I don’t know what my limits are anymore

Dear Irmgard,

The eponymous heroine of your novel Gilgi (2013, tr. Geoff Wilkes. Original title: Gilgi, eine von uns, 1931) is a twenty-one-year-old German middle-class girl who lives in Cologne, during the rise of fascism, in the 1930s. Gilgi, short for Gisela, is independent, matter-of-fact, and ambitious: she is determined to climb the social ladder and to take hold of her life. “Sie hält es fest in der Hand, ihr kleines Leben, das Mädchen Gilgi”: when the novel opens, Gilgi thinks she is holding her life firmly in her hands. She is holding it so tightly, that we already know that her grip will soon begin to fall away.

Gilgi lives with her parents and works as a legal secretary and stenotypist. Her life is stoically structured around her mission to succeed: she rises early every morning to exercise; she takes cold showers and dresses herself smartly; she arrives at work on time; at night, she takes English, Spanish and French language classes; afterwards, she teaches herself to translate a book; and, finally, she fastidiously saves her income.

Gilgi prides herself on her pragmatism. In contrast to the passive, submissive female roles of the past generations, she takes on a matter-of-fact approach to life, one that was previously associate with male roles. As with all the characters in this novel, Gilgi is a character trope: the modern New Woman of the Weimar Era, a class of female workers that emerged during the 1920s. She symbolizes the push toward rationalization, the enthusiasm for modernization and Americanism, and the optimism of the Weimar years, during the economic recovery of the mid-1920s.

Gilgi is methodical, hardworking, energetic, obsessed with progress and personal growth. She snubs at sentimentality and romanticism, which she dismisses as remnants of the past generation. She firmly thinks that failing at succeeding in life is the result of nothing else but moral and personal incompetence. “They’re gray and tired and lifeless. And if they’re not lifeless, they’re waiting for a miracle. Gilgi isn’t lifeless, and she doesn’t believe in miracles. She only believes in what she creates and what she earns. She isn’t satisfied, but she’s pleased. She’s earning money.”

However, Gilgi’s tight grip on her life will soon be disrupted. It will happen gradually. On the morning of her 21st birthday, our protagonist learns that she was adopted by her current middle-class parents, the Krons, who took her as a baby from Frau Täschler, a poor seamstress. As her identity begins to dissolve, Gilgi undertakes a journey to trace back her real mother: from middle-class girl, she will turn into a poor destitute baby, and then into an illegitimate child of a wealthy and prominent family. Gilgi’s three mothers are also tropes: the bourgeois Frau Kron; the proletarian Frau Täschler; and the aristocratic Frau Kreil. Moreover, Gilgi’s journey of discovery is an exploration into the different mores of Weimar society.

As with her lineage and identity, Gilgi also begins to lose the sense of what she really wants in life. When she falls in love, “something in Gilgi” breaks “beyond repair”: she discovers how tenuous her control over her life really is. As I read of the night she falls in love, I was reminded of a poem by Rupert Brooke: “Love is a breach in the walls, a broken gate, / Where that comes in that shall not go again; / Love sells the proud heart’s citadel to Fate.”

Martin Bruck is a forty-three-year-old writer, a bohemian and romantic drifter with no job and no savings. The hedonistic Martins is Gilgi’s opposite: he scorns the bourgeois moralism and the puritan work ethic. Gilgi struggles to maintain her identity, pressed down between her working-class ambitions, her parents’ middle-class prudishness, and her lover’s conflicting expectations. Martin wants from her both the free-love of a New Weimar Woman, and the servitude and passivity of the women of the past generation.

Her growing dependence on Martin rips away the many layers with which she used to see herself apart from the people around her. As she is ripped away from her former lifestyle – layer by layer, she abandons work, identity, ambitions and moral values -, her sense of self-importance undergoes a radical transformation. As much as, beneath the Weimar’s optimism and order, we are about to find the seeds of antisemitism and war – beneath Gilgi’s ordered life, she will find a black hole of conflicting desires and expectations.

Love forces her to reconsider her values, ambitions, and her sense of herself and of her own inconsistences. She learns to give up everything upon which she had once anchored her life. “The hours of happiness come at a high price. The bill is presented promptly. Pay it! With what? With fear and twinges of pain. No, I don’t think the price is too high, I just find the currency strange.” Furthermore, Gilgi gradually learns to feel empathy for the people around her, and begins to shed doubts on her idea of personal independence and responsibility: under the impending economic crisis and rise of fascism, failure is not the result of moral weakness, and working hard is no guarantee of success. Moreover, she starts to see herself as something more than the product of her own will: “What I see in the mirror is what someone else has made out of me”; “(…) because you belong in the overall structure, you’re not created to stand outside it.”

If it is true that the use of tropes and the didacticism weaken the narrative, it is also true that your writing envelops it with something fresh. As the novel opens, it is told in third person, but intermingled with Gilgi’s thoughts, in stream of consciousness: the “she” frequently turn itself into “I”. In turn, the sounds inside the protagonist are themselves mixed with the sounds outside: interjections, the music playing in the background, the voices of people around. As the narrative unfolds, and Gilgi begins to lose her grip on her life and her sense of herself, the “she” and “I” turn into “you”: as if Gilgi were addressing herself and the reader, simultaneously. As Gilgi is confronted with her own incoherencies, the writing becomes more fragmented, the sentences more abrupt, broken by dashes as well as by questions.

First published in 1931, your novel shocked its readers by openly addressing feminist issues, such as abortion, female sexuality, social injustice, sexual harassment and single motherhood. In your depiction of a woman coming of age under conflicting gender expectations, during the rise of fascism, you never shy away from the contradictions of your time. If you are didactic in exposing them, you never accept a simplistic solution. As Gilgi tries to reassert her independence and to come into terms with her sense of femininity, we are left in the middle of a swirl of contradicting possibilities. And I guess it must have been brave of you to let it spin unimpeded.

Yours truly,

J.


Kees van Dongen, "Lady in Hat", circa 1920
Kees van Dongen, “Lady in Hat”, circa 1920

“I don’t know what my limits are anymore or what I want, I can’t be responsible anymore for what I might do from one day to the next. I thought that my love had made me infinitely safe adn protected – now it’s made me defenseless, completely exposed.” – Irmgard Keun, Gilgi

“Maybe everything the previous Gilgi did and wanted was just a means of running away from – from her own desire. Maybe nothing has value in itself, maybe everything is untrue, and everything is driven purely by that running away.” – Irmgard Keun, Gilgi

“Gilgi is drifting in the river of superfluous feelings. Superfluous? They were once, they seemed to be once. Isn’t she happy? Of course she is. Often. But the hours of happiness come at a high price. The bill is presented promptly. Pay it! With what? With fear and twinges of pain. No, I don’t think the price is too high, I just find the currency strange. Fear – pain! To whom should I pay them? Who profits from this odd currency?” – Irmgard Keun, Gilgi

“It’s our age-old hereditary sorrow that no-one can give himself absolution and God can’t, either. God – this little figment of overworked imagination, God – this pallid lie born of desperation – we say God – and we mean humanity, ourselves and others. The longing for a human being is genuine – a human being is more than God – a human being is a beast and God. Longing for God – damned laziness which costs nothing. Mild, bloodless hysteria. Longing for a human being – you pay for that with your blood and with your self and with your flesh – your longing for God can be settled with promissory notes – rags -paper – a drop of red blood is worth more than three prayers.” – Irmgard Keun, Gilgi

“There are two layers in me,” she begins hesitantly to feel, And the upper one, it dictates—everyday words, everyday actions—little girl, little machine girl, little clockwork girl—the lower layer underneath it—always wanting, always searching, always longing and darkness and not knowing—not knowing where to—not knowing where from. A thinking without words, a knowing behind the words—a wakefulness in sleep—behind laughing, a weeping — — — the uncut umbilical cord—a tie to the dark world. And the gray world and the bright world, you’re familiar with them and you know about them—and you didn’t want to acknowledge the dark world and you’re still trying to lie it out of existence. But it’s there—for every woman—every man. And one person says sorrow and one person says pain and one person says crime—filth—or God—no word cuts right through to the core.

No, Gilgi, there is hardly any comfort in the modern city. It will throw you. It will demand you to ask, and ask again, “What—am—I—really?” – Irmgard Keun, Gilgi


About the book

  • gilgiMelville House, translated by Geoff Wilkes, 2013, 240 p. Goodreads
  • Original title: Gilgi, eine von uns.
  • First published in 1931
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • Movie adaptation: Gilgi, eine von uns (1932, IMDb), directed by Johannes Meyer
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. 1streading says:

    I was really impressed with this when I read it a couple of years ago – it seemed both of and ahead of its time. I’ve recently got hold of a copy of After Midnight which I plan to read this year.

    Like

    1. juliana says:

      Yes, I agree with you. And it sounds like an urgent book at times. I have After Midnight on my shelves, but haven’t read it yet.

      Like

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