After Midnight is part of the Exilliteratur, literature created by (German) writers living in exile between 1933 and 1945. Irmgard Keun left Germany in 1935 after she was blacklisted by the Nazis. After living in exile for 5 years, she returned to Germany in 1940 and lived there under a false name until the end of the war. I decided to read After Midnight mostly because of Keun’s interesting biography, but I found a book that can stand on its own. It offers a captivating look at the lives of ordinary people in pre-war Germany.
After Midnight, published in 1937, takes place in 1930s Frankfurt. The main character is Sanna, a young woman who is much more interested in romance and clothes than politics. She left her home when she was 16 to live with and work for her aunt. While there, she fell in love with her cousin Franz, much to her aunt’s displeasure. To get rid of Sanna, her aunt denounced her, claiming she made derogatory comments about the Nazi elite. After extensive interrogation, Sanna was let go and fled to Frankfurt to live with her brother Algin and his wife.
Algin was once a respected and successful writer, but has since been banned and is now trying to figure out what he can write about under the new political regime. His circle of friends consists of intellectuals whose lives have been equally interrupted. While some have had no problem accommodating the changes imposed by a totalitarian regime, others are still trying to figure out if they should react, and if yes, how they should do it.
Sanna is a unique mixture of naiveté and street-smartness. She comes from a working-class family, but she is able to also fit in with her brother’s friends. Her reports of what she sees and hears touch many aspects of everyday life, from the mundane—one does not comment on Hitler sweating during one of his speeches—to the life-threatening—is it still safe to meet a friend in a restaurant that serves Jews? There is much heartbreak in this novella, but it is mixed with the absurd and the ridiculous to provide some needed relief.
At the end of the story, Sanna and Franz reunite, but they are forced to leave Frankfurt. I pitied them, because they both seemed so unprepared for what history had in store for them. There is a great sense of doom when they leave, which I found all the more poignant because the book was written in 1937. Reading the book almost 80 years later, I know of the atrocities that were yet to come, but Keun could not have known. To write such a vivid and realistic portrayal of pre-war society without the benefit of hindsight is an accomplishment that should not be overlooked.