The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun

The Artificial Silk Girl is a treat to read, not just for the delightful yet achingly lonely voice of it’s narrator Doris but for the historical context in which it is set (early 1930s Berlin), in those pre WWII years. This is a time when the first hint of the horrors that would follow are starting to appear. A sense of discomfort bubbling beneath the surface and ‘politics’ starting to be discussed in everyday life. This book was banned by the Nazis along with all of Irmgard Keun’s work. There are not a lot of political references in it, just the odd little comment, snippet of conversation or attitude to come through. I think this makes it all the more powerful, especially as it was published in 1932. It was a bestseller when published, reading it nearly eighty years later with the knowledge of what followed, is a real privilege. A big thank you to Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat for writing about this author as part of German Literature Month – I hadn’t heard of her before.

The Artificial Silk Girl is Doris, young and beautiful, living in Cologne. She wants desperately to be a star and as her story progresses, wants desperately to be loved. She dreams of being in films, takes great pains with her appearance and writes a diary in which she is the star attraction. There is no pretense from Doris, she is candid in her diary about what she wants, and that includes a man who can pay for all the material trappings she associates with success and therefore craves.

“Heavenly Father, perform a miracle and give me an education – I can do the rest myself with makeup”

Most of this story takes place in Berlin where Doris and her newly acquired (stolen) fur coat arrive looking for fame. The Berlin she finds is one of contrast, glitz and glamour alongside ruthlessness and poverty. Doris has certain standards, she will sleep with a married man without regret but is offended by swearing and the word ‘pimp’. Sadly and frustratingly she comes close to needing the services of this pimp, her diary entries reflecting a reoccurring pattern of seemingly landing on her feet and living it up before needing to flee and finding herself homeless and wondering where her next meal will come from. She keeps hold of her kind heart and dreams throughout and it is easy to care for her.

There is a slightly superficial feel to Doris’ dilemmas as she has a mother and a home back in Cologne – although there is the issue of the stolen fur coat and probable arrest to deter her from returning.

The Artificial Silk Girl is a slim book which ended just before Doris’s youthful optimism and breathless narrative style had time to become tedious. It is one of those books where I wanted to highlight passages all the way through – a gem.

At times Doris reminded me very much of Sophia in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – both innocent, optimistic yet gullible, mistreated by men, dealing with poverty – both stories set in the 1930s but in different cities (Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is set in London).

Both books are excellent especially from a historical perspective – a slice of life from the 1930s.

A belated huge thank you to Caroline and to Lizzy for hosting the German Literature month. I didn’t quite finish this one in time but am inspired by all the great posts and recommendations to explore further.

Translated from the German by Katharina von Ankum
194 pages, 1932 (republished in English in 2002)

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2 responses to “The Artificial Silk Girl – Irmgard Keun

  1. I’m so glad you liked this and captured it so well. I loved this book when I read it. The voice is unique. I liked the period in which it is set a lot as well. Keun has a talent for writing such great sentences that one wants to quote.
    I’ve never heard of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. I’m very interested, need to have a look.
    After Midnight is equally good. I want to re-read it soon.
    I’m happy to be able to add such a wonderful review of this book to our list.

    • Caroline – thank you! And yes definitely do look out for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – its another special read with a unique narrator. I plan to read After Midnight very soon, I’m not going to pick it up until I’m ready to read it though – if it’s anything like The Artificial Silk Girl, I won’t be able to put it down!

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