Fear of Writing: “After Midnight,” by Irmgard Keun

“A writer in the act of writing must fear neither his own words nor anything else in the world,” Heini tells Algin in Irmgard Keun’s “After Midnight.” Algin is considering writing a historical novel that will satisfy the stiff submission requirements of the Reich Chamber of Literature. The historical novel might be relatively safe because the players have passed. They’re not around to censure, and their story has likely already been told, documented, accredited. But one doesn’t always know what might get “a writer in the act of writing” in trouble. And a mistake is not an act of courage but of naiveté, inexperience, or foolishness. Writers may work with all three simultaneously, whistling while they work, no fear.

But “a writer who is afraid is no true writer,” Heini insists. But a writer unafraid might simply be risking nothing, have nothing on the line, no skin in the game, nothing to lose. Being fearless is not necessarily the same emotion as having courage. And Heini’s not talking about craft, because “perfection renders words unnecessary,” he says. Indeed, what the writer should fear is perfection, because “once criticism’s no longer possible, you have to keep quiet,” Heini explains (98). Perfection is only achieved through the destruction of all opposing values. But at that point, there’s no more discussion.

I don’t know if Keun was afraid or not while writing “After Midnight.” But she was certainly courageous. “After Midnight” has an interesting publication history. Irmgard Keun lived from 1905 to 1982, achieving early success as a writer in Germany only to see her books quickly burned. “After Midnight,” Keun’s fourth novel, was first published in 1937 by a publisher in the Netherlands. It was republished in German in 1980, and in English with a translation by Anthea Bell in 1985. I recently bought the Neversink Library edition issued by Melville House Publishing in 2011. It’s a short book, 169 pages including an afterword by Geoff Wilkes that provides both a brief but detailed biography of Keun and a short critical analysis that draws on research using letters and reviews from the periods discussed.

“After Midnight” is not a historical novel, and illustrates some of the strengths of fiction over documentary, of literature over reporting. Its tone is primarily satiric, but the narrative is realistic, looking at its own time, with some, but not much, looking backward, unable, of course, to see clearly into the future. If the writer knew no fear, the young narrator knows it: “My heart always stands still when I hear those speeches, because how do I know I’m not one of the sort who are going to be smashed? And the worst is that I just don’t understand what’s really going on. I’m only gradually getting the hang of the things you must be careful not to do” (63). This is the plight of the writer. The situation is urgent, a constant state of emergency on the dire road to perfection, a place not there.