Irmgard Keun: After Midnight

June 4, 2021

     Here’s a novella set in Germany between the time of the Nazis taking power and the start of the Second World War, by a German woman writer who lived through those times. I was often reminded of Erika Mann’s When The Lights Go Out, which deals with the same times and experiences, those of ordinary Germans who can’t quite comprehend what’s changed and what’s going on around them, and happening to them. There’s a lot of avoidance – understandable, perhaps – in evidence.

There is a deliberate naivete in the young female narrator, which shows us clearly how the new regime affects so many small details of the everyday life of the average citizen, the minor adjustments and compromises they choose to/ have to make in order to continue with their lives, and how this all creates a deepening atmosphere of fear which serves to keep almost everyone in a permanent state of uncertainty and obedience: there is no rechtstaat any longer. The narrator’s evenness of tone reflects her unthinking acceptance of the changed circumstances. Ordinary citizens are in survival mode, and have quickly taken on board the idea that resistance is both dangerous and futile. People inform on each other all the time, for all sorts of reasons.

Yet in her thoughts she’s awkward and dangerous, and pretty savvy in her behaviour in lots of ways, especially at avoiding potential trouble, and keeping her more insouciant friend Gerti out of it. There is the feeling that, in these relatively early days of the Nazi regime, many people are partying and drinking and avoiding admitting that the real, old world is falling to pieces around them. There is still time to get away for those who can, and, although at times the narrative became a little tedious and predictable, the ending is both hectic and powerful.

Fiction such as this and recent history and social history texts are both fascinating and alarming, as they enable us – who haven’t been there yet! – to see just how things can and do change without many of us realising it before it is too late, and I experience a grim sense of warning and foreboding when I read them. Often the fiction is more telling, I feel, and more effective, as we try to understand the mentalities of those who lived through such times, the accommodations and compromises so many of them made, and, most of all why they did so. There are important messages for us here and now.

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