Irmgard Keun: Child of All Nations

When the reliable Penguin Classics imprint thinks a new translation of a 1938 German novel has enough potential to be issued in hardback, I have to pay attention. When the translation is by the equally reliable Michael Hofmann (a poet in his own right), then my wallet sighs open with pleasure. A bibliophile and his money are soon parted.

Irmgard Keun was the partner of novelist Joseph Roth for the last few years of his life: I’ve only dabbled in Roth with his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker, but the testimonies of Susan Hill and dovegreyreader promise much more pleasure to be had from him yet (and dgr has already mentioned Irmgard Keun on this very site). Of course, a romantic connection with a fine writer doesn’t mean that Keun’s book will be good too: it must be just a coincidence, then.

Child of All Nations

Child of All Nations [1938] on the face of it sounds like pretty uninspiring stuff: a family flee Nazi Germany and seek peace elsewhere in Europe. Heard it all before. But what sets Keun’s novel apart is the uniquely charming voice of Kully, the nine-year-old narrator.

The danger of a child narrator is that the author can make it too cute, too disingenuous, or two-dimensional. Fortunately Kully is none of these things, but gets her point across:

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to learn to read and write?

Now her father is away raising money to enable them to continue their journey, and Kully and her mother are in Amsterdam, trying to stave off the day when they have to pay their hotel bills (“I get funny looks from hotel managers, but that’s not because I’m naughty; it’s the fault of my father … the waiters no longer brandish their napkins in that jolly way; instead they flick them at our table. Mama says they do it to clear the crumbs away, but it looks to me more like what you do to keep away pesky cats that have their eyes on the roast”).

Kully recounts their journeys across Germany, the Netherlands and France, with Keun meanwhile probing gently at the major issues surrounding the story. Reading it in the comfortably informed 21st century, it’s easy to forget that Child of All Nations was written when the worst of the Nazi terror was yet to come: this makes it seem both prescient and retrospectively wise. There is a postmodern sort of dramatic irony in operation: not only does the reader know more than the narrator, the reader knows more than the author. On the subject of contemporary politics Kully’s father has this to say:

‘As for fear of God? Why? Why not trust in God? I’d rather my little girl worshipped matchboxes or liqueur glasses than that she be afraid of God. Everything that’s wrong in the world begins with fear. All that mess in Germany could only result because the people there have lived in fear for ever. … First a father demands that his child be afraid of him. Then there’s school and fear of the teacher, fear of God at church, fear of military or other superiors, fear of the police, fear of life, fear of death. Finally, the people are so crippled and warped by fear that they elect a government that they can serve in fear. Not content with that, when they see other people who are not set on living in fear, the get angry, and try in their turn to make them afraid. First of all they make God into a kind of dictator, and now they don’t need Him any more, because they’ve come up with a better dictator themselves.’

Child of All Nations is very funny too, from the authorial distance from her child narrator which enables Keun to invoke some witty irony, to Kully’s father’s bold way of trying to persuade people, and in particular women (all of whom, he feels, are susceptible to his charms). Here I saw reflections of Roth’s Holy Drinker Andreas, and his doomed attempts to stave off the loss of his money.

The one disappointment is the ending, or more accurately the last leg of the family’s journey. It damages the scale of the drama, and (as Hofmann acknowledges in his afterword) “breaks the claustrophobia of the book.” But this doesn’t matter too much – Child of All Nations is all about the journey, not the destination, and that is a very fine experience indeed.


  1. Thanks for this review. As soon as I heard this one was being published, via the Penguin newsletter, I promptly put it on pre-order from Amazon. My copy, alas, has not arrived, so must chase that up to see what happened. (Me thinks I might have moved it out of my shopping basket, for fear of another extraordinarily high CC bill!!)

  2. Well, at £15 for 180 pages it is pricey, but the Book Depository has it for £10 with free delivery. It’s definitely a keeper anyway, and beautifully produced if you care about that sort of thing. It has also made me keen to read more Joseph Roth – slightly illogical since it’s not by Roth, but you know what I mean!

    Child of All Nations was also favourably reviewed in the Times today.

  3. Cheers for the heads up re: The Book Depository. And the Times review.

    I know what you mean about Roth. I *always* pick his books up in the shops but have never actually bought one, much less read anything by him. Maybe I should have a scoot around BookMooch to see what I can discover.

  4. I’m so pleased the Keun magic has worked John. I’ve sheved this one for now because I find myself deeply into Ireland and Oz and can’t quite manage a trip to mittel Europe but I’ll bet Michael Hofmann’s translation is superb.I think it’s the childlike innocence that Irmgard Keun brings to her writing, even when she writes about aduts, that charms me.There is a naivity about her voice, what she sees and how she relates it and now The Artificial Silk Girl will give you that in spades. Doris is the most memorable character and her take on pre-war Berlin so insightful.Oh for a Keun biography or a Roth one in English!

  5. I believe I have one of her books on my shelves due to Dovegrey of course. I love the statement ‘a bibliophile and his money are soon parted’. My husband cannot understand it.

  6. Ditto yours and Candy’s remarks. On my budget, I have chosen books over clothes!

    When UK Gatwick immigration officers opened my suitcase, they were so impressed to see how well I had packed my books and were actually looking for my clothes!

    I also seem to be on run of novels from a child’s viewpoint:
    “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” by John Boyne and “The Icarus Girl” by Helen Oyeyemi.

    I have to keep my eyes open for Keun’s book.

  7. Congratulations on your first anniversary, John! I look forward to many more illuminating book reviews, and many more titles for my To Buy list. Child Of All Nations definitely looks right up my street. And my own first anniversary is coming up on the 21st!

  8. Another one for the wishlist. 🙂 I’m becoming quite a fan of child narrators, although they can be terrible when done badly.

    I wonder, have you read ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusak? The style of the quotes from ‘Child of All Nations’ reminded me of it somewhat, that sweet quirkiness.

  9. I haven’t, Victoria, and if I’m honest the extracts I read from The Book Thief made it sound as though the narrator (or I suppose the author) was trying too hard for the cutesy-quirky thing. Then again as those quotes were selectively supplied by someone who hated the book, I might just be off beam!

  10. John, I was worried about the cutesy-quirky thing too, but it’s only apparent in the opening chapters. The book soon becomes quite a grim account of German life under the Nazis.

  11. With your first mention of Irmgard Keun, you have spurred me on, and now I am obsessed with the life of Irmgard Keun. Even before she met Joseph Roth, she was a celebrated novelist in Germany. I just finished “The Artificial-Silk Girl” which she wrote in 1932 at the ripe old age of 22. It is a wonderful humorous book about a young woman-girl in the theaters and bars of Berlin. It is probably the best book of its kind I’ve read, better than Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories” which is very much a fine book, but Isherwood was looking in from the outside while Irmgard Keun was very much on the inside of this world. It was her second novel. She was a very popular author in Germany, but when the Nazis took over, her books were banned. Irmgard was a Christian, but according to the introduction, “what disturbed the Nazis was not merely its evocation of urban pathologies, but also its endorsement of empathy and tolerance.” Irmgard fled to the Netherlands where she met Joseph Roth. This morning I looked her up in “Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature” by Martin Seymour-Smith, my bible for twentieth century authors and literature. There was no entry for her, so then I looked up Joseph Roth where it said “his wife went mad”. I’m not sure he is referring to Irmgard here. But on the basis of “The Artificial-Silk Girl”, I would place her in the first rank of world writers.

  12. Thanks Tony, for such valuable insight and praise for Keun. I will have to look out for The Artificial Silk Girl … and shame on Martin Seymour-Smith!

    I owe you an apology on behalf of my spam filter: for some reason all your recent comments have been blacklisted and not put up on the site. I don’t often check the spam filter so I have just noticed this. Sorry, and thanks for persevering!

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