A Cult Classic: Irmgard Keun’s “After Midnight”

Irmgard Keun’s poignant novel, After Midnight, is a comedy of despair, set in Germany in the 1930s. It reminds me slightly of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, in which  a subculture of young people flout social conventions under the shadow of fascism.   In Keun’s novel, the narrator, Sanna, is a party girl who wants to drink in peace.  She tries  to ignore politics, but they permeate every aspect of life. A Nazi parade seems vaguely sinister, but she enjoys looking at the shiny big cars. Many in the crowd are thrilled to spot Hitler.

Free speech becomes more and more difficult. Everyone informs on everyone else. Sanna’s Aunt Adelheid, a fervent Nazi, waves swastika flags and informs on anyone she dislikes.  Sanna observes wryly that the enemy aircraft needn’t drop a bomb on their building to kill the residents, because Aunt Adelheid will do it for them.   And Aunt Adelheid is shocked when Sannia admits that she dislikes Goring’s speeches on the radio.

She simply cannot understand what is going on.

Goring and the other ministers often shout over the radio, very loud and clear and angry. “There are still some who have not understood what it is all about, but we shall know how to deal with them.”  I hate hearing that kind of thing, it’s creepy, because I still don’t know what it is all about, or what they mean.  And it’s far too dangerous to ask anyone.

Sanna is naive partly because she is incredulous about the narrowing of her life. When her aunt informs on her to he Nazis for “subversive” comments about Goring., the Gestapo drag her away and interrogate her. After her release, she is more indignant than terrified and leaves Frankfurt to live with her brother and his wife, believing that she will resume her active social life.

But she cannot escape politics. Her brother, a writer, is depressed because he is forced to write historical romances if he wants to publish.  And her sister-in-law has a crush on a blacklisted journalist who commits suicide at a party at their flat. Finally Sanna feels the terror: her fiancé commits a crime.  The gentle comedy of Sanna’s life has been wrecked.

Although I found Keun’s early work very slight, After Midnight  is a sharply-observed depiction of the terror of life under the Nazis. Keun was blacklisted and her books banned and burned.  She boldly tried to sue the Germans for robbing her of her income. That did not work out, as you can imagine. She left Germany in 1936, but returned  in 1940 and lived under a false name. So bold!

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