“Something Which Bites or Stings”: Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight


Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight was published in Holland in 1937, the year after she left her native Germany. As Geoff Wilkes writes in his informative afterword to this newish edition—well, maybe not so new, it was published five years ago—Keun’s relatively late departure meant that she had experienced National Socialist Germany more fully than those émigrés who left shortly after 1933.



For the opening scene Keun drew on her experience of Hitler’s visit to Frankfurt on May 19, 1935, where she was living at the time. Sanna Moder, the novel’s nineteen-year-old narrator, is trying to return to her brother’s apartment with her friend Gerti when the SS block off the streets in order that the Führer and other Nazi bigwigs might more easily reach the opera.

The friends don’t care about the officials; they’ve got other things on their minds. Sanna has finally had a letter from her boyfriend in Köln after a silence of several months. Gerti’s family wants her to marry Kurt, a member of the SA, the paramilitary group that helped bring Hitler to power, but she’s in love with Dieter, who, as a Jew, is “what they call a person of mixed race, first class or maybe third class—I can never get the hang of these labels.”

What seems like blithe insouciance can be read as sly critique. Sanna—it’s short for Susanna—seems clueless, and it’s true that the most important thing on her mind is a party her sister-in-law wants her to help plan. Gerti by contrast seems much more politically conscious, coolly snubbing the attentions of some SS men by pretending to be Jewish. But Sanna is keenly aware of how much Gerti risks in such moments. Similarly, stringing Kurt along so that she can continue to see Dieter is a dangerous game.

But the longer we spend with Sanna, the more her ingenuousness starts to seem like a strategy to undermine fascism’s fathomless self-regard. Here she is, for example, standing in the crowds who have gathered to see the Führer but who must content themselves with a sighting of Göring, recognizable to all by his fancy suits:

[W]e all know from photographs that he likes to wear stylish suits. Though by now he’s really so well known he doesn’t need to make his mark by wearing striking clothes. … Then again, however, even established film stars can never let up—they have to keep showing their public the latest thing in fashion and elegance. I expect someone like Göring is obliged to think hard all the time, if he’s going to keep offering the German public something new. And men like that have to find time to govern the country as well. Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well.

This is wonderful, especially, to me at any rate, that parenthetical description of the pictures Hitler has to take “indoors and out of doors”—I don’t know why that makes me laugh so much, but it does. And then of course there is the joke about Wagner—more obvious, maybe, but it comes with a sting, in its criticism of the idea of German (healthy) art as opposed to the degenerate art created by so many of Keun’s circle.

Keun had already perfected her use of the faux-naïve female narrator in her second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl (1932). It’s a wonderful book, you should absolutely read it, it reminds me of Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the targets (big city sophisticates) are less dangerous, less necessary than those in After Midnight. The passage about Göring and Hitler is so brilliant because Sanna does sort of believe what she’s saying (she really does start out rather naïve, though she doesn’ end that way: even though the main action of the novel takes place only over two nights, Sanna ages a lot over the course of the book). Yet her reflections aren’t simply artless or simplistic. She shrewdly diagnoses fascism’s love of spectacle, and the energy it devotes to what is in some sense an endless publicity campaign for itself.

Keun suggests Sanna is able to see through appearances precisely because she is so attuned to them. Here she is describing a woman so desperate for a fox fur that she condescends to buy one from a Jewish furrier, a secret she must hide from fellow party members at all costs: “When she wears it, they look like a rich fur taking a poor woman for a walk.” At times like this, Sanna reminded me of the heroines of Jean Rhys’s novels, though Sanna has better luck than they do. Yet Rhys shares with Keun her belief in the observational power of otherwise disempowered, marginalized young women.

Whatever seems blithe, even careless in Sanna’s narration reveals itself as sly, even cutting. Indeed, she is more effective than more established critics of the regime, such as her stepbrother Algin, a once famous but now blacklisted writer who considers writing an epic poem extolling Hitler in order to get back into the regime’s good graces, or the journalist Heini, who “hardly writes at all these days—for political reasons again,” and whose only resistance now comes from introducing virulent anti-Semites to Jews without their knowing, then delighting after the fact in how readily they had become chummy with someone they purport to hate, a dismayingly risky tactic that might explain why he is so filled with self-loathing.

In a climactic speech, Heini explains that he “can’t be a witty and humorous journalist in this country or anywhere else with screams from German concentration camps in your ears.” Keun admires Heini but she doesn’t like him. Her novel imagines less official or perhaps officious or at any rate less male forms of resistance. But Heini isn’t entirely disparaged. His concluding peroration ends with some resonant sentences distinguishing today’s émigrés from those of previous generations:

It’s different today. You’re a poor emigrant. You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden on others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.

At the end of the book Sanna’s lover, Franz, finds her after several months of silence. It turns out he has been locked up by the Gestapo after having been informed on by a disgruntled neighbour. After his release he murders the man and is now on the run from the police; the end of the novel finds the couple on a train heading for the border, hoping to make it out of the country. Although sobered by recent dramatic events, Sanna once again finds herself inhabiting a position of strategic subordination that seems to be women’s lot in the novel: “My head is in Franz’s lap. I must seem to be weaker than I am, so that he can feel strong, and love me.” Shortly after this statement, the novel repeats Heini’s words:

 “The roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language that you hear is not spoken for you.”

The sentences are presented in quotation marks, but it’s unclear who says them. Does Sanna relate them to Franz? Or is she saying them to herself? But the previous line—“It will be all right, Franz, I am happy, we’re safe, we will live”—is not quoted, which suggests Sanna isn’t simply repeating Heini’s words to herself. It’s as if the words are coming from the text itself, from some position greater than Sanna’s. Are we to take the peculiar, unanchored appearance of Heini’s speech as a refutation of his prediction? In other words, is it a sign that the lovers will get away? Or is it a confirmation that they won’t?


Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe it’s a statement of Sanna’s predicament: to live in a world that doesn’t always take her seriously. “The language that you hear is not spoken for you”: that could be a description of the way Sanna is always threatened to be sidelined or disparaged. And yet of course she is the one in this novel who wields language so wittily and compellingly. In this sense, Keun argues that readers shouldn’t join in the cultural tendency to dismiss young women like Sanna (or indeed, like herself—she was only 32 when After Midnight was published). For in voices like Sanna’s we might find a resistance to authoritarianism worthy of the name.


After Midnight is translated by Anthea Bell. She’s kept that vivid voice of Sanna’s that is so vital to the novel’s success. Yet I did wonder at some of her choices. Here’s the novel’s opening paragraph, in the original and then in Bell’s translation:

Einen Briefumschlag macht man auf und zieht etwas heraus, das beisst oder sticht, obwohl es kein Tier ist. Heute kam so ein Brief von Franz. “Liebe Sanna”, schreibt er mir, “ich möchte Dich noch einmal sehen, darum komme ich viellercht. Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben, aber ich habe oft an Dich gedacht, das hast Du sicher gewusst und gefühlt. Hoffentlich geht es Dir gut. Viele herzliche Grüsse, meine liebe Sanna. Dein Franz.”

You can open an envelope and take out something which bites or stings, though it isn’t a living creature. I had a letter like that from Franz today. “Dear Sanna,” he writes, “I want to see you again, so I may be coming to Frankfurt. I haven’t been able to write for some time, but I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I’m sure you knew that, I’m sure you could feel it. All my love, dear Sanna, from Franz.”

Already in the first sentence, Keun indicates that this text will bite. But why does Bell say “living creature” rather than the more fitting “animal” or “beast”? And why does she use a modal auxiliary (can) to make this conditional when the original presents this as something that simply or always happens? Throughout we find subtle additions and elisions. Why does Bell add Sanna’s location? (Keun doesn’t mention Frankfurt.) Are English-language readers so unable to have their understanding deferred? And since she proves herself (rightly) willing to break English syntax and embrace comma splices, why does she break the long sentence starting “Ich konnte Dir lange nicht schreiben” in two, and, in so doing, to add a parallelism (“I’m sure you”) that isn’t there in the original? Lastly, why does she cut an entire sentence? (Before his salutation, Franz says, “I hope you are well.”).

I’m no translator, and Bell probably has good reasons for her choices. What’s more, his translation reads so smoothly and supplely that I was surprised, turning to the German, to see the alterations he’d made. But maybe that’s the point—to write something that sounds great in translation maybe you need a strong editorial hand. Anyone have thoughts on this?


I started reading Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight the weekend before the US Presidential election: the book felt cautionary. I had to set it aside and couldn’t come back to it until the weekend after: now the book felt urgent. These are dangerous times. We need all the stories of resistance to power that we can get.

I wrote this review as part of German Literature Month, hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. There are many wonderful posts to read across the blogosphere.

39 thoughts on ““Something Which Bites or Stings”: Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight

  1. Excellent review Dorian. Your final thoughts echo mine with the volume of Czech Surrealist poetry, also published in 1937, that I wrote about yesterday. Before the election it felt cautionary, re-reading it again afterward, it felt—and feels—urgent.

  2. It’s good to see another positive review of Keun’s work as part of German Lit Month. I got interested in this author a year or so ago when Grant reviewed a couple of her books — this one and Gilgi, if my memory serves me correctly — but I’ve yet to experience her for myself. Another incentive to get to her soon…

    • Thanks, Jacqui. I hope you do get to Keun, because I’m especially curious how you would compare her to Rhys.
      BTW, sometimes I think the book bloggers need to get together and divide up all the books…

      • Now that I’ve actually read this book, I can relate to the feeling of urgency you mentioned at the end of your piece. As a text, After Midnight still feels vital and urgent, particularly so in these horribly divisive times. Such a shame that the Melville House edition seems to have slipped out of print given the current context…

        The Rhys comparison is very striking, isn’t it? I’m definitely with you on that. (In fact, I think it struck me when I read Silk Girl last year – the reliance of Doris on the generosity of men, her sharp observations on society’s expectations of women, her interest in clothes. It’s pretty much all there, albeit in a slightly less bleak form. Interesting analysis on the novel’s ending too. I guess I didn’t interrogate it that much at the time, assuming it to be a way of saying that Sanna and Franz will get away to another country, but as emigres they will always feel like outsiders or second-class citizens. Now you’ve got me thinking whether there’s a deeper meaning in those closing paragraphs, perhaps a more feminist one as you suggest.

        Anyway, a characteristically thoughtful and insightful review, Dorian. You really are incredibly good at this stuff!

      • Well, it certainly shows! I love it when you analyse something I’m familiar with as you always prompt me to reassess my own perceptions and impressions of it. That’s got to be a good thing, right?

  3. Welcome to #germanlitmonth! Thank you for this wonderful review. I meant to read this myself this year, but got a little sidetracked. There is just so much wonderful German literature to chose from.

    • Thanks, Lizzy. You are right about the riches to choose from. Keun is pretty great, and her life story is amazing (I didn’t write about this in the post, but she actually faked her own death in Holland and returned to Germany under a false name in 1940!) Thanks to you and Caroline for hosting this impressive, and impressively long lasting, event. BTW I tried to add my name to the list of contributors and through general cluelessness added myself three times. I’m sorry about that–is it possible to erase two of them?

  4. Great review – I think Keun is a wonderfully perceptive writer, though I’d never thought of the comparison with Rhys. I’ve read Child of All Nations and Gilgi – not this, I’m afraid, as it seems to have quickly fallen out of print and copies sell here for ridiculous prices. Having said that, I just checked, spurred on by your review, and found one relatively cheaply, though possibly not in great condition. It’ll have to do!

    • I’d no idea this was already out of print, but it seems you’re right. Terrible! (This is the sort of thing that confirms my sense that you have to buy titles you’re interested in right away…) I’m looking forward to reading both Gilgi and Child of All Nations, but first I’ll look up your reviews.
      Can you think of other German-language writers of the period who are like Keun?

  5. It’s not out of print: on the strength of your enticing review, I’ve just bought a copy on Kindle through Amazon’s Australian site so it’s probably available on their other sites as well.
    Re the translation issues: I’ve just read a really terrific little book called Translation a Very Short Introduction (from Oxford’s VSI series) and my review for all its inadequacies addresses the issue about the translator’s choices that you raise: see https://anzlitlovers.com/2016/10/22/translation-a-very-short-introduction-by-matthew-reynolds/

    • Thanks, Lisa. Oddly it seems to be only available in e-versions. Since I’m still such a partisan of print, that’s almost the same as being out of print altogether. But I’m glad you’ve got a copy and I’m curious to hear what you make of it.
      And thanks for the prodding to read your review of the translation book, which I only skimmed when you first put it up. Personally, I’d say that *all* language is like literary language, so I disagree with his reading of critical essays. But my experience with these VSI books has been good.
      BTW all those Stead posts have really whetted my appetite to read her. Thanks for organizing.

      • Yeah, I hate eBooks, I’ve have to really want a book to buy a Kindle version of it (so you can see how impressed I was by your review).
        Re translations, I gathered from the VSI that it’s a much more complex issue than I had first thought, but at the end of the day, I reckon a good book will mostly survive translation and the quality of modern translations is often very good indeed.

  6. It sounds excellent. Would you read this as a first Keun or The Artificial Girl? I’ve long been sold on her, but not sure where to start.

    I like Bell as a translator. She reads extremely well. I have no idea however how faithful she is, always a problem when you don’t have any knowledge of the source language. Some translators “tidy” the source text, clearing up oddities of phrasing or inelegancies many of which may well have been quite intentional. Could Bell be one of those?

    • Good question. Silk Girl is a lot sweeter, at least in my memory (it’s been ten years or so since I read it). After Midnight, fittingly, is darker. Both terrific.
      This idea of some translators as tidiers strikes me as excellent. I’m not interested in disparaging Bell or anyone else, I’m so grateful for their efforts, but tidy does go against my deepest belief about literature, namely that it’s all about the strangeness. Anyway the book is great, check it out if you can.

    • Just adding my two pennies’ worth as I’ve read both in the past year. As Dorian says, both are terrific and definitely worth experiencing – but in terms of order, I would suggest you read Silk Girl first, then After Midnight. The latter is definitely darker and more complex/ambitious, so it’s worth saving for later. I’m aware you read Child of All Nations earlier this year (which sounded great, btw), but even so, I’d stick with the order I’ve suggested.

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  8. I read your review with great interest having just finished “Ostend” which vividly speaks of Keun and Roth’s relationship during those few fraoght years. The section on translation was particularly enlightening and strongly argues in favor of reading the material in the original language if at all possible. Your reference to that paragraph was
    particularly rewarding but one small quibble: I’ve no problem with Bell’s choice in the parallelism (“I’m sure you”) that you argue isn’t there in the original. Here the small change Bell creates is innocuous because the more literal translation of “aber ich habe oft an Dich gedacht, das hast Du sicher gewusst und gefühlt” would read: “but I thought of you often, you surely knew and felt that.”
    As I said, just a small item that made me scratch my head while reading your insightful and enriching comments.
    -Fred Gumminger

    • Thank you for this thoughtful and enlightening comment, Fred! My apologies for only responding now. I was traveling out of the country when you wrote this and I missed it somehow.

      I take your point about the parallelism–indeed rather innocuous. But I guess the repetition of “I’m sure you” in the translation lends a more literary, overtly rhetorical quality to Franz’s letter than I find in the original. But maybe I’m misreading here. (My German is far from perfect.)

      I’ve been meaning to read Ostend–even had it from the library at one point but just couldn’t get to it. Do you recommend it?

  9. Oh, yes, Ostend is well worth the time (and it is a fairly short book anyway).
    The story is fascinating and the images are haunting, and BTW our Ms. Keun makes a significant and memorable appearance. I was moved right away to follow up with a reading of The Impossible Exile by George Prochnik and to round things off a viewing of “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” (veröffentlicht auf deutsch als “Vor der Morgenröte”) directed by the splendid German actress Maria Schrader. I had the pleasure of seeing the latter at a screening at the Pennsylvania German Society which enriched the experience several fold.
    Best Regards,

    • The Prochnik is another book I had from the library and didn’t get to. But I read teh first few pages and thought it was great. You are inspiring me to get to both these books. BTW Prochnik has a new book on Gershom Sholem that also looks great. Is the Pennsylvania German Society in Philly? We lived in Haverford for several years and miss the area so much!

  10. Yes the Society is on Spring Garden Street in a beautiful 19th century building.
    Banff sounds like a great place from which to miss Philly!

  11. No, I’ve not gotten into the habit. I enjoy yours, though.
    I was a stone’s throw away from Arkansas in April when I and some friends spent 5 pleasant and interesting days in Memphis. Didn’t get over the bridge but we did drive down to Clarksdale and Oxford, Mississippi. We combined a Delta Blues and literary excursion visiting the “Crossroads” on Hiway 61 in Clarksdale and then Faulkners’ Grave and Homestead in Oxford (and of course, lots of BBQ in Memphis.

    • Let me know if you start one (I know, everyone says blogs are over). You clearly are a shrewd reader.
      Oxford is lovely–have only been once; we really ought to get there again, it’s so close. Memphis BBQ = excellent. Did you have Gus’s chicken?

  12. Missed Gus’s but got to the Rendezvous (I know it’s for tourists but still darn good, IMHO)
    and on a cabbies rec we found Central BBQ not far from the Civil Rights museum.
    How did you end up going from Banff to Little Rock? Was it a hard transition?

    • I’m from Calgary, actually. An hour east of Banff. I got to Little Rock via Ithaca and Philadelphia, so I eased into it a bit. Not sure I will ever be reconciled to the South, though…

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  14. Ah, it’s so interesting to see another comparison to Jean Rhys! Maybe that thought had wormed its way into my subconscious as I definitely felt the similarities, particularly in the second half of the novel – they’re so very striking.

    After Midnight sounds quite a bit darker than Silk Girl, perhaps not too surprising given the time when it was written (I’ve a feeling she was still working on it during her relationship with Joseph Roth which started in 1936). I’m going to have to hunt around for a copy of AM as it appears to have fallen out of print again, *sigh* It’s a shame as she’s clearly a very talented and insightful writer!

    • Thanks for the correction! I will acknowledge this in the post. It’s a little embarrassing, but the good news is that I just learned about Kaleko, who seems to have had quite the fascinating life.

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