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Keun, Irmgard (1905–1982) By Smith, Jill

DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REM2076-1
Published: 18/04/2019
Retrieved: 25 August 2019, from
https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/keun-irmgard-1905-1982

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Abstract

Irmgard Keun was an acclaimed and popular novelist in Germany during the final years of the Weimar Republic (1918–33), whose works reached an international audience in the 1930s and 1940s. Known for their irreverent humour and their naïve yet canny female narrators, Keun’s novels captured the precariousness of life in late Weimar Germany. Blacklisted by the National Socialists (commonly known as the Nazis) in 1933, she went into exile in 1936 and continued to write novels that cast a critical eye on the petit-bourgeois milieu and its submission to fascist barbarism. Keun returned to Germany in 1940, but her post-war life was marked by financial hardship, alcohol abuse, and mental and physical breakdowns.

Irmgard Keun was an acclaimed and popular novelist in Germany during the final years of the Weimar Republic (1918–33), whose works reached an international audience in the 1930s and 1940s. Known for their irreverent humour and their naïve yet canny female narrators, Keun’s novels captured the precariousness of life in late Weimar Germany. Blacklisted by the National Socialists (commonly known as the Nazis) in 1933, she went into exile in 1936 and continued to write novels that cast a critical eye on the petit-bourgeois milieu and its submission to fascist barbarism. Keun returned to Germany in 1940, but her post-war life was marked by financial hardship, alcohol abuse, and mental and physical breakdowns.

Born in 1905 in Berlin-Charlottenburg, Keun moved with her middle-class family to Cologne in 1913. After completing her secondary education in 1921, she worked as a stenographer and typist before beginning formal theatrical training in 1925. From 1927 to 1929 she worked as an actress in Cologne, Hamburg, and Greifswald with only mild success. In 1929 she began writing novels, publishing Gilgieine von uns in 1931 and Das kunstseidene Mädchen [The Artificial Silk Girl] in 1932. Both of these bestselling Weimar-era novels have young, sexually liberated, working women as protagonists who grapple with shifting gender roles and economic uncertainty. Although Keun’s works are often cited as examples of New Objectivity in literature for their cynical wit and their seemingly dispassionate portrayal of modern urban culture, they also reflect Expressionism in their moments of emotional immediacy, jarring changes in narrative voice and tempo, and references to popular films and hit songs. Keun’s novels expose the tension between the reality and the media-generated fantasy of the 1920s New Woman, and yet their open endings resist proclaiming women’s emancipation to be a failed enterprise.

At the height of her fame in 1932, Keun married the theatre director and writer Johannes Tralow; they divorced in 1937. Unable to publish her works in National Socialist Germany, Keun lived in exile from 1936 to 1940, primarily in Belgium. In 1936–7 she travelled throughout Europe with her companion, the writer Joseph Roth, and in 1938 she visited her lover Arnold Strauss in the United States. While in exile she published several novels, most notably the anti-fascist text Nach Mitternacht [After Midnight] (1937). When her suicide was erroneously announced in a British newspaper in 1940, Keun returned to Germany under an assumed name and lived at her parents’ home in Cologne until the end of the war. From 1977 onwards Keun and her works enjoyed a resurgence in popularity when the Claasen publishing house reissued her books. She was the first writer to receive the Marieluise Fleißer literary prize of the City of Ingolstadt in 1981.

Key works

  • Gilgi – eine von uns (1931; repr. 2002)

  • Das kunstseidene Mädchen [The Artificial Silk Girl] (1932; repr. 2002)

  • Nach Mitternacht [After Midnight] (1937; repr. 2011)

Further reading

  • Horsley, R.J. (2000) ‘This Number Is Not in Service’: Destabilizing Identities in Irmgard Keun’s Novels from Weimar and Exile’, in Facing Fascism and Confronting the Past: German Women Writers from Weimar to the Present, Albany: University of New York Press, pp. 37–60.

  • Kosta, B. (1995) ‘Unruly Daughters and Modernity: Irmgard Keun’s Gilgi – eine von uns ’, German Quarterly 68(3): 271–286.

  • McCormick, R. (2001) Gender and Sexuality in Weimar Modernity: Film, Literature, and ‘New Objectivity’, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Published

18/04/2019

Article DOI

10.4324/9781135000356-REM2076-1

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Citing this article:

Smith, Jill. "Keun, Irmgard (1905–1982)." The Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism. : Taylor and Francis, 2016. Date Accessed 25 Aug. 2019 https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/keun-irmgard-1905-1982. doi:10.4324/9781135000356-REM2076-1

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