This short 1937 novel by German author Irmgard Keun is an odd little book, possibly more interesting for its historical setting than the actual story, although the actual story has its small pleasures. Keun, whose previous novels had been banned in her native Germany, wrote this, her third book, while in exile.
The main character and narrator, Sanna, seems like a typical 19-year-old girl living in Frankfurt. When the book begins, she’s fretting over a letter she’s just received from her fiance Franz, who lives in Cologne. He wants to come see her, but she fears something is wrong. She’s also weary of the political talk that always leads to trouble. Her mind naturally drifts to the things a certain type of 19-year-old girl is more likely to think about: whether she’s pretty enough, who’s in love with whom, what her future will be. I don’t want to give the impression that she’s flighty; she’s not. In fact, she’s sometimes quite witty. Here she is speaking her mind about some of the supposed intellectuals in her circle:
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.
Yeah, I know those people. Heck, sometimes I am those people. (Not in finding reading a strain, but in finding reading philosophical works a strain. Substitute something by Kierkegaard for Mein Kampf, and I am definitely one of those people!)
Often when thinking about Nazi Germany, we wonder how the German people could not have known about the Holocaust, how they could have let Hitler do what he did. Reading this, I could see how. Lots of people don’t pay close attention until they have to. Sanna is not politically minded, but she does worry about what all the rhetoric means for her:
Göring and the other ministers often shout over the radio, very loud and clear and angry. “There are still some who have not understood what it is all about, but we shall know how to deal with them.” I hate hearing that kind of thing, it’s creepy, because I still don’t know what it is all about, or what they mean. And it’s far too dangerous to ask anyone. Judging by things I’ve picked up from what I’ve heard and read, I could be either criminal or of unsound mind. Neither of which must come out or I’ll be done for.
As the book goes on, we learn that Sanna has reason for worrying about doing the wrong thing. Even so, she chooses at times to put politics out of her mind. Her neighbors, family members, and friends worry more about their their personal comfort and safety than the bigger picture of what’s happening to Germany. Even Sanna’s author brother considers how he could make his work more palatable to Nazi censors. Perhaps he could write a poem about the Führer? Some even go so low as to use the system to work out their petty grievances, leveling trumped-up or false charges against neighbors they don’t like. It’s all too tragically believable.
Most of what interested me about After Midnight was related to its function as a window into history. As a novel, it’s fine—sometimes funny, sometimes intense, occasionally thought-provoking. I loved Sanna’s voice, but she and her hateful aunt Adelheid are the only people who leap off the page. In a short book like this, that’s okay. Sanna’s wit and honesty were enough to carry me through.