Emotionally and creatively, the most important period of Irmgard Keun’s life was that of her restless Wanderjahre from 1936 to 1938 in the company of the novelist Joseph Roth. Since she was German and he Austrian Jewish, and both of them fierce opponents of the Nazi regime, they knew that it would be folly to remain in their own countries. But like most émigré writers they found that in exile their books, all too often published in German by small firms staffed by other émigrés, tended lamentably to sell in hundreds, instead of their former thousands.
For some reason at which we can only guess, in her later drink-sodden post-war years Keun would vehemently protest that Child of All Nations (published in English for the first time here) was in no way based on real people and events. But its male protagonist, a famous writer called Peter, has too many of Roth’s attributes – his genius, charm, unreliability, optimism, sexual rapacity – for one to accept her denial, particularly since the numerous journeys described in the book, zigzagging across Europe, are ones that she and he took.
In the novel, Peter and his wife Annie’s nine-year-old daughter, Kully, accompanies the couple on these travels. It is she, at once innocent and knowing, who tells the story. In an excellent afterword, of which my only complaint is that it contains too little biographical detail, the translator of the