Monday, 12 May 2008

Child of All Nations

It's actually a coincidence, but I've just finished a book by Irmgard Keun - one of the writers whose books were banned by the Nazis. It's Michael Hofmann's translation of Child of All Nations. Goebbels & co. weren't keen on her strong female protagonists, who had no time at all for Kinder, Küche, Kirche.

Nine-year-old Kully tells her story. Schlepped around Europe by her emigré parents but never despairing, she is a wonderful character with many astute observations to make. Her father is a writer, banned by the Nazis for saying nasty things about them. Her mother is her mother, and seems to serve no other purpose than to look after her and her father.

The life of German exiles, wonderfully captured in Anna Seghers' oppressive Transit, is an endless round of applying for visas, finding accommodation, trying to make money and applying for the next visa. In between, there is lots of sitting in cafés making a little last a long time. Irmgard Keun takes a different, perhaps less worthy view to Anna Seghers. We see Kully and her family as they put up a constant front of great wealth - staying in the most expensive hotels, sunbathing on the expensive beach, eating prawns and drinking champagne, with pet tortoises and a dolls' kitchen in tow.

Only the family is stone broke. Her father leaves Kully and her mother as a kind of deposit as he gallivants around Europe trying to drum up some money - perhaps a benefactor will start up a literary magazine with him as editor. Perhaps a distant cousin will lend them some money before realising they're not actually related. Perhaps his publisher will give him another advance.

The father, apparently modelled on Keun's lover at the time, Joseph Roth, is utterly dislikeable. A philandering alcoholic, but seen through the eyes of his daughter you can't help but feel a perverse pity - poor daddy, vomiting in the sink every morning. The mother, again, is wetter than wet can be, seemingly incapable of making her own decisions, a faded beauty tied to her once fine husband. Kully, as Hofmann points out in his excellent afterword, is the most adult of the three of them. The story traces the path Keun took through Europe herself, which makes you wonder whether Kully is voicing her experiences or the mother is a bleak self-portrait.

The plot? Oh the plot's not important. I was disappointed by the ending - as was Hofmann himself, which made me feel terribly wise to have second-guessed such an eminent writer and translator - but that didn't really matter. What I love about the book is Kully's voice. Clichés often abound when an adult writes as a child, but not here. Hofmann has a very light touch, with just the occasional deliberate grammatical slip - "my mother and me went..." - and thanks his son, "then thirteen, this translation's first reader and editor."

I was reminded of Daisy Ashford, whose book The Young Visiters I lost on the way home from school when I was about 14, which made me very sad. I never found it again until I came across a German translation in a junk shop a few years ago. And guess what, Hofmann namechecks her in his afterword too, which was just about the icing on the cake in the "feeling pretty darned clever" stakes for me, let me tell you.

So take my advice and read this book. You won't regret it and it's only short. I'm very pleased it's been published in the Penguin Classics series - as it is a genuine modern classic.


David said...

I'm surprised that Hoffmann would want to translate Keun, after his superb translations of Koeppen.

kjd said...

David, I haven't read Koeppen or Hofmann's translations of him. But the afterword would indicate that it's very much down to Hofmann himself that this Keun translation was published - "I ended up so charmed by Keun that I translated the whole book."

I'm not sure why the combination surprises you. But it's certainly an enviable position to be able to translate books you love rather than whatever you end up with.

Stewart said...

Because I have a mania for Penguin Modern Classics I really want to get and read Child Of All Nations but it's currently in hardback - special, for that range - and would look out of sorts with the rest of my PMCs. So I'm holding off until it's out in paperback in the hope it will be consistent with other titles in the range.

But it doesn't help when you see positive comments, both here, on LoveGermanBooks and Asylum.

kjd said...

Stewart, you should see my messy bookshelves.

There's a lovely bit in Ulrich Plenzdorf's "Die neuen Leiden des jungen W." where the protagonist meets a couple, and the man has his book shelves arranged by size. We read it at university, and the lecturer guffawed at this - but at the age of 18 or 19, we didn't understand that Plenzdorf was characterising the guy as utterly anal. I think at the time, most of us probably arranged our 35 books by size too.

I'm sure you're not anal (remove foot from mouth). Go on out and get the book, you devil you - you know you want to. It looks lovely.

David said...

If you really "love German books" you need to read Koeppen. Also, translating Koeppen is a monumental achievement.

kjd said...

Gosh, that's a gauntlet thrown down there, David. I'll try and read him asap. Thanks!