. There is the actual Beatles photo. Then we have Jennifer recreating the photo shoot with Saul crossing the zebra on the same Abbey Road. Thrown into the mix is Luna’s love for the Beatles memorabilia. Luna is a nurse, and wants to go to Liverpool because she wants to see Penny Lane for herself.

Then there is the theme of a shattered man. In one of Jennifer’s photo exhibitions in New York, a triptych depicting Saul is mounted on the wall and is titled ‘A Man in Pieces’. Later in the novel, Luna sends across an envelope in which Saul’s photo crossing the zebra is torn in pieces. And then Saul, in a way, is in pieces mentally when his accident occurs.

There are some dominant themes in the novel too.

One is the presence of authoritarianism. Saul Adler is harassed by a domineering father, while Walter Muller and Luna have to grapple with a restrictive fatherland, the GDR. Saul is also writing an article on Stalin and his father and male tyrants in general.

The other theme explored is time blurring and merging into one another. When the past is entwined with the present and the boundaries are hazy, do we perceive the past with the lens of the present? Or the does the past always stain and weigh heavy on the way we live in the present?  The novel also examines the role of history on a broader scale and the events in personal life, how both can collude to impact the life of an individual.

But The Man Who Saw Everything is ultimately a story of the protagonist Saul Adler. He is portrayed as a very attractive, self-centred man, something that is pointed out to him by not only Jennifer and Walter, but as events play out is also apparent to the reader. Levy also highlights the fluidity of sexuality as Saul Adler is as capable of falling in love with Walter Muller as he is with Jennifer Moreau. He is a good looking man with intense blue eyes and always wears his deceased mother’s pearls around his neck.

In his relationships, Saul Adler is selfish. An affair leads to a final breach with Jennifer. And he only thinks of himself when he tries to get Walter Muller out of East Berlin.

‘He doesn’t care about his own life so he doesn’t care about the lives of others.’

More importantly is Saul Adler’s mind. Does Saul perceive himself in the same way that others see him? Is he trying to selectively recall events in his past, while suppressing others?

The Man Who Saw Everything has all the hallmarks of Deborah Levy’s craft – finely chiseled prose, play with language, oddball moments and a wonderful feeling of strangeness. The narrative is fractured as memories, morphine and a muddled mind morph into one another. The view appears skewed just like the shattered fragments of the Jaguar’s mirror. Indeed, it’s a haunting, stunning novel suffused with sadness, loss, betrayal and missed chances.

Even as I write this, I realize that there are many facets of the novel I have not touched upon or even uncovered for that matter. And that many more layers will be revealed if I choose to re-read.

Here’s a final quote…

‘Hello, Saul. How’s it going?’

‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years but stuff happened on the way.’