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After Midnight by Irmgard Keun

This is in many ways the kind of book I would never read: I don’t like books about war. But it also has something which appeals to me greatly: the perspective of a young woman making her way in the world, in love and life. She happens to be doing so during the Führer’s visit to Frankfurt in 1936. Swap out the war for alcoholism and Frankfurt for Paris and you have something not dissimilar to Jean Rhy’s Good Morning, Midnight or After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both follow the inner mind of a female protagonist, progressive in their own ways, down on their luck in others.

Fear is rising around me, like rising water, up and up, never stopping. It’s like death by drowning. I could go straight home, but what would I do there? I don’t feel sleepy. Who loves me? Whom do I love?

In After Midnight we follow Sanna, a young woman who moved to Frankfurt to live with her writer brother and sister-in-law and to escape the small town where she was living with her vindictive aunt. Sanna is in love with her cousin, Franz, her sister-in-law is in love with a journalist who doesn’t care for her and Sanna’s best friend Gerti is in love with a Jew while toying with a SA man. Through flashback we learn about Sanna’s time before she came to Frankfurt and the lives of the people who live there, the creeping sense of distrust of fellow neighbours and selling out of secrets (whether real or not). The main events of the story happen across one day and follow Sanna as she goes from various drinking establishments, meeting friends, hunting down lovers and culminates in a party thrown at her sister-in-law’s house which irrevocably changes their lives forever.

I found this book to be incredibly insightful into life under rule by a fascist dictator (something that seems more relevant day-by-day), where even your own thoughts are under threat and self-censorship. Sanna is very liberal, she runs in the circles of writers and journalist, middle and working class Germans, and Jews (indeed her best friend is in love with one). Keun shows us the lives of ordinary Germans too (mostly in the flashbacks) where mistrust of one’s neighbours grows and people use the Nationalist Party as a cover to punish those they see fit for some small slight. Keun doesn’t shy away from showing the compromises law-abiding Germans make for an easier life, hanging Nazi flags and joining the Party — all to maintain their way of life. Keun shows the reader the insidiousness of such a powerful and dangerous ideology. Back in Frankfurt the focus is more on the lives of young people which are left stunted and the suppression of creativity and free speech as shown though Sanna’s brother whose novels have been censored as being anti-nationalistic and instead regresses into writing about a nostalgic German pastoral. Meanwhile Heini (the journalist Sanna’s sister-in-law is in love with) cannot write at all and has given up his profession.

This is a short captivating read, that offered me an angle on Hitler’s rise to power and the lives of young people in Germany that I hadn’t read before. Sanna’s voice is strong and clear throughout the book and she feels deeply. The web of love lives tangled up in Hitler’s unrelenting rise to power makes for a powerful and engaging story. The publisher describes this novel as a rediscovered classic and I would have to agree.

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