March 2014

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Alien Thoughts Enter Through Your Pores: On Gilgi by Irmgard Keun

Which is preferable? The author, fresh, at the beginning of her career, unsullied by expectation and full of energy? Or the author after a chastening tutelage, times of disappointment and suffering that have (the theory goes) transformed her into a wiser being? Anthony Powell once said to V. S. Naipaul that a writer's first novel has a lyricism that can never be recaptured. But the late style has its power as well. Keats and Plath, staring into the empty graves dug for them, sang better than they ever had before; in fact, without this admixture of death and the feeling of having fallen short after a lifetime of trying, it seems unlikely that either of those writers would have been enrolled in the canon of literature, as they have been.

Last month, I considered Child of All Nations a novel by Irmgard Keun, which appeared relatively late in Keun's career as a famous author, though not very late in the course of her long life. That novel concerned itself with childhood, but childhood set in contrast to the drunken entropy of adulthood, the vortex of disappointment. In Gilgi, Keun's first novel, the range of setting is, by contrast, severely constricted. Whereas Child of All Nations took its characters everywhere from Poland to the open ocean to the ABC stores of Norfolk, Virginia, Gilgi placed its eponymous heroine within the unsexy confines of Cologne, a town she won't leave until the final page. But what the novel loses in breadth of travel, it gains in the emotional intensity of its dramatis personae. By Child of All Nations, it is clear that Keun has adopted an ironical view of life, in which folly, though not evil, can be smiled upon. As in Shakespeare's late romances, there is a feeling of serenity interfused like a secret ingredient in all of the misery and activity of the characters. Some sort of absolving eye hovers over the entire scene. In Gilgi, however, the young are much less happy than the old, and there's no relief for the eternal-seeming misery of youth besides vigorous drinking. This may be because Keun wrote her novel when she was in her twenties.

Gilgi, short for Gisela, is a twenty-one-year-old, living in Cologne in the 1930s. As the novel begins, she shares a home with her parents. She takes public transportation to her office job where her lecherous boss makes ham-handed advances toward her. She visits her friends, of both sexes, in their apartments, where they have long, involved, but often fairly empty conversations about their plans for the future. To brace her flesh for a boring day at the office, she takes cold water showers. The whole thing is uncannily familiar. There is a materialist view of history to be found in the shared qualities of her time and ours; it could be that, given the same sorts of appliances and workplaces, human beings fall into an inevitable pattern like iron filings around a magnet.

The resemblance to our own time may also deceive readers into believing they're beginning a shallow book. Writers lose their reputations, or fail to gain them, for many reasons. Often the reason is sheer bad luck. In Keun's case, however, I believe that her American obscurity may stem from this: the profundity of her stories rarely shows full depth until the last third or so, at which point the various elements of the novel that came before, sometimes in what seemed to be random flurries, reveal themselves to be part of a larger, much holier, much sadder design. In the case of Gilgi, we see, by the end, the heartbreaking consequences of Gilgi's quest to reconcile sexual love, friendship, and her fierce desire for independence.

One of Keun's finest sequences demonstrates how there is, in the deepest sense, no such thing as sexual liberation. Gilgi has, in fact, liberated herself from the bourgeois prudishness of her parents and the grasping possessiveness of other males, but she has at the same time put her liberation to use by falling desperately in love with a man, after which point her liberation begins to seem like a form of voluntary servitude. Giving yourself to another person can, Keun shows, never be exactly liberating, except in the blandest, most thoughtless sense of the word. Freedom and love are both good, but no real, breathing being can reconcile them totally or for long.

The man Gilgi falls for, Martin, is another figure who could easily be found walking the streets of any fashionable city in the United States today. Underemployed, a writer who rarely writes, insolvent but cheerful about it, charming to women during the first few weeks but irritating to live with, Martin is, according to one possible view, a strange person for Gilgi to squander her independence for. But, like other accurate depicters of love, Keun never explains just why it is that Gilgi picks Martin as her object of desire. One night, their sex life is kindled, with a little help from alcohol, but the actual, inner secret of the infatuation remains appropriately opaque.

Of course, this opacity doesn't prevent Gilgi from obsessively sifting through her emotions, trying to discover the exact nature of her link to this man she finds herself living with. She begins to bother him with mind-reeling requests, such as to buy a new coat or to pay his bills; he becomes defensive and sulks; passage upon passage illustrates that aphorism from a Houellebecq novel, that living together alone is hell between consenting adults. The excitement of having a supposedly rebellious boyfriend turns dull in the clanging light of reality. Crucially, too, Keun doesn't show that these misdemeanors by Martin do anything to diminish her love; if anything, they inflame it, while mixing in new strands of confusion and antipathy. However, the constant analysis of her love tends to erode her feelings.

The novel contains, as well, an implicit critique of the idea of personal independence. Here's an example. Following a conversation with her friend Pit, a Jewish socialist who has the hots for her, but whose ardor is sicklied oe'r with the pale cast of thought, she thinks to herself: "That's Pit for you! Is it some kind of crime if you want to go your way quietly and decently and keeping well away from politics?" The reader, in these passages, is struck by the feeling that in modern life, in order to be independent, one is constantly justifying one's feelings, offering ream upon ream of specious, unread argument to support feelings and thoughts that are, in reality, invisible to others. Every minute choice needs rational justification. As the feeling of independence becomes heightened, the feeling of needing to distinguish oneself from others rises correspondingly, and so, in a paradox, the attempt to distinguish oneself form others leads to constantly thinking about others, constantly battling others, even if only in your mind.

During another conversation, another friend of Gilgi's asks her, in confusion "what she wants." Gilgi answers: "I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent -- I have to get all of that step by step. At the moment I'm learning my languages -- I'm saving money -- maybe in a few years I'll have my own apartment, and maybe one day I'll see my way clear to setting up my own business." Later, in a fight with her boyfriend she screams: "I won't tolerate people feeling responsible for me, that's the worst way people can insult me, I..." What Gilgi objects to is the feeling of responsibility and how this generates the feeling of having been insulted; constant vigilance of one's attachments to others is the price of freedom, and the novel implies that the price may be prohibitively high, in that a person's mind becomes totally taken over by the despotic needs of one's imagined freedom.

At one point, Gilgi asks herself, "How can you be so listless and so tired, tired from doing nothing all day?" The novel is constantly alive to the various paradoxes of existence and how trying to suborn your life to rational inquiry often leads to absurd ends. To Martin she says, "Modern Weltschmerz makes me want to puke. You know, anyone who's healthy and has enough to eat simply doesn't have the right to be unhappy." Later, these words will be spat back to her after she's found reasons aplenty to cry on a full stomach.

The novel is also a sustained argument against the notion that novels ought to always treat new subjects and absorb new "content," to use the term currently en vogue. Almost everything depicted in Gilgi has been depicted a thousand other times, and although Keun was no doubt toward the vanguard in depicting the search for an abortionist, the book's merits are separable from reporting uncomfortable, undeniable facts about reproduction.

Gilgi demonstrates that a novel lives or dies by the author's sensibility. Using the elements of a thousand lesser potboilers and love stories, Keun managed to sketch something profound. Novelists considering their next book might decide, following Keun, to avoid embarking on months and months of research and instead use the motifs already in circulation to hint at other truths -- deeper, weirder, sadder, ultimately more humane than what could be served up by journalistic sketches held together by a weak frame story. There's nothing wrong with writing about dating and youthful listlessness, so long as this stuff, in the words of Larkin, "shadows much greater gestures."

The original title of this book was Gilgi, One of Us. And she is. If the novel has a moral, it's maybe contained in these words by Gilgi, toward the end of the narrative: "Do people ever suspect how completely they can be influenced!!!! The body's immunity is so disproportionately greater than that of the mind. The slightest concession to weakness, the very least willingness to let yourself go exposes you to the world -- alien thoughts enter through your pores, alien wishes, an alien desire, an alien hopelessness -- alien influences which take root in you -- you don't notice it, you don't know it, but days -- weeks -- years later you might feel the pain of inflamed, sick feelings..."