First published in 1932, taking place in Berlin, this is the story of an uneducated girl
trying to “make it” in any kind of profession: her one goal is to be rich and not have to worry, no matter how she does it. I found the descriptors of the book to be misleading “Damned by the Nazis, hailed by the feminists…”). Looking at content, this one is difficult for me. As always, I’m happy to find out bits of historical information that I didn’t know I didn’t know (for example, in order for our heroine, Doris, to get a job she needs papers. I’m guessing they are identity papers. There is also a fast food restaurant, Quick). The history, the despair of the masses is not played up but it is not ignored; it is part of the fabric of everyday life.
Doris is bored by politics, by her own admission, but she makes occasional observations that, in the hindsight of the Holocaust, have an even deeper and more dreadful meaning. Keun sneaks politics into the novel in places without weighing it down; in terms of a woman's role in society, you might say that Keun's entire book is a commentary on this, in a light and rather, well, "chick lit" sort of tone. Yet there are problems with the feminism in this book: while Doris grasps the way men treat her and the place of women, she is more than eager to be part of the status quo: in fact it's what she wants more than anything else, whether it's fame or a husband. And she's constantly denigrating fat people and considering them less worthy than other women simply because they’re fat; she does grow a bit at the end, and while she finds herself alone at times, she is still constantly looking for a man to help her out of her situation (while being under little illusion about what they can give her and what she can give them).
Doris talks about her encounters with men, freely admits to stealing, talks about sex, about meeting prostitutes,living on a park bench, homelessness and a smattering of race politics, greed and falling in love in a rather chatty and adolescent tone, which makes the book a fairly easy read.
In terms of structure, this is tight and character driven; the diary format gives some leeway for making comments that might not work in another kind of novel, and it gives us of course just the one point of view. We see Doris grow up a bit, particularly as all her resources run out and she becomes even more aware of the world around her, though she is eloquent in her opinion of men.
Also of note to me, Doris is at once sympathetic to lesbians when viewed glamorously in the movie Maedchen in Uniform and on the other hand is contemptuous of them as “perverts” (p. 150).I am
also aware of the limitations of reading a translation, and would be ever curious about reading this in its original form.