Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection. First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes. In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.
The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business. Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness, she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’. Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold. Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses. She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.
Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi. She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela. The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head. When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela. But she’s not at that point quite yet.’ She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis. Not Gilgi. She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.
Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks. Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns. The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy. Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary. They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.
Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis. So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood. It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’. Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.
Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent… At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’. She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.
Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence. The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything. Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself. Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.
I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner. There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places. Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character. Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude. Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig. It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.