“A writer who is afraid is no true writer,” say the bohemian characters in Irmgard Keun’s 1937 novel, though the words could’ve come from Keun’s mouth. Censured and arrested in Nazi Germany, she wrote After Midnight while exiled. This subversive, elegant little novel is filled with her frustration at both her situation and the culture that created it.
A 19-year-old girl has enough to worry about; in the Third Reich she has to worry about every word she says. Arrested after a chance remark that the Führer looked “sweaty,” vivacious Sanna moves to Frankfurt to escape the scrutiny of her neighbors. But she can’t escape politics. Her writer brother, whose new book was banned, is considering writing a long poem about Hitler to save his career. Her best friend is mad for a “mixed race” boy, though Sanna thinks they wouldn’t be so in love if it weren’t forbidden. Her boyfriend, opening a tobacconist’s shop, is speciously informed on by a competitor and arrested. Sanna can’t even walk home from the bar without running into a parade commemorating a visit from the Führer.
Lighthearted at times, heart-rending at others, After Midnight is, above all, brutally honest. Sanna’s wry voice and her focus on the absurd show a character trying not to drown in the futility of it all. But it catches up with her, and amidst a fierce and startling ending, Sanna is forced to decide where she stands. Keun’s careful prose reveals the darkness beneath the mundane, the captivity within the trappings of culture. As one character says, “We’re all in a concentration camp, the whole nation is, it’s only the Government can go running around free.” After Midnight is furious, real, and a book everyone should read.