Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Artificial Silk Girl: A 1930s German Train Wreck

Back-to-back train wrecks! I can't remember who blogged about it, but just a couple of weeks ago I saw that Penguin was re-issuing a new edition of The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun. I'd never heard of it, but the description said it was a bestseller in 1931 and subsequently banned by the Nazis, so, naturally I was intrigued and ordered a copy from And for once, I actually didn't wait around several years before I read it! (The fact that it is only 144 pages may have contributed somewhat.)

So here's the setup: young Doris is a young German woman living in the Rhineland, but longing for excitement. She's working as a typist and living with her mother and stepfather, but dreams of a career on the stage -- preferably in a big city. She manages to finagle her way onstage as an extra in a local play, and even gets a single spoken line. It looks like she actually might achieve her dream but then a bad decision catches up with her; she then steals a fur coat left on one of the theater seats by a neighbor (for whom she has a longstanding hatred) and leaves town on an overnight train to Berlin in a panic.  

Doris manages to crash at an old friend's apartment temporarily, but she can't get work papers because the police might be looking for her due to the theft. She's living hand to mouth, depending on sympathetic men she picks up in bars to buy her food and drinks. Basically, she's looking for a rich man to support her, she doesn't care if it's as a wife or a mistress. Things naturally don't work out as planned and she sinks lower and lower. Yep, another train wreck.

The blurb on the book jacket describes this book as "very funny and intensely moving," but I didn't find it a bit funny -- I just thought it was tragic and sad. I didn't care much for Doris but I did find her plight horrifying -- I remember what it was like when I was first on my own, struggling to pay the bills (though I never went hungry and was threatened by homelessness like Doris). I know there were a lot of desperate people in Germany after the war, and the cold and the Depression meant so many people were in dire straits. 

Though The Artificial Silk Girl wasn't exactly what I expected, it was an interesting perspective to read about, especially since Keun lived through it first-hand. She was born in 1905, so she was about the same age as Doris when she wrote this, and probably knew people very much like her. 

Some of the descriptions of The Artificial Silk Girl also mention that Keun was inspired by Anita Loos' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to write her own story about a young woman trying to make it on her own, which inspired me to track down a copy of Loos' novella. The two books couldn't be more different and I'll be posting on that one shortly. I've also heard it's more like Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, one of which was adapted for the stage as I Am a Camera -- which I read just a few months ago. Doris is definitely closer to Sally Bowles than Lorelei Lee. 

If you're interested in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s I highly recommend the Babylon Berlin TV miniseries which was a huge success. It's more of a historical crime series but one of the characters reminds me a bit of Doris, and there are several scenes set in Berlin nightclubs, plus you definitely get the sense of desperation and the dark underbelly of Berlin society. The first two seasons are available in the U. S. on Netflix, and apparently there's a third in the works. (You can watch it either with the original German and English subtitles, or dubbed into English -- I much prefer the subtitles). It's based on a series of German books by Volker Kutscher, some which have been translated into English. I read the first volume last year but this is one of the few instances in which I actually preferred the TV adaptation to the book. 

I'm counting this as my Classic From A Place You've Lived for the Back to the Classics Challenge


  1. I know I've read about this book somewhere in the blogosphere as well. It sounds like a good book and from your review reminds me more of Lily Bart's downward trajectory in The House of Mirth more than Lorelei Lee (though I've only seen the movie).

  2. Your review reminded me of Lily Bart, too. A tragic and sad trainwreck.

  3. Enjoyed the review! I've been seeing references to this book in several spots on the internet and was getting curious about it; your review gave me a really good idea of what to expect. I do enjoy novels set in Weimar Germany and may check this one out but I must admit it will probably be in line behind Philip Kerr's "Metropolis"!


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