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A 'Midnight' Tale Of The Rising Third Reich

All Sanna Moder wants is to get across town. She needs to start preparing for her roommate Liska's party, but she and her friend Gerti are being detained by, of all things, the Fuhrer's visit to the city. All the roads are blocked off, and the SS is not letting anyone through. This is Frankfurt, Germany, in the mid-1930s, but Sanna is not thinking much about the police state her homeland is turning into. After all, she promised she'd find a blacklisted journalist who Liska is head over heels in love with and put in a good word for her.

Sanna may be oblivious to the changing times, but it's not like those paying attention in Irmgard Keun's recently reissued After Midnight are having a better time of it. Sanna's brother's novels have been banned, due to their contrarian political views. He's thinking about writing a fawning epic poem about Hitler in order to get back into print. Liska's too-prescient love interest comes to a bad end, and others are finding their husbands or daughters suddenly whisked off, never to be heard from again. Sanna herself understands enough to know what she shouldn't say — for the most part. As she listens to the radio and a propaganda speech assuring the destruction of anyone who would stand in the way of Germany's future, she wonders if she could possibly, unintentionally, be one of the dissidents. The complexity of the politics in these aggressive messages is too much for her to fully grasp. "I still don't know what it is all about, or what they mean. And it's far too dangerous to ask anyone." The safest route is to keep her head down, go about her life and concentrate on parties — not the political ones; the ones that require dresses.

After Midnight begins lightly enough. Sanna opens her narration by making jokes about the SS, but her wry cracks quickly take a dark turn. "I mean, it's pure chance that poison gas isn't eating my body away right now," she tells us. Try as she might to stay in a fantasy world where she can marry her lover Franz, open a little shop and travel to Nice, that parade she and Gerti are trying to circumnavigate might as well run right through her living room.

Through the '30s, Keun wrote tiny, explosive novels about life in Nazi Germany and the obliviousness of the citizenry as its nation plunged into madness. Even reading After Midnight today feels dangerous. I kept turning to the copyright page, unable to believe that such a sexually and politically frank book could have been published in 1937 Europe, a time of blacklists and book burnings. Keun's bravery eventually got her into trouble with the Nazis, to the point that she was forced to leave Germany, fake her own suicide and return to the country only under a false identity.

After Midnight is the second Keun novel to be reissued in English this year; the first was The Artificial Silk Girl, her story of a young woman trying to survive the desperate economic times of Weimar Germany. Keun has an amazing gift for exposing the conflict at the heart of the average citizen, whose naivete is eventually and sometimes violently stripped away. Sanna is a rare spark in a dark time, funny and warm and alive. And because neither she nor Keun in 1937 could possibly know how much darker things would get, After Midnight haunts far beyond its final page.

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Corrected: June 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story indicated that 'After Midnight' was published in Germany in 1937; in fact, it was published in the German language in Amsterdam in 1937.
Jessa Crispin