Book Review: ‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ – Irmgard Keun

Translated by Kathie von Ankum from the German original, this short novel should be deemed a masterpiece in 20th century literature. However, due to Nazi censorship it was sadly almost forgotten about.

A revival of the novel came about at the turn of the century, and after reading it I can understand why.

This is novel full of ambiguity. Narrated by a rather naive young woman at the end of the Weimar Republic era in Germany (and at the beginning of the rise of the Nazis), she [Doris] appears to miss a lot of things during her recital of what is going on, particularly during her topsy-turvy time in Berlin.

Doris wastes no time in telling the reader (though, the novel is written in diary format) that her dream is to be a star and to be in the movies. We are immediately welcomed to the all too familiar world of a woman obsessed with beauty standards. She becomes mesmerised later on by a woman’s long legs and blonde hair, which she herself apparently does not have. Apart from the critical comments on the city, gender and politics, these beauty beliefs and her talent of falling for unavailable men is pretty much all the narration comprises of. But it is still utterly compelling to read.

She begins the novel talking about a lover called Hubert. Successful, PHD sudent, wealthy. Suddenly disappears. Police can’t find traces of him. Doris has no idea where he is. Yet us as 21st century readers may add all this up to conclude he was a persecuted Jew. Who knows? Not Doris. (No more spoilers I promise).

It is split into three parts which are essentially: Doris in Cologne with her parents wanting to be a star, Doris going to Berlin and experiencing being a star and Doris realising Berlin isn’t as great as she thought it would be and considering going back to Cologne. This cycle (which is full of bad decision making and hopeless romance) reflects exactly what every ‘New Woman’ of the 1920s was experiencing, according to any traces found in history.

The Artificial Silk Girl is a fantastic critique of the modern city and changes in gender representation that came about under the short Weimar Republic era in Germany. Throughout her travels Doris encounters various sorts of people, which the reader themselves can file under the ‘Socialist’ or ‘National Socialist’ labels.

For readers now too, the novel triggers you to critique current society and its standards. At one point in the novel Doris starts worrying about her weight. She doesn’t weigh enough. She can see her ribs. No man will find her attractive if her ribs are visible. She needs chunk…..I know right?!

Not only is this novel and great fictional-historical insight into the uneasy political atmosphere of the early 1930s in Germany, but it serves as a rather shocking exemplification of just how much society has changed since then. The atrocious levels of racism and homophobia, for example, may have declined, but the woman is still just as trapped as before. The rules have simply just been taken to the next extreme.

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