This post is part of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy over at Lizzy's Literary Life.
This post is not a comprehensive review of the novel, nor is it an analysis of most of the complex, well drawn out and interesting characters. These characters range from seemingly frivolous party boys and girls, intellectual writers and anti–Nazis, as well as Nazi members of the SS and Brownshirts themselves. Instead I will focus upon Sanna and Keun’s motivation for creating her.
Sanna is a most remarkable persona. She is clever, extremely perceptive and sharp witted. However, she is anything but an intellectual. Unlike many characters that I am drawn to, she does not articulate composite viewpoints, opinions or judgments in her head. For the most part, she lives in the moment. Left to her own devices, she is primary concerned with her social life, romantic interactions and small squabbles with family and friends.
Yet, Sanna is very disturbed by what the Nazis do. When she witnesses or becomes aware of it, she objects to the political and ethnic persecutions and the ceaseless propaganda. At the same time, she is amused by Nazi theatricality and the savvy way that they use the media of the time. She does not put it all together into a coherent worldview, however. On the other hand, several of her friends and associates spend much time with theorizing and pontification their belief systems, which range from anti Nazi to pro-Nazi.
Oddly, I would compare Sanna to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Like Twain’s creation, she is seemingly naive and she has no consistent political, social or philosophical views. She is mostly interested in her family and social life. On the other hand, also like Finn, Sanna is a fountain of satiric and cynical insights about the world that are based on an underlying morality. For instance, her take on the reading habits, or lack thereof, of many people is insightful and amusing. At one point, she comments about Kurt Pielmann, a member of the SS who is in love with her best friend, Gerti.
“The likes of Kurt Pielmann will be sure to send her the constructive literature, if only because then he can believe he’s read it himself. I know about this sort of thing through my father, and Aunt Adelheid, and a good many other people too. They find reading far too much of a strain, far too boring. You can bet your sweet life they haven’t read Mein Kampf from beginning to end yet. Not that I have either. But they’ve bought it, and glanced at it now and again, and in the end they believe they’ve read the whole thing. “
Another example involves a sarcastic view of Hitler and his supposed abilities and sacrifices,
“Take the Führer: he devotes almost his entire life to being photographed for his people. Just imagine, what an achievement! Having your picture taken the whole time with children and pet dogs, indoors and out of doors—never any rest. And constantly going about in aeroplanes, or sitting through long Wagner operas, because that’s German art, and he sacrifices himself for German art as well. “
These witty observations are as far as Sanna goes, however. She never moves on to strong and definitive opinions organized around the big picture.
Based upon Keun’s biography, the author seems to have been something of a deep thinker. She held strong and sophisticated views on an entire range of subjects and likely associated with similar folks. In Sanna, she was creating a very different person than herself. Sanna seems to be a representation of natural human reaction and understanding of many of the world’s ills, including outright evil. She does not over rationalize or analyze, but unlike many who are around her, she recognizes wrong, hypocrisy and propaganda, as well as plain old dumb behavior.
According to several sources that I have read, Keun’s biography is in many ways more interesting than fiction. A successful writer of novels that explored the role of women in the modern world, she became a vehement anti-Nazi even before Hitler came to power. She maintained this position before, during and after World War II. Initially remaining in Germany with the intention of resisting Hitler, she was eventually forced to flee the Reich before the war. It was during this period in exile that After Midnight was written. Her exposure to Nazi oppression was not over, however. She subsequently was trapped in the Netherlands after the German invasion. After planting a fake story purporting her own suicide, she successfully hid out in Germany for the duration of the war. In the postwar period, though plagued by bouts of mental illness, she lived to see resurgence in the popularity of her works in the 1970s.
This book is a fantastic character study. As I alluded to above, in addition to Sanna, there are several rich and compelling characters that have all sorts of interesting things going on. I read the Anthea Bell translation of this work. At least in this version, the writing is lively and engaging. Where this novel falls short is its brevity. I feel that these other characters had the potential for much more development. At less then 200 pages this book could have been twice as long. Nevertheless the virtues of this work are strong and I highly recommend it.