After Midnight: Soapboxing in Prewar Germany

07/06/2011 4:00 AM |

After Midnight

By Irmgard Keun, Trans. Anthea Bell

Melville House

Melville House’s new Neversink Library is a winning idea for a collection: the DUMBO publisher is reprinting books which, it feels, should be integrated into contemporary literary discourse. However, the first book of the collection, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, is not the most persuasive case for forgotten literature.

The story is set in 1930s Frankfurt, as Nazi Germany moves slowly toward war. Irmgard Keun herself wrote under Nazi rule and at one point was arrested by the Gestapo. She escaped Germany in 1936, only to surreptitiously return after she faked her own death abroad. After Midnight was published in Amsterdam in 1937 while Keun was in exile.

Sanna, the novel’s teenage protagonist, feels merely like a vehicle. Her prescient glimpses into the unfolding Nazi system—the alarming socio-political phenomena, the fate awaiting “mixed-race” people (that is, people of Jewish heritage)—are reported with remarkable detachment, a delivery leaving the reader little emotional purchase.

Few of the satellite characters make a bid for the reader’s investment either. Sanna’s entourage is limited to caricatures: there’s her shrewish, dangerous aunt (a Nazi informant); her brother Algin (a despairing writer uncertain about acquiescing to German censorship regulations); Algin’s journalist friend Heini (a mouthpiece for political opinion). Heini is especially broad: his streams of criticism rant on for paragraphs, and though his speeches are moving, the reader can feel the artifice, the soapbox.

The scenes of community folly and fear exacerbated by the Nazi ascension are effective, however. The reader becomes a bystander to the buildup of paranoia, denunciation, compromise—and the pliability of human character when safety and survival are threatened. Keun is admirable for plainly relating this frantic reality. Nonetheless, a truly effective work would not just report these scenes, but more fully form the individuals 
who endured these trials.