Writer Hans Keilson, 101, dies


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Author Hans Keilson died in the Netherlands on Tuesday at age 101. Keilson, who was Jewish and born in Germany, had made the Netherlands his home since 1936. He was a member of the Dutch resistance during World War II, became a psychiatrist and stopped writing fiction decades ago in favor of his practice.

Yet in 2010, at age 100, Keilson had a surprise literary success with the English-language publication of his 1947 novel ‘Comedy in a Minor Key,’ a dark comedy about sheltering a Jewish refugee during World War II. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 2010 prize in fiction. Reviewing it in our pages, David L. Ulin called it a ‘delicately balanced novel’ and quoted what he considered the book’s most moving passage:


Marie understood that words like ‘love your neighbor’ or ‘national duty’ or ‘civil disobedience’ were only a weak reflection of this deepest feeling that Wim and she had felt back then: wanting to shelter a persecuted human being in their house. Like the way people veil a body in fabric and clothing so that the blaze of its nakedness does not blind too deeply the eyes that see it, people veil life itself with precious garments, behind which, as under ashes, the double-tongued fire of creation smolders. Love, beauty, dignity: all that was only put on, so that whoever approached the glowing embers in reverence would not singe his grasping hands and thirsting lips.

Reissued in English, along with ‘Comedy in a Minor Key,’ was Keilson’s 1959 semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Death of the Adversary,’ which the Telegraph described as ‘a Kafka-like fable of enduring power.’ Written as the war was going on, Keilson reportedly buried pages of the manuscript in his garden for safekeeping.

Francine Prose wrote that both books ‘are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.’

Keilson’s parents died in Auschwitz. He was twice married and had two children. ‘The story,’ Ulin wrote -- of Keilson’s century-long life and late literary success, ‘is amazing.’

-- Carolyn Kellogg