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Excerpt from The Artificial Silk Girl

Berlin, 1930

Downstairs from us lives Herr Brenner, who can’t see anymore—no shops or checkered lights or modern advertising or anything at all. Because he lost his eyesight in the war. And his wife is old and angry. She thinks everything should belong to her, because she makes all the money and is ironing day in and day out for people and making clothes—beats me who would buy something that unfashionable. And so she has earned her husband as he gets nothing and no social security, because he’s from the Alsace, but he fought for the Germans. And he’s about forty years old and is sitting around all day, sad and staring at the all, which he can’t see. And he has such beautiful lips. I visit him sometimes, when his wife is away, because she doesn’t want me around. She wouldn’t even want to dirt from her kitchen floor to stick to other people’s feet. And so she won’t have anyone in the kitchen that is hers, and it’s her husband, too.

I can understand why men are unfaithful. When women own something completely, they sometimes have a way of being good that borders on meanness. And that kind of woman doesn’t give you any room to breathe. Brenner is a fine man and has a lot of thoughts that he tells me about. And all his thoughts are in the kitchen, and when his wife is there she fills up the kitchen with her voice and cries because of him and complains that she has to work so hard. Then there’s no more room for his thoughts in the kitchen.

And then he says to me: “Whenever she’s crying, I have to think that she has long yellow teeth,” and then he asks me: “Does she have long yellow teeth?”

I tell him, “No, she has little white teeth”—even though it’s not true. But it must be awful o be thinking of those long yellow teeth all the time.

I collect images for him. I walk around the streets and the restaurants and among people and lanterns. And then I try to remember what I’ve seen and bring to him.

Just now a bureaucratic type is approaching me with a handkerchief with green trim and a monocle.

So Brenner with his pale hands asks me: “What do you actually look like?”

And I’m sitting right in front of him on the kitchen table and even though I wiped it off with that stinky rag first, I can be sure to have a grease spot on my butt when I get up. But it’s an old dress. I’ve put my feet on top of his knees, as he sits opposite me stroking my silky legs. He doesn’t have any other pleasure in life.

The air is humming yellow. And so he asks me: “What do you look like?” That was really strange. I wanted to se myself from the outside, not like a man would usually describe me, which is always just half the truth anyway.

And I’m thinking: Doris has turned into an enormous man with great erudition and is looking at Doris and says to her like a medical doctor: “My dear child, you have a nice figure, perhaps a bit thin, but that’s fashionable right now, and your eyes are a black-brown like those ancient silk pom-pons on my mother’s pompadour. And I have something of an anemic paleness and I have red cheeks at night and when I’m excited. And my hair is black like a buffalo, well, not entirely. But well, kind of. And frizzy because of my perm, which is already starting to relax a bit. And I have thin pale lips by nature. With sensual make-up. But I have very long lashes. And very smooth skin without freckles or wrinkles or dust. And everything else is very nice, I think.”

But I was ashamed to talk about my stomach, which is first class and white, and I do think that all girls find themselves attractive when they stand in front of a mirror naked. And when you’re naked with a man, he’s so crazy already that he thinks everything is beautiful and that way you never really get a true opinion of your body.

“I can’t hear you walking,” says Brenner. “How do you walk, do you move your hips?”

And I tell him: “No, I cant stand it when girls wiggle their behinds like a corkscrew when they walk. But sometimes, my feet are bouncing and I have a wonderfully exciting feeling in my knees.” And then I couldn’t go on talking, because think “thighs” is such a terribly naughty word. But what else can you say when you talk about what’s above your knees?

And over in the corner is a cockroach and everything is gray and without elegance. It was disgusting. He didn’t have the courage to kiss me. That gave me courage and love. I used to think you could help people only with money. Actually, you can’t really help anyone, but you can give them pleasure—and that’s nobody’s business, not my dove-covered notebook’s or mine or anybody’s.

Brenner strung up a necklace of wooden beads for me. They are a beautiful red and green and are put together with a system. And he’s blind! I’m not an idiot and I certainly have ambition, but I cried with joy because it’s very rare that you still get a present afterward.

Tilli says: “Men are nothing but sensual and they only want one thing.” But I say, “Tilli, sometimes women too are sensual and want only that one thing.” And there’s no difference. Because sometimes I only want to wake up with someone in the morning, all messed up from kissing and half dead without any energy to think, but wonderfully tired and rested at the same time. But you don’ t have to give a hoot otherwise. And there’s nothing wrong with it, because both have the same feeling and wan the same thing from the other.

So I’m living in Berlin, first for myself and secondly for Brenner. And I’m sitting in the kitchen and the bed is behind a curtain. If it were up to me, I would hang the curtain—which is covered with stains—in front of the stove rather than the bed.

And then there’s him with his thin lips and features like a child that has fallen and hurt himself and his hair is falling into his face, and he’s wearing a Tyrolean jacket. And I’m in front of him on the table and sometimes I love his hands around my feet.

This has got to be the first time that a man’s hands have known exactly when I don’t like them to be moving. I’m telling you. There are only two types of men: those who have a thousand hands, and you don’t know how on earth you’re going to get them off of you, and those with only to hands that you can deal with, simply by not wanting them to touch you.

And he put his hands around my feet as if they were Christmas candles—at home, we keep our Christmas tree candles for three years, because we only light them while singing Silent Night, Holy Night.

And there’s a silence and a steamy humidity and the gray wall in front of the window. All that is falling right on top of us. I’m sitting there powdering my face because of his hands. And I’m fixing my lipstick. But he can’t tell when I look beautiful. I offer him Berlin, which is resting in my lap.

And he asks me: “Dear voice of a folk song, where did you go today?”

“I was on Kurfurstendamm.”

“What did you see?”

And I must have seen lots of colors there: “I saw—men standing at corners selling perfume, without a coat and a pert face and a gray cap on—and posters with naked and rosy girls on them and nobody looking at them—a restaurant with more chrome than an operating room—they even have oysters there—and famous photographers with photos in showcases displaying enormous people without any beauty. And sometimes with.”

A cockroach is crawling around—is it always the same one?—and there’s no air in the apartment—let’s smoke a cigarette—

“What did you see?”

“I saw—a man with a sign around his neck, ‘I will accept any work’ with ‘any’ underlined three times in red—and a spiteful mouth, the corners of which were drawn increasingly down—and when a woman gave him ten pfennigs, they were yellow and he rolled them on the pavement in which they were reflected because of the cinemas and nightclubs.”

“What else do you see, what else?”

“I see—swirling lights with lightbulbs right next to each other—women without veils with hair blown into their faces. That’s the new hairstyle—it’s called ‘windblown’—and the corners of their mouths are like actresses before they take on a big role and black furs and fancy gowns underneath—and shiny eyes—and they are either a black drama or a blonde cinema. Cinemas are primarily blonde—I’m moving right along with them my fur that is so gray and soft—and my feet are racing, my skin is turning pink, the air is chilly and the lights are hot—I’m looking, I’m looking—my eyes are expecting the impossible—I’m dying to eat something wonderful like a rumpsteak, brown and with white horseradish and pommes frites. Those are elongated homefries—and sometimes I love food so much that I just want to grab it with my hands and bite into it, and note have to eat with forks and knives—”

“What else do you see, what else do you see?”

“I see myself—mirrored in windows and when I do, I like the way I look back and then I look at men that look back at me—and black coats and dark blue and a lot of disdain in their faces—that’s so important—and I see—there’s the Memorial Church with turrets that look like oyster shells—I know how to eat oysters, very elegant—the sky is pink gold when it’s foggy out—it’s pushing me toward it—but you can’t get near it because of the cars—and in the middle of all this, there’s a red carpet, because there was one of those dumb weddings this afternoon—the Gloria Palast is shimmering—it’s a castle, a castle—but really it’s a movie theater and a café and Berlin W—the church is surrounded by black iron chains—and across the street from it is the Romanisches Café with long-haired men! And one night, I passed an evening with the intellectual elite, which means ‘selection,’ as every educated individuality knows from doing crossword puzzles. And we all form a circle. But really the Romanisches Café is unacceptable. And they all say: ‘My God, that dive with those degenerate literary types. We should stop going there.’ And then they all go there after all. It was very educational for me, and like learning a foreign language.

“And nobody has much money there, but they’re alive and part of the elite and instead of having money they play chess, which is a checkered board with black and blonde squares. They have kings too. And ladies. And it takes a long time, which is the whole point of it. Of course, the waiters don’t like it, because a cup of coffee only has a fivepfennig tip in it, which is very little for a chessy guest of seven hours. But it’s the cheapest occupation for the elite, because they’re not working and that’s why they’re keeping busy. And they are very literary, and the literary elite is incredibly busy with their coffee and chess and talking and all that intellect, so they won’t let on to themselves that they’re lazy. Some of them are from the theater too, and very colorful girls that are very self-assured, and a couple of older men with trembling bodies that have something to do with math. And most of them are desperate to get published. And they criticize everything.

“They gave me a lot of material to work through. So I made myself a list of foreign words and wrote next to them what they meant. In some cases, I had to find out on my own. Those words make quite an impression when you use them. We artists were hanging out together—sometimes a few guys with beer bellies came walking by. They just look at us and they don’t belong. We look down on them. So I throw my head way back as they are talking and stare at the sky and don’t listen. And all of a sudden I press my lips together very tight and then I loosen them and blow smoke through my nose and full of nonchalance I throw a single foreign word at them. Foreign words used all by themselves are a symbol, I’ll have you know, and a symbol fits into any context. If you have enough self-confidence, nobody dares admit that they don’t understand. With a symbol you can never go wrong. But after awhile I got tired of them anyway.”

“What else, what else?”

“And there’s a traffic light that changes from green to red and yellow—huge eyes and cars wait in front of it—I walk down the Tauentzien—and shops with pink corsets also sell green sweaters—why? And ties and a striped bathrobe for a man in the window—I see it—there are brown shoes and a fast food restaurant with Wagnerian music and sandwiches aligned in the shape of a star—and there are delicacies in the kitchen that I’m’ ashamed to never have heard of. And at Zuntz, you can smell the coffee. It’s small and brown and lies in large flat baskets that look like the South. It’s all so wonderful—and there are wide tracks of rails and yellow trains. And people at the KaDeWe. It’s so big and with clothes and gold and many elegant little dogs and leashes at the door, waiting for ladies shopping inside—and enormously square—and a little Wittenberg Temple that has a train running in its belly—with a large lit-up U in front of it.

“And a blonde man with a monocle invites me—he has teeth like a mouse and a disgustingly small mouth that’s all shiny and makes the monocled man look naked. We’re drinking wine in a highly respectable restaurant. He’s in insurance and talking without end and loud without any inhibition and he’s an idiot and talking about his mother, to whom he gave a carpet as a gift—and someone sold him a cigarette lighter that didn’t work and then wouldn’t repair it for him for free—and three mark eighty is a lot of money—he doesn’t throw his money out the window, but he does have to have his three beers every night together with his friends. After that, he goes to see his mother—after the third beer, every night. There are some who don’t do that—he can’t stand to be ripped off, that really makes him mad, and then that thing with the cigarette lighter—and I should come visit him, and that he knows restaurants where you can get a lot to eat for very little money, and you get seconds on potatoes and vegetables—and his food is coming dangerously close to me—he just can’t get over that cigarette lighter—and he won’t give anything to the broken man with the pink band-aids, because what would happen if you started to give to everybody. I was thinking that too. He has to get to know the poor person first, since he had a bad experience once when he gave his roll to a beggar, because he had a bad stomach from the roast the night before and had sued the cook, and there was a thick layer of butter on the roll—and when he comes downstairs, both sides of the roll are stuck to the door—since then, he’s changed, also when it comes to Jews—and he shows me the chintzy cigarette lighter—and Gandhi wasn’t his cup of tea either, and a real man doesn’t drink goat milk all the time, that’s decadent, but no more than three beers is no good either, a glass of wine maybe but no schnapps, because that’s how of a friend of his became a bailiff. He was studying to become a lawyer, and then the schnapps, and no degree—and the cigarette lighter—and that’s when I had enough of the clean-shaven insurance guy—”

And we were laughing, Brenner and I.

“What did you see, what—”

I unpack my eyes for him—what else did I see? “I went further down Ansbacher Strasse—there’s a store that sells precious stones, one kind is called amethyst, which practically already sounds purple, doesn’t it?”

“And what else, what else?”—you can hardly breathe in that kitchen, and God know when his wife is coming back—“Is this what Berlin smells like?” he asks as I hold my powder puff up to his nose—

“What else—what else?”

“On Nurnberger Strasse there’s a restaurant with gathered curtain with gathered curtains that only Russians go to—it has wallpaper that reminds you of frozen cherries with sunny flowers—very funny—and an old Russian Moscow as a picture and a tiny Madonna in the corner. And small lamps, a little bit white and a little bit red, if you’re tall you’ll hit your head on the ceiling. I’m all by myself, learning the menu by heart because of the Russian words that go with the sound of the music. I drink something yellow called Narsan—they also have Schachly from the Caucasus and Watrushky or something like that with cheese. The girls are wearing little white aprons and they’re pretty, like dolls with big eyes and Russian language—and with their elegant faces they can prove to anyone that they are the wives of generals. The men have small black toothbrush-like mustaches—the band is singing—it’s a language that sounds like soft mayonnaise, so sweet. The ceiling is a marbled grayish green—I see, I see—those general waitresses are so pretty—the music has bald spots and violins—a woman wearing a yellow blouse is laughing in Russian—men are happy without women and drunk without wishes and are hugging each other because they’re full of booze and love for everything—at the back wall there’s a mirror, it makes you look pale, but pretty—they have deep, dark eyes that are brown like the violin—you can be so wrong about these things—a handsome man just kissed a woman fat as a tadpole—old men are kissing each other—the music goes one-two, one-two—there are lamps hanging from the ceiling that look like Paul’s starfish collection stuck together—the music is covered with flowers like a chiffon dress which tears very easily—let me tell you, Herr Brenner, a woman should never wear rayon when she’s with a man. It wrinkles too quickly, and what are you going to look like after seven real kisses? Only pure silk, I say—and music—”

“What else, what else—”

Pure silk—Hubert once gave me a passionate kiss on the eyes, or on the eyelids rather—and so I had a tiny red spot on each eye—and was terrified at home—I couldn’t move my eyelids during lunch on Sunday—and I stared in front of me until I had tears in my eyes. “Why are you making eyes like a crazy woman?” asked my father, but I keep staring—and that’s just the way I have to stare now, because I have to see so much.

“Light gray suits really make dark men look like demons. Red ties make them look funny—my eyes are all worn out—you, you, you—”

“What else, what else?”

“The women in Berlin are beautiful and well groomed and in debt.

“I’m dancing, yes, I’m dancing—I’m choking—there’s a Russian inside of me—he’s an emigrant—the way he’s talking—his words stumble rough and softly like the wheel of a Mercedes rolling over cobblestone pavement—he has no hair, his eyes are young and hard. And he’s slender. And the woman with her white face and her strawberry mouth is pulling her badger over her left shoulder in a way—and with her left hand she says to my Russian: ‘You, monkey, are none of my business really, but I wanted to—I like the way you look!’—and she says it with elegant disdain. I’m thinking, you bitch!—‘Interesting woman,’ says the Russian. ‘But crooked legs,’ I say in a cold voice. ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because of the timid way she holds onto her glass and wants to go to the bathroom, but doesn’t dare to go.’ Believe me, whenever a woman wants to take a guy away from me, I have an elegant way of badmouthing her, I don’t really know how to do it, but somehow I become intelligent all of a sudden. And we kiss while we’re dancing—in a bar—the cocktails are colorful—the color of a bleached brimstone butterfly—you get a headache after—”

The wooden armoire is creaking, and Brenner puts his head on my legs: “I know you, I don’t have to see you.”

I think about what he said even though I don’t really have time to think about words—I have a lot of love that I’m willing to share, but you have to give me enough time so I want to. Tilli is crying because her husband has been unfaithful—because it could have been just any woman for him. All I say to Tilli is: “You should know that it could have been any other woman instead of you too. It’s no different. And love is when you’re drunk together and you want to do it and everything else is nonsense.”

“Love is more than that,” says Brenner.

“Love is a lot of different things,” I say.

“Love is not business,” he says.

“Pretty girls are business,” I say, “and that has nothing to do with love. I know, I know—love so well—but I don’t want to know it, I don’t want to.”

“But I have a longing in me,” says Brenner. Why is it that his eyes are turning even more dead than before? I’m going to kiss him. I love you, my brown Madonna—Virgin Mary, please pray for us—those dead eyes are telling me: “Doris, the time has come. The day after tomorrow I’m going to go into a nursing home.” The wife can’t handle it any more and wants it this way. But now she’s sorry, because this is the end of her majestic rule since she has no more subjects. No one can be emperor all by himself.

All three of us are sitting in the kitchen. He’s propped up on the chair, the wife is near the stove, and I’m in front of the bed—we’re all standing there—“Frau Brenner, your husband wants to spend one evening just walking around the streets—I’m going to lead him—because he’s going to the home, and there he’s not going to see anything anymore,” I say. He doesn’t say a word, but earlier he was begging me. I have a bouquet of violets pinned to my lapel—it was given to me by a suitor yesterday—and it’s breathing all blue in the kitchen. She’s standing there, his wife—long and thin and with greedy teeth: “I’m going with him.”

Her voice knocks out my violets. “He’s going with me. I’m his wife.”

“I’m going to go with him. I can show him a lot.”

And he’s not saying a word. The battle was going on above his head. All men are cowards. Then his wife starts to scream about all that she’s done for him.

What use is it? He can’t see us—but she smells old and I smell young. I don’t love him, but I’m fighting for our evening because he wants it, I can feel it in my knees. Perhaps because it’s the greatest gift for a woman to be allowed to be good to a man. And nothing else. And so I thank him for allowing me to be good to him, because usually they only love the nasty ones. And it’s much more exhausting to be nasty. The kitchen voice is killing my violets, they are dying right into my skin. And here I’m fighting for his wishes, because he’s tired. “My child.” My voice is trembling: “Dear Frau, whatever belongs to you—just for one evening—one night off—we’ll come back, I beg you.” “What nonsense to be begging! Her kind knows only to scream every cent she’s earned through her yellow teeth. But I know what I want—my child, I’m not afraid—I still have some money. We can go anywhere we want.” “It’s your choice,” screams Yellow Teeth. Poor men, they always have to choose—Hindenburg—women—communists—women. “Listen, Frau, just one evening and only for three hours—there’ll be enough hours left for you—so many.” Her hands with their rusty skin are dangling in front of me. “Yes,” she says.

So let’s go—we leave—crisscrossing Berlin—we take taxis—hit skin smells like black and white birch trees, that’s how happy he is—because those don’t smell—you can only see them, but he can’t—that’s why he smells like them. “It’s hard carrying a dead thing around with you,” he says.

True. My uncle once had to carry a dead body up from the river at night and he told me: “Dead bodies are heavy.” Is everything a dead body? Let’s get off and keep walking—with music in the background—and he was young and drowned in a kayak and with a white sweater. And he had a girl. And the moon was shining, the sun had borrowed it—let’s move on.

We drink vodka in a Russian restaurant. They have schnapps here that tastes like a meadow—“and you know, the wallpaper, it’s covered with flowers that are laughing their heads off”—I love you because I’m good to you. And we keep going—there’s a hard wind blowing and voices and streets—“Can you smell it if it’s getting dark?” Something inside me dissolves in so much calmness—I’m holding his hand and he trusts me, when I guise him—I must not become this way. How am I ever going to get anywhere? Let’s eat something.

We enter a restaurant on Wittenbergplatz. We’re sitting by the window. He has to talk to me, or else I won’t know that he’s having a good time, because his eyes are mute and his mouth is bitter and all he’s got left is his voice and a light. And through the slit in the dark forest green curtains, one can see the shimmer of red neon lights from afar. “Are you happy?” Sure I am. Beer is good when you’re thirsty. “Does it taste blonde?”

Let’s move on—I’m afraid that he’s no longer happy, but there’s a feeling of trust emanating from his arm. I’m his salvation at every intersection.

He’s sucking in the air and asks me: “Are there any stars?”

I look for them.

“Yes, there are stars,” I lie and I give them to him—there are no stars, but there must be some behind the clouds and they must be shining inside-out tonight. I love stars, but I hardly ever notice them. I guess when you’re blind, you realize how much you forgot to see.

And then we go to a cafe—I give me heart to you, only to you—the violinist has a way of singing! We have something sweet that tastes pink—be happy—I want to, want to so badly. That let me get drunk.

“Doris—a forest,” he says.

A forest?—but we’re in Berlin. I’m not looking at anybody—I’m living only for you—that guy over there—live your own life, something from Sunday school which I used to skip and would go dancing instead—what do I care about God, while I’m still wondering where babies really come from—but you find out soon enough.

If only he would talk! We need to move on—occasionally there’s half a star coming out but it can’t compete with the neon lights and all that buzz around us. Sometimes I close my eyes for a moment when we get to a bus stop—strange how all those sounds enter you—it’s getting quieter and quieter—let’s go to the Vaterland. They’ve got to still be awake there. And we get on the bus and the bus skips across the pavement with us, even though it’s so big and fat—oops—and it’s so crowded and all the people are breathing into each other’s faces—and the upholstery exudes a strange smell. Berlin. It’s Berlin. I’m showing him.

The Vaterland has spectacularly elegant staircases like a castle with countesses in stride, and landscapes and foreign countries and Turkish and Vienna and summer homes of grapevine and that incredible Rhine valley with natural scenarios that produce thunder. We are sitting there and it’s getting so hot that the ceiling is coming down—the wine makes us heavy—

“Isn’t it beautiful here and wonderful?” It is beautiful and wonderful. What other city has this much to offer, rooms and rooms bordering on each other, forming a palatial suite? All the people are in a hurry—and sometimes they look pale under those lights, then the girls’ dresses look like they’re not paid off yet and the men can’t really afford the wine—is nobody really happy? Now it’s all getting dark. Where is my shiny Berlin? If only he weren’t getting quieter by the minute.

Let’s go. In the Westend, I know something wonderful—it’s expensive—but I think I can still swing it. It’s an elegant restaurant—I once went there with the intellectual elite—they have wine directly from Italy and people get wonderfully drunk and there are incredibly interesting women there and elegant people and everything is mysterious with low ceilings—and nobody has to feel ashamed for being different from the way they are during the day.

And I ask him: “Are you tired?”

“No, I’m not tired. I really want to thank you—do you think the home is going to have a garden?”

“Yes,” I tell him. “There’s going to be a garden.”

All I want to do is cry. Let’s go—everything looks different all of a sudden—in front of the Vaterland, someone is beating a poor girl—she’s screaming—and a police officer arrives—a lot of people are standing around, not knowing where to go, and there’s no glamour and nobody there—only dead tombstones—and if someone looks at you it’s because he wants something from you—but why doesn’t he want anything good? His leg movements are heavy and I can feel the pressure coming from him and now his heaviness is in me as well.

We’re at the Italian place—they must not notice that he can’t see. That would make the angry, because it disrupts the happy atmosphere. “It’s nice here, isn’t it?” Mosaic lanterns and quiet corners, but not the sleazy kind, much more elegant and in a deep red—the music is singing and there’s an interesting buffet with oranges that look like leftover suns.

A St. Pauli girl, a girl from the Reeperbahn. “Oh my God! That’s so zippy!” That’s what Therese would say, because that’s what her and used to say all the time—and that’s the only sentence of his that she can remember. I’m going to start crying any minute now—and I’m telling jokes—my voice flickers like a fire that’s about to die. He forces himself to laugh and says: “It’s wonderful.” But I don’t believe him.

So he’s not in love with me. That would salvage everything—but this way we’re caught in this cold circle that only our heads can meet in and nothing else—and sometimes I have a feeling as if he were flying away from me on a heap of white cold snow—and then I’m freezing to death with loneliness—he’s got to help me for a change—and when he’s at the home and I don’t see him anymore, he should have three good thoughts for me every day—that would really make a difference to me. I would find that very comforting—but maybe that’s already too much to ask.

It’s possible that I did love him a little bit—it’s just that I don’t want to and I’m fighting it because of my career and because it would only be trouble. But what can you do. You always notice too late that you’re getting that stupid pain deep down in your stomach—he really could take my hand now.

“The city isn’t good and the city isn’t happy and the city is sick,” he says—“but you are good and I thank you for that.”

I don’t want him to thank me. I just want him to like my Berlin. And now everything looks so different to me—I’m drunk and I’m dreaming with my eyes open—a St. Gauli girl, a girl from the Reeperbahn—the band would much rather go home—a Reeperbahn girl really is much too sad a creature that she should constantly be cheering. And sometimes somebody is laughing—and that laugh is stuffing all of yesterday’s and today’s anger back into the mouth and it’s oozing from him. And I close my eyes—there’s all that talk coming from so many mouths. They’re flowing into each other like a river full of dead bodies. It’s their funny words that have already been drowned in booze before they’ve had a chance to arrive at the next person’s ear—and my uncle once carried one, with a white sweater and the moon was shining—why did we have to think of him earlier?

It was in St. Pauli near Altona that I want abandoned—I love these songs—and at the table next to us, two men and a lady are introducing each other and are looking each other up an down with a friendly mistrust in their eyes and at first they want to believe only the bad things.

I’m talking to him and I finally want to find a word that makes me be with him—God, I can’t stand it anymore—let’s go—What’s wrong with me?—I want to kill that feeling inside of me. You have to be drunk to sleep with men, to have a lot of money—that’s what you have to want and never think of anything else. How else are you going to stand it?—What’s wrong with this world?

And outside there’s still no stars in the sky. We’re leaving—I think the memorial Church is telling a lie, saying it’s a church—because if it were one, you should be able to go there and stay there right now. Where can I find love and something that doesn’t fall apart right way? I’m so drunk, but I have to watch him—such a strange arm—back to his wife—back to the kitchen.

“The air is good now. It’s lonely,” he says—at Kurfurstendamm it’s getting full again. At the corner, here are the voices of four young men. They have a musical instrument and the four of hem are singing with a lot of hope in their voices: that’s youth—that’s love—and we understand, and we listen, because a movement of his arm signals me to stop—and then they collect money and they’re boys with happy faces, because they’re not going to let themselves be broken and they’re not afraid and they’re walking with a secure step. And then they sing again, and everything in their voices is young—but I’m not old yet either, am I?

“That’s beautiful,” he says and he’s breathing the voices and the air and the half stars—and then he searches his pocket for those pennies he saved up for tobacco at he home—and he gives them to the boys and says: “That was beautiful, four young voices that are holding together. Full of force, full of life, outside in the fresh air—that was beautiful.”

But we didn’t have to go all that way and all over the city for that. And all of a sudden, he tries to walk by himself—how can I let him!—but I’m very tired now.

Irmgard Keun became an overnight sensation in german literary circles with the publication of her first novel at the age of 21. Her second novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, was a bestseller when it was published in 1932, only to be blacklisted by the Nazis in 1933, officially condemned for its "anti-German tendency."

Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum. Reprint by permission from Other Press.


Irmgard Keun


The Brooklyn Rail


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