Irmgard Keun (1905-1982) produced a series of fresh, wry, acutely perceptive novels that gave voice and agency to young, modern, single-minded German women in the feverish climate between the wars. Gilgi, the ambitious yet misguided title character of Keun's 1931 debut, leaves her family home in Cologne to be with a man living beyond his means. Doris, the aspiring starlet of "The Artificial Silk Girl" (1932), sinks and swims in hedonistic Weimar-era Berlin.
Sanna in "After Midnight" (1937) attempts to keep her head amid increased restrictions in 1930s Frankfurt. And Keun's youngest protagonist, Kully, in her 1938 masterpiece "Child of All Nations," drifts around Europe with her parents seeking sanctuary in any place other than her Nazi-run homeland.
Keun also fled the Nazis after they branded her heroines "immoral" and burned her books. She fell into obscurity but was rescued by a new generation of German readers in the 1970s. Recent years have seen more of this marvelous writer's back catalog becoming available to Anglophone audiences. The latest book to appear is Keun's final work from 1950.
"Ferdinand, the Man With the Kind Heart" marks a departure of sorts. Its main character is male and its setting is Germany in a time not of interwar abandon or prewar anxiety but postwar confusion. Despite the differences, the novel is vintage Keun, infused with her trademark wit, candor and emotional intensity.
Ferdinand Timpe is a recently released prisoner of war trying to adjust to civilian life in bomb-ravaged Cologne. He has a makeshift room in a dilapidated lodging house, dwindling funds, and no inspiration for a journalistic assignment. As he wanders the city, taking stock of societal chaos and transformations, he encounters one colorful contact after another. There is his doughty landlady, Frau Stabhorn, and her dubious black-market schemes; his unlucky-in-love cousin Johanna and her failed entanglements with everyone from an American GI to a German lion tamer; and good friend Liebezahl, who gives guidance to lost, credulous souls through clairvoyance, astrology, graphology and other "gaudy deceits."
Then there is Luise, Ferdinand's fiancée. He got engaged to her in haste during the war and now wants rid of her. No callous heartbreaker, he has decided he will find her a worthier husband. In addition he must settle into a new job and reconnect with his mother and various siblings. The country is emerging from the rubble and forging ahead; can this "man for abnormal times" get his act together in this era of peace and prosperity and also move forward?
Keun's narrative comprises a series of tightly packed vignettes and quietly captivating portraits. Some characters are fleeting cameos but others are forceful presences. Thanks to Michael Hofmann's translation, the prose has bite and charm. This may have been Keun's last book, but for those yet to discover her, it is as good a place as any to begin.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Ferdinand, the Man With the Kind Heart
By: Irmgard Keun, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann.
Publisher: Other Press, 256 pages, $17.99.