February 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

"Monsieur is Lighthearted and Charming": On Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

Sometimes I think the most overrated quality in literature must be ponderousness -- which indicates the writer's fear that the work won't be taken seriously unless the reader gets slapped in the face and told, "This is important, damn it! This is art! Fall on your knees! Cross yourself!" Unfortunately, this trick often works. How much more discerning it is for the reader to spot art that slips in lightly, with no fanfare, like a cat.

When beginning Irmgard Keun's novel Child of All Nations, I blush to admit I felt a moment of dissatisfaction with what seemed initially like fluff -- call it ponderousness withdrawal. In my defense, I had just gotten done seeing Uncle Vanya, a play of which hilarity and sadness don't exactly prepare the soul to register the light touch. Child is narrated by nine-year-old Kully, who, in late 1930s Europe, lives a transient existence in a series of hotels and houses, as her parents move again and again. As translator Michael Hofmann notes, there is a surface resemblance to the Eloise books; I also thought of Pippi Longstocking, another bright girl who gets in and out of mischief while waiting for her roving papa to come home.

With no disrespect to Eloise or Pippi, Kully's story exceeds them, especially with respect to its lighthearted depictions of alcoholism, sexual jealousy, and the death wish. Her father, Peter, is a German-language writer with friends all over Europe; his wife, Annie, trails him like punctuation and must humiliate herself in front of chambermaids and lobby clerks as it becomes progressively clear that they have no money for settling up the bill. Peter is likely based on Joseph Roth, the alcoholic, chronically broke novelist who dragged Keun around Europe in much the same style. However, Keun has apparently stripped Peter of Roth's Jewishness and there is little suggestion in the book that Kully would face race laws, or worse.

The essential pattern of the book is simple. Her father has the Dostoevskyean habit of running up debts at hotels and restaurants -- and the ritzier the décor, the snootier the waitstaff, the better! -- before running off to find some as yet unknown source of payment. Peter takes Kully and Annie to some new town in Belgium or Poland or Holland -- he installs them in an ominously expensive-seeming hotel and then, after luxuriating there for a few days, or weeks, vanishes for a while. He's one of those addicts of trouble, unable to feel alive unless staring down the loaded gun of a tax audit. At one point, he offers the following instructions to his wife before disappearing:

"Once in Amsterdam, head straight to my publishers. You must tell Krabbe that you've got the completed manuscript of the new novel in your possession. Of course you won't be able to give it to him, as it doesn't exist. But you must do all in your power to make him think it's finished. When I'm back in Amsterdam, I'll knock off the last two hundred pages in a week."

There's a passage in Schopenhauer when the mutton-chopped pessimist analyzes the behavior of a minor, recurring character in Shakespeare's history plays: the Earl of Northumberland. Schopenhauer concludes that Shakespeare was in perfect control of his creation, because despite the various characters that surround him, and the kaleidoscoping circumstances, Northumberland always behaves in exactly the same way: stirring up rebellion against the sitting king and then chickening out when it comes time to actually fight. As with Shakespeare, so with Keun: despite pledges to change, even sincere ones, Kully's father Peter repeats the same stunts dozens of times, often seeming as shocked as his family that he's wound up snug in the same insolvent hangover offered by all previous mornings. The lesson that a person's character rarely changes is a harsh one, especially in these days of rational self-improvement, and I sometimes think that yelps in customer reviews about novels where characters don't "learn" or "grow" or "change" is only a repressed acknowledgement of the truth. But there's nothing contemptuous about Keun's dry record of a failure to change (and this from a woman who actually had to live with Joseph Roth). A dry record of anyone's major decisions would probably show fixity of character to a disturbing degree.

At one point, once again at the end of his rope, Peter drives to meet a man Kully calls Boyhood Friend:

Then Boyhood Friend wanted to reminisce with my father about their shared boyhood -- only for them each to tell completely different stories, whereupon it emerged that they had got each other mixed up, and they hadn't gone to the same school at all, and in fact had never met before. My father cried that he was now twice as glad to meet Boyhood Friend...

This scene is characteristic in that it is, objectively, absurd and demoralizing, but Kully enjoys it as she would a story about someone else, as only children or the drunk or the insane can. Could it be that Keun split herself between Kully, the daughter, and Annie, the mother, the one taking pleasure in the disorder and the entropy and the other in despair at home? The wife, Annie, does seem the vaguest of the three, despite the fact that (or because) she bears the closest resemblance to the author.

Giving children a prominent role in fiction carries risk. The pitfalls are numerous. There's the temptation to make them into I'm-only-fwee-and-a-half-years-old adorable critters, or little founts of otherworldly wisdom, or ventriloquist dummies for the author's most embarrassing ideas, or mere tokens intended to give depth to otherwise boring adults -- the list is huge. But what the best writers include is that children tend to ape adults and are open about their goals and tastes to an extent denied the adult. And this is what Keun emphasizes with Kully. Her mind is full of the sayings of her parents, which she alters and puts to use as stained-glass filters of the world. Crucially, though, Keun shows that the child often takes a more objective or cold-blooded view of the world than the adult does, even when considering her own situation:

My father has a revolver he can shoot with. If we're ever really stuck, he'll shoot us with it. Then at least nothing more can happen to us. Probably you smell bad when you're dead, just like my dead sea creatures did, but that doesn't matter because we won't be able to smell ourselves.

And she accepts her mother's undeniable view of getting old without any obvious dread or self-pity: "...what's the point of growing up, if it'll only make me sad? My mother said once that along with being grown up you become guilty; and there's nothing in the world as sad as being guilty." Like young Jim in Empire of the Sun, Kully's view of disaster and looming war is a primarily aesthetic, rather than ethical, one. Children have strong imaginations, and strong imaginations often make people cold and aloof.

The novel is also concerned with that radioactive subject, sexual jealousy. A strange topic for a book narrated by a little girl, you might say. But Keun, with a light touch, shows how mystically attuned a child is to the feelings flowing between parents -- partly because the child has no sympathy for the jealous party, or the adulterous one, and wants only union between the estranged. Keun is also bold enough to suggest that jealousy affects different people differently, and not always negatively.

For example, although Peter romps around Europe behaving childishly and often sends along regards to his wife from the pretty young woman accompanying him, Annie never leaves her husband but only mopes in her bed, with the occasional mental breakdown thrown in for her daughter to witness. But when Annie receives a fairly lame love letter from an old admirer, Peter can barely contain his lordly rage. A certain Madame Rostand offers this gloss:

"...only bad husbands are good men. Monsieur is lighthearted and charming; it's only such men who can be loving and faithful. There are husbands who are faithful because they don't love any woman, not even their own wife. I, Madame, prefer a man who is capable of loving and being loved -- even if I'm not the only woman he loves."

These are disturbing thoughts, whether or not they reflect Keun's "real" views (a lack of "real" views is often the main motive for a writer to turn to fiction). We need writers like Keun who offer these frightening hypotheses, especially now that the supposedly unlimited freedom of the Internet has yielded up such a bland consensus, taking dominion everywhere.

As war looms, the literati of Europe seem preoccupied mostly with jealousy and seduction; one intellectual suggests that they could use visa irregularities to expel a particularly flirtatious young woman from France, where she and her long eyelashes are running amok.

"Ah," says my father, "I do miss the good old days when nice middle-class women would hit each other over the head with umbrellas when they were jealous of each other -- and where less pleasant women would write nice anonymous letters! Nowadays even the nice ones resort to political backstabbing."

And when not concerned with wandering eyes and hands, the literati are squabbling over train fares, checkout times, visiting in-laws, and trying to reach the liquor store before it closes. The pettiness of their daily routines is somehow more moving than any Wagnerian symphony swell of doom, before the Wehrmacht begins its acquisitive sprint over everything. And once again the reader it grateful for Keun's lightness of touch in her depiction of this odd little family: the man of action, who never seems to accomplish anything; the goddess of the hearth, who has no home; and the innocent child whose main concerns are death, war, exile, and seduction.