‘The Artificial Silk Girl’ a grim treasure of a book


Banned by the Nazis. That confers a certain status, and it’s interesting to consider what would offend the likes of Adolf Hitler and his pals, who wouldn’t draw the line at murdering millions of human beings.

"The Artificial Silk Girl" was written in 1931 by Irmgard Keun. The novel about a young woman trying to hit it big in prewar Berlin became a best-seller in Germany; the Nazis banned it two years later, first chance they got.

Keun was 26 years old when she wrote "Artificial Silk"; think of her as the Candace Bushnell or the Sophia Kinsella of her day. She wrote about the same subjects — love, sex, shopping, men — but Berlin in the early ’30s was a beautiful nightmare of a city, and so is the story of Doris.

Doris, lovely, young, naive, but never one to say no to a good time, gets a taste of the delicious possibilities when she wrangles a one-line part in a local play. She steals a fur coat and runs away from a broken love affair and unhappy parental home for the glittering glamour she believes she’ll find in ultra-cosmopolitan Berlin. She’ll become a famous actress, or she’ll find a wealthy benefactor. She carries a little notebook, to record in stream-of-consciousness fashion all that happens.

What happens is a brutal struggle to survive. Berlin in the early ’30s is a frothy, sparkly frosting over a rotten cake of a city. Life is a banquet for the decadent few, but thousands of people are without work, living hand to mouth, on the knife edge. Doris finds herself on the brink of homelessness and prostitution, in competition with hundreds of other women, hurtfully aware that time passes and youth and looks and prospects fade. Hope is a fragile thing in a cruel time.

"The Artificial Silk Girl" was released in English this year by Other Press. It’s disturbing reading at a time when the world seems once again to be on the brink, in the midst of a monster recession that has upended so many Americans’ plans, when living large has led to having to live small, when yesterday’s ‘‘shopaholics’’ seem such foolish girls, and when the hypnotic spell of the shiny glitter has been broken.