How a Grandmother’s Diary Led to a Long-Lost Literary Gem

How a Grandmother’s Diary Led to a Long-Lost Literary Gem

Gilgi has no time for the virtue-signaling of her activist friend Pit, who mansplains socialism to her and calls her a “superficial little thing” when she prods his vanity. And she certainly has no patience for the condescension of the “pathetic medical-school Mickey Mouse” of a doctor who delivers the news of her pregnancy.

“Listen, Doctor,” she says, “there’s nothing more immoral and unhygienic and absurd than making a woman have a child which she doesn’t want.” But in the end it’s not an abortion she chooses but single motherhood, a train ticket to Berlin and a chance to build a life on her own terms.

But there’s also something sadly familiar in Gilgi’s strained drive for self-actualization. It shows in the hard edges of her can-do personality, on guard against unwonted sentimentality and unneeded calories, sidestepping leery co-workers with a breezy smile. The difference between Keun’s novel and women’s magazines today lies in the book’s shadows — the moments where Gilgi realizes she won’t be able to have it all, or get ahead without leaving someone weaker behind.

When the Nazis seized power in 1933 they lost no time in silencing Keun, then 28. Her books, including a best-selling second novel, “The Artificial Silk Girl,” were among those denounced as “asphalt literature with anti-German tendencies” and banned.

In a move of unequaled chutzpah, Keun went to court and sued for lost earnings. She also applied for membership in the Reich Literary Chamber, headed by Goebbels. Denied on both counts, she emigrated in 1936. From the Netherlands she published a bitter satire, “After Midnight,” about Germans adapting to the new regime. In it one character tells a writer that dictatorship has made his profession redundant because it has turned Germany into “a perfect country.” His advice: “Do yourself in, or learn the harp and play the music of the spheres.”

Those words would prove darkly prophetic. In exile Keun began a torrid affair with the Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth, who died in 1939 after hearing that a fellow émigré writer had hanged himself in a New York hotel. Keun faked her own suicide and survived the war, unrecognized thanks to a pseudonym, in her native Rhineland. She wrote sharp-clawed columns in postwar newspapers, but by then public appetite for her blend of feminism and acid wit had paled.

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