Sunday, 20 September 2015

Irmgard Keun

I came across this book by chance in the local library. On a weekend, having nothing better to do, I had sauntered into the local library, which has a very decent collection of fiction as well as non-fiction. I sat in one of the chairs, contemplating, as I am wont to do from time to time, on the abject stupidity of life, when one examines it deeply, and how this understanding brings one nothing but disillusionment, wondering, for that reason, whether this level of deep insight is desirable and whether people like me who attain this insight were cursed, and, what should be the response when one achieved this deep understanding: the French school of philosophy—Jean Paul Sartre’s Existentialism, or the British school of philosophy—Pythonism—depicted so elegantly in The Life of Brian, when I was distracted by a young couple who came and sat on the sofa opposite me. The man had a repulsive beard which failed to disguise the fact that below it was a repulsive face. The woman had mousy blonde hair, freckles on her face, and improbably large breasts. Both of them were wearing clothes that looked as if they had bought them all in one car-boot sale five years ago (and washed only once, since). The man took out a book from the ruck-sack, opened a page and started whispering something into the woman’s ears, and the woman started nodding and smiling, as if whatever the man was whispering had clarified a problem that was vexing her for years. It was excruciating to see them sharing that sofa, or worse, imagine them sharing a bed—her nipples, like a pair of snouts, getting entangled in the repulsive beard.

There was only one thing to do. I got up and began browsing the shelves. That’s when I came across this book.

It was an English translation of a German language novel entitled Gilgi, and its author was one Irmgard Keun.

I read that this novel, the author’s debut novel, was first published in 1931, when Keun was twenty-six. The novel, its original German title, Gilgi, One of Us, was apparently a best seller, and created sensation upon its publication. The novel was made into a film, which was also a huge success in its time. Keun followed her debut novel with another best seller that came out the next year, in 1932, entitled The Artificial Silk Girl. Keun went on to publish a few more novels—all in all she published eight novels—before falling silent—creatively—in the 1950s. Between 1949, when her seventh novel was published, and 1982, when she died, Keun published just one novel, and, by all available accounts, wrote very little.

There is nothing out of the ordinary in this story. There are plenty of authors or novelists, who publish books which achieve great popularity and commercial success upon publication, but which are forgotten with the passage of time, either because the novels are not as good as that, or, because for tragic reasons the author is forgotten. Some authors, decades later (invariably posthumously) are re-discovered: a manuscript that never saw the light of the day, is fortuitously found in the basement of an apartment in Paris, and is declared, upon its publication, to be a masterpiece, which, in turn, revives some interest in the dead author’s earlier novels (the author by now is long since dead, usually having died in penury, thereby adding a tragic aura, which does no harm to the books' sales, although, admittedly, the author is not in a position to benefit from it).

With the Nazis' ascent to power in 1933, Keun's novels were branded anti-German and were blacklisted. Keun then took the intrepid—insane, if you are of squeamish disposition—decision of suing the Gestapo for loss of earnings! Of course she lost. Her novels were amongst those burned by the Nazis in the 1930s.

By this time Keun, who had stage aspirations in her early life and had managed to get a number of minor film roles before she turned her hand to writing, had married a novelist of minor repute, Johhanes Tralow, who was 23 years older than her. Tralow, who, I guess, is also a forgotten name, was a dramatist and author of historical novels: in the 1940s and 1950s Tralow published four novels on the Ottoman Empire. Tralow, who was in his fifties when Hitler came to power, lived in semi-retirement in the 1930s and worked as a free-lancer.

In 1937, by this time Keun had not been able to get her books published in Germany for four years, Keun divorced Tralow, and left Germany. It is said that Tralow was a Nazi sympathizer, though it is not known whether he was a member of the Nazi party. In his final years Tralow moved to GDR, and his last published work of fiction, published a year before his death, in 1967, was on the life of Prophet Mohammad. With the publication of this novel, on which he worked for many years, Tralow wished to deepen the friendship between the West and the Arabs and hoped to enhance understanding of the Arabs in Europe (an ambitious aim, if there was one). That Keun divorced Tralow suggests that she took the decisive action of deserting the man with whose ideology she differed vehemently; however, I saw on YouTube an interview of Keun’s daughter, Martina Keun-Geburtig, conducted in 2011, in which Martina, Keun’s daughter from another relationship, narrates that it was Tralow who divorced Keun “in the name of German people”, because he did not want to be seen to be associated with the woman who was blacklisted by the Nazi regime.

After she left Germany, Keun led a peripatetic existence in Europe and America over the next three years. She went to America in 1938, but could not stay beyond a few months because she only had a tourist visa. While in Exile, Keun is said to have associated extensively with other anti-Nazi writers such as Heinrich Mann, Ernst Toller (who features in Anna Funder’s excellent All that I Am), and Stefan Zweig. She also had a romantic relationship, which lasted for 18 months, with the Joseph Roth, who, being Jewish, was living in exile in Paris, and was drinking his way to an early grave. (I don’t know who the father of Keun's daughter was, but wouldn’t it be romantic to imagine that this daughter was the love child of Keun and Joseph Roth, although it is unlikely: the manner in which she spoke suggested that the daughter had little first-hand knowledge of her mother’s life in the 1930s and 1940s.) Keun published two novels (After Midnight and Child of All Nations) during what must have been a very turbulent period in her life, which, according to the afterward of Gilgi (written by its translator), are considered to be among her best.

In 1940 Keun was in Amsterdam, Holland, when Germany invaded that country. Keun then took another remarkable decision. She decided to return to Germany. She planted a story in the newspaper that she had committed suicide in response to the news of the fall of France. She then returned to Germany by persuading a German bureaucrat to issue her a passport—years later she recalled in an interview that she spoke to the bureaucrat “until his penis shrivelled up”—if not of a false identity, then under different name: Charlotte Tralow—Charlotte being her second name and Tralow her married name (although she had divorced Tralow). Upon her return to Germany Keun saw off the war years in Cologne, with her parents (where, as per the interview of her daughter, she, too grew up).

Keun apparently edited her books herself, but rarely read the wholes books once they were written. Her daughter, in the interview, offered her insight as to why Keun was forgotten and her books were not widely read and acclaimed in the 1950s, after the Second World War. According to the daughter, people in Germany were still influenced by the Nazis, and saw rather a lot of themselves in Keun’s novels, which, the daughter hypothesized, must have made them uncomfortable. (I find some inherent contradiction in this: how could people see themselves in Keun’s novels without reading them; unless you take the view that the majority of German people, aware of Keun’s reputation as a vehement anti-Nazi, suspected that her novels would also be anti-Nazi and did not run the risk of unsettling their mental equilibrium by reading the novels which, they feared, would hold a mirror up to them?)

I read in an article that Keun ended her life in penury, in a small studio apartment. For six years—from 1966 to 1972—she was committed to a mental asylum in Bonn. Her daughter, in her interview, did not mention any of this. She described her mother as a vivacious and attractive woman (in her prime) who was charming and intelligent company and knew how to “snag men”. The daughter took a long pause, when the interviewer asked her whether Irmgard Keun was a happy woman. She then said that her mother always maintained that the Nazis stole away the best years of her life (presumably between 1933 and 1945—beginning with the year when her books were blacklisted, until the end of the Second World War); which was not what the interviewer had asked her.

Maybe Keun was irretrievably affected by the experiences between 1933 and 1945, and never quite recovered from the trauma of that period. She published very little after the end of the Second World War. A novel came out in 1950 (Ferdinand, A Kind Hearted Man), a collection of short stories in 1954 (If We were all Good), and another book in 1962.  A meagre output in comparison with the six novels she published between 1931 and 1938 (the novels between 1933 and 1938 were published outside Germany).

There is, however, a happy ending (of sort) to this otherwise tragic story. Towards the end of her life, in the late 1970s, Keun was re-discovered, as it were, following an article in one of the literary magazines in Germany; and her best novels of the 1930s were re-issued. Many were subsequently translated into English.

One hopes that Keun died a woman at peace with her destiny.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Book of the Month: Canada (Richard Ford)

American novelist Richard Ford’s writing career can be neatly (if somewhat simplistically) divided into two parts, a game of two halves if you prefer (trite) football-related analogies. The Ultimate Good Luck, one of Ford’s early novel s, for example, was a pacy, hard-boiled thriller with prose that was vivid and taut. These novels—I heard Ford telling in a literary festival—written with one eye on the commercial markets, did not sell, were not particularly critically acclaimed, and triggered a crisis of confidence of sorts. Encouraged by his wife (Ford said) who was happy to be the breadwinner for the family, Ford changed track completely, and published The Sportswriter, which is considered to be his breakthrough novel. In it Ford introduced Harry Bascombe, the novel’s hero who was incapable of letting a leaf fly off the branch of a tree without making a wry, pithy and deeply meaningful observation about. Ford has written two more (hugely critically acclaimed) novels featuring Harry Bascombe. The middle novel of the trilogy, Independence Day, won the 1995 Pulitzer Award for fiction. From time to time, however, Ford has attempted to return to his old territory. His 1990 novel, Wildlife, (which I think is absolutely first rate) described three days in the life of his sixteen year old narrator. The novel had a pervading sense of foreboding and the reader could only helplessly turn page after page; the novel was unputdownable. I don’t think, however, that Wildliife was received as enthusiastically by the critics as Ford’s literary novels.

In Canada, Ford’s eighth novel, published in 2012, Ford tries to find a via media between his literary novels and novels depicting what I have read some reviewers describe as dirty realism.

Canada has one of the most intriguing openings I have read in a novel. “First I’ll tell,” the narrator, Dell Parsons, tells the reader, “about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” In the five hundred plus pages that follow Ford almost manages to live up to the expectations and the sense of anticipation created by the opening.

Canada, narrated by a man in the twilight of his life—who is looking back on his life and the events that shaped it—is divided into three parts. The first part, as the novel’s opening line informs, is about the robbery committed by the parents of Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner; the second part is about the murders; in the third and final part, which is in the present, we find Dell Parsons, nearing seventy, still trying to find a closure to the seminal event that had an indelible effect on his (and his sister’s) life. I

In the first part of the novel we meet the Parsons family. Beverley Parsons, a Southerner and a Second World War veteran, his Jewish wife, Neeva (whose parents have severed contacts with their only child after she throws away what they see as a bright future by marrying what they see as a hick from Alabama), and their fifteen year old fraternal twins: Dell—a studious, slightly geeky boy who harbours the ambition of becoming a chess champion—and Berner—a not very attractive girl with a flat face and freckles and a sharp tongue. When the novel begins Bev Parsons has been honourably discharged from the United States air force and is eking out rather precarious existence, in Great Falls, Montana,  by dreaming up dodgy schemes which clearly fall foul of the law and bring him in contact with unsavoury characters. Neeva, who is beginning to regret her marriage to Bev and has been thinking about leaving him, is a teacher in a primary school. Then one of Bev Parson’s risky schemes goes wrong and he ends up owing money to the Indians who leave him in doubt the extent to which they would be prepared to go to recover what Bev owes them. Bev Parsons then hatches a plan to rob an agricultural bank in the neighbouring state of North Dacota. Neeva, who ought to have known better than her husband whose judgement has always been less than robust, goes along with Bev’s reckless plan. The inevitable happens and the pair is apprehended by the police in their home within a week of the robbery and is whisked off to jail. In the days leading to their arrest, Neeva, on whom the gravity of what they have done is dawning, has made some last ditch arrangements for her children whom she does not wish to become wards of the state following their imprisonment which she believes is inevitable. The plan is to send the children to Canada to stay with the brother of a friend of Neeva in Great Falls. In the second part Dell Parsons looks back upon the months he spends in the half deserted town (Maple Creek) in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the company of the mysterious Arthur Remlinger, an American who has a violent, mysterious past, which he is anxious stay concealed. Remlinger is prepared to go to any extent—even murder—in his attempts to ensure that his past deeds lay buried. Fifteen year old Dell, parentless and without a family—Berner having walked out of the house before their mother’s friend turned up to smuggle the children across the border into Canada—is drawn into burying the bodies of the Americans who have driven into Maple Creek to ask Arthur Remlinger a few questions he is reluctant to answer. In the third and final part Dell Parsons, who has led a blameless, middle class existence as a teacher and has enjoyed happy, if childless, matrimony, tries to make sense of the course his life has taken; meets with his sister Berner—who, unlike him, has led a tragic, chequered life—just before she succumbs to lymphoma; and comes to the not-altogether-surprising conclusion, of which he has given the reader a hint in the opening paragraph of this remarkable novel, that it was their parents’ calamitous decision to commit a robbery that set his and sister’s lives on the vastly different courses they eventually followed, and nothing that had happened would make sense without it.

Canada manages the feat of being intense and profound while progressing at a leisurely speed without ever becoming desultory. The languid speed of the novel is very similar to Ford’s trilogy of Harry Bascombe. Ford achieves this by infusing the novel with an inner force, a kind of silent energy. Ford’s sense of time and place is near faultless. The first part, where Beverley Parsons slowly, and with precision, chalks his and his family’s way to ruin, is the literary equivalent of watching a fatal crash in slow motion. It is this part that forms the emotional backbone of the novel. In the second part—where young Dell Parsons finds himself in cold and bleak Saskatchewan in the company shadowy people with mood swings more violent than tropical thunderstorms —the novel lurches abruptly away and risks losing the focus and intensity of the first part. Ford just about pulls this off. The vivid and lyrical, yet haunting, descriptions of the Saskatchewan prairie provide substantial background and depth to this part of the novel. The murders, while they have nothing to do with the robberies committed by the parents serve to add to already increasing burden of guilt of the narrator for the events which are not of his making.

Ford’s prose is simple, prosaic, sparse, unostentatious—there is none of the dense, dandyish prose of the Harry Bascombe novels—yet of great melancholic beauty; and does full justice to the odyssey of Dell Parson’s life—tragic, yes; unfulfilled, perhaps; but also the innate strength and sheer tenacity of human nature to prevail over adversity.

Canada is a gripping tale of the bewildering follies of human nature that come to exert influences on those whose lives are affected by them for years, long after the original act is committed. The novel is almost a masterpiece.