Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

March 22, 2009



When she died at the age of 77 in 1982, Irmgard Keun left behind no memoirs. What she did leave, alongside a clutch of brilliant novels, was this delightful, harrowing account of her life between 1936 and 1940, in exile as an “immoral, anti-German” writer.

Keun’s masterstroke is to tell her story from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. A headstrong, defiant child, Kully might not attend school, but she knows all about visas and passports and has an ever-expanding repertoire of languages.

While her father, the alcoholic and unreliable writer Peter (widely regarded as a portrait of Keun’s sometimes lover, the Austrian-Jewish novelist Joseph Roth) bluffs advances from publishers, pawns their belongings and begs from the rich, Kully and her sad, put-upon mother Annie camp out in hotel rooms, running up bills and hiding from the staff.

The trio are on an enforced grand tour of Europe rendered nightmarish by near-starvation, constantly expiring visas and the shadow of war. But in order to keep the credit coming, they must perpetuate the illusion of wealth by staying in the best hotels, eating in the finest restaurants and only ever travelling first class.

Keun captures Kully with such clarity that her words skip off the page. “It annoys me when people don’t hand over their money when we need it”, she says. “Money isn’t something that becomes unhappy or starts crying if you leave it.”

Written during Keun’s own exile, this is at once a historical record of prewar Europe and a glimpse into the chaotic life of an alcoholic. But the novel’s real power comes in capturing the freefalling anxiety of the displaced person, who cannot be homesick because home no longer exists.

This piece first appeared in the Observer Review

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