A piece of barbed wire

Some small books open spaces out of all proportion to their brevity. This exchange of a mere score of letters, written for the most part shortly before and just after the Second World War, between two writers (or perhaps a writer and a would-be writer) who never met, Irmgard Keun and Franz Hammer, supplemented by ten further letters of Keun’s from guerre and après-guerre, and some pages of tactfully supplied editorial matter from Michael Bienert, has something quite exquisite about it. An epistolary novel, Bienert observes, rightly. Reading Man lebt von einem Tag zum andern (“One tries to get by from day to day”) is like coming upon a slim bundle of crinkled A5 sheets tied with a ribbon. Or a piece of barbed wire.

Part of the charm of it is the balance: Hammer (then writing still as Hammel, or Mutton – the poor man ridiculously changed his ridiculous name later to something miraculously no less ridiculous), living with his mother in Bach’s birthplace, the presumably dinky medieval castellated town of Eisenach in central Germany, writing to Keun, living with her then husband, Johannes Tralow (though she makes little mention of the circumstance), in an inn in the undoubtedly dinky medieval castellated village of Moselkern, in wine country somewhere along the western edge of Germany. He is unemployed, sometimes on disability, a communist, not much published, down on his luck, one feels (“for the last few weeks I have been caught in the toils of a broad streak of misfortune” is a fairly typical formulation), with a door aesthetic orientation straight from Comintern. She is an alcoholic former shooting star of German letters (Gilgi, One of Us was published in 1931; a film version followed the next year, as did a second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, books that, in English translation and all, have lost nothing of their freshness almost a century later), but banned from writing by the Nazis, whose main objection to her will have been her irreverent sense of humour. He describes himself as “twenty-seven, but everyone always thinks I’m five years older”, while she signs as “26 – how time flies”, though it was years earlier that she moved the date of her birth from 1905 to 1910 , and she will in fact never see thirty again.

Across politics, across distance and class, across temperament, across circumstance, these two spirits try to create a little solidarity for one another in dire, discouraging times. He, one thinks, much less interested in literature than propaganda, wooden, pompous, condescending, self-important; she, helplessly gracious, informal, natural, unpretentious, getting by writing tiny humoresques for provincial papers that have somehow failed to notice that she doesn’t have the required membership of the Nazi Reichsverband Deutscher Schriftsteller, or German writers’ union. It is a miracle that any letters exist at all: from him to this handmaid of capitalist humour, who has presumably been spoilt by her undeserved success; and from her to this utterly unappealing, self-absorbed dullard, who has even started flirting with her, dreaming of taking her on one of his kayaking holidays.

The thirty letters accompany Keun through the desert of being-supposed-to-be-married and the wasteland of not-being-allowed-to-publish. Both conditions come to an end in 1936, when she goes into exile, to Holland then Belgium, becomes a novelist in exile and takes up with Joseph Roth. In 1938 she goes to America to be with another lover, Arnold Strauss, a Jewish doctor, but returns to Europe (America, and dependency weren’t for her). She publishes The Girl the Children Weren’t Supposed to Play Withcompletes her masterpiece After Midnight and writes another novel, Child of All Nations. She scorned the male exiles who sought their salvation in research, obliquity and stodge: Joseph and His Brothers, Henry IV, almost anything by Stefan Zweig, they were all at it. Even Roth knocked out The Hundred Days, about Napoleon, though he at least hated himself for it: “I despise the low modes of the historical novelist”. Keun alone continued to find her material in the time and circumstances of her own life.

In 1940, when the Germans invaded Holland, she contrived a return to Germany. A report in the Daily Telegraph that she had committed suicide seems to have helped make her invisible; her parents supported her, even her ex-husband, Johannes, supported her. The letters from the 1940s – bombing, black market, rubble, promiscuity – give her exposed position vividly and in few words. “If I’m put to work in our armaments industry, then will the war suddenly be won?” she writes, and: “In the interests of our valiant German troops, I hope I’m not made to look after their shitty little blond offspring.”

Perhaps what Hammel had to offer her was that he had exactly nothing to offer her. Because otherwise she approached men as a supplicant: please, a hundred marks towards a two-hundred-mark good-as-new second-hand camel-hair coat; a little protection, a little connection, a little future. With Hammel, she instructs him to draw up a list of possible periodicals, to write postcards to the editors, suggesting what they might want to print. She tells him to shorten and lighten his work. She offers to send him her own list. There is something terribly practical and extraordinarily kind about her. He responds to her in the way I’m afraid a man does: with hollow offers and fury at his own helplessness. If one is male, his letters, tone-deaf and blustering, vainglorious even when helpless, are an embarrassment; hers, even when devious, are a subtle delight. Bienert is far too discreet to draw our attention to it, but the words “Venus” and “Mars”, or possibly “fish” and “bicycle”, come to mind.

Michael Hofmannis the translator of two of Irmgard Keun’s novels,Child of All NationsandFerdinand

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