Published in 1931, Gilgi, One Of Us, was a huge success, as was Keun’s second book The Artificial Silk Girl. But in 1933 when the Nazi Party came to power she was included on a list of undesirables whose books were prohibited for “national and cultural reasons”. It was probably things like this they meant:
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles – such a revolting song…
But it would also have been the sort of woman Gilgi is – outspoken, sexually liberated, proud of her independence, insistent on her value as an individual. Not at all the Nazi image of German womanhood.
For all its psychological realism, it’s a kind of parable, as “one of us” suggests. In the beginning Gilgi is almost a parody of the popular clichés about the German character. She’s determined, unsentimental, clear about her objectives and the path to them. She even does deep-breathing exercises and takes cold showers. Work is work and fun is fun, and she has them both in their place and under control until she falls in love with Martin. Nobody could be more different from Gilgi, and that’s exactly why he can blow up her life the way he does.
Martin is tender and charming, but with him everything is provisional. He isn’t attached to anything enough to want it badly or to mourn its loss. He doesn’t make plans; tomorrow will look after itself. If he borrows money from a friend, instead of paying his debts he spends it on a fur coat for Gilgi and a great meal at the best restaurant in Cologne. And he can’t see why she spends her time working when they could be relaxing and strolling about together in the fine weather.
Gilgi loses what she thought was herself, but once the ordered structure of her life has gone she can’t help but see how sheltered she was, and what desperate lives others are living. The crucial moment comes when she meets an old friend whose wife and children are starving:
What’s being done to people? What? What? You ought to help each other…
From there on the book speeds up and spins into a feverish, nightmarish quality as Gilgi’s prized autonomy falls apart in the conflict between love and desire, compassion, and her growing need for a set of values outside the small scope of her own life, a need she’s never felt before. If at times it was a bit florid for my taste, it’s a memorable and highly-individual work, deeply-dyed with the havoc and despair of the end of the Weimar Republic and the coming of Nazism.