German writer Irmgard Keun published After Midnight (1937) after she’d fled Germany in 1936. Her best selling books had been banned, putting her life under risk.
It’s 1930s Germany. The drums of war are beating and Hitler is omnipotent. Everyone must be vigilant that they say the right thing and are not seen to be critical of the Nazi regime. But the times are so topsy turvy, it’s often hard to figure out what is seditious behavior and what is not. Family members are informing on each other, and an innocent remark can find you up before a court, or worse, disappeared. Trying to make her way through this increasingly mad world is Sanna, a nineteen-year-old who has moved to Frankfurt. She moves through bars and clubs with her group of friends, picking up people as they go, and listens to all sorts of raving voices about the coming war, the Nazis and the general state of the nation. Sanna is in love with Franz, and when she finds out he is in dire trouble, she makes a promise that she will help him, a promise it may be beyond her to keep.
Sanna’s story is written in the smart and energetic voice of a young woman on the go, someone who likes to socialise and have fun, but who is also alive to the many ironies of life. The first thing to strike about Keun’s prose is its contemporary feel. It’s as though a young woman of today had written it, making it easy to sympathise with Sanna’s plight, indeed, walk in her shoes. There’s also a lot of wit and sharp observations in Sanna’s narration. The witty novels of Anita Loos comes to mind, whose stories concentrated on clever girls getting ahead and seeing through the world’s hypocrisies. Here, however, the backdrop is one of looming terror and violence, giving After Midnight a feeling of mounting dread, like a nightmare.
A concise, perfectly executed short novel that has lost none of its urgency or relevance.
After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun. Penguin Modern Classics. $19.99
North Melbourne Books