Book review: ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ and ‘The Death of the Adversary’ by Hans Keilson
COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY
Translated from the German by Damion Searls
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 136 pp., $22
THE DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY
Translated from the German by Ivo Jarosy
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 208 pp., $14 paper
The story is amazing: Hans Keilson, born in 1909, is a German Jew who, during World War II, became a member of the Dutch resistance, then a novelist and psychiatrist specializing in the war trauma of children, and is still living, at almost 101, near Amsterdam. Half a lifetime ago, he gave up fiction for his practice, leaving a few slight books that linger at the edges of Holocaust literature.
Then, this year, he is rediscovered, with the first English translation of his 1947 novel " Comedy in a Minor Key” and a reissue of his 1959 allegory “The Death of the Adversary,” which was translated into English in 1962. It’s as if, one morning, we were to learn that not only had Anne Frank survived the secret annex but was also still among us.
Frank and Keilson, after all, have more than a little in common, not least their understanding of the domesticity of displacement, the difficulty of hiding, the little attempts to make the unbearable bearable, even normal. “What couldn’t you find in this world!” Keilson notes in “Comedy in a Minor Key.” “But the doctor was right, children are born everywhere, in bomb shelters, during air raids, and often quicker than you might like. Everywhere, in the grip of death, life goes on too.”
“Comedy in a Minor Key” is very much about these issues: the endurance of life in a universe of death. Taking place in the Netherlands during the German occupation, it revolves around Wim and Marie, a couple who agree to hide a Jew in their home, only to end up with an unexpected problem when he gets sick and dies. On the one hand, death is the most natural of processes; on the other, this one is inevitably fraught. How Wim and Marie deal with it, from the practicalities — what to do with the body, how to erase the traces of this man’s presence — to the existential questions, forms the substance of this delicately balanced novel, a book of such profound and understated beauty that it almost seems to function as a parable.
That has everything to do with Keilson’s language, which (deftly translated by novelist Damion Searls) unfolds in a specific, nearly offhand way. The sick man’s hair hangs fever-soaked “like the absolute mess after a downpour”; a cup of coffee and a piece of hardtack in the evening offers “a furtive, sad happiness in the smiling, incomprehensible futility.” Such emotions are at the center of the novel, which aspires to strip away our expectations, our preconceptions of a household in hiding to reveal the more complex subtleties underneath. Even in the midst of occupation, the mail still comes, and the cleaning lady does the floors and makes the bed. Even as the night sky fills with bombers, the most personal interactions still take place. “Consolation! Consolation?” Keilson asks, "… Was there any such thing?” But in some sense, “Comedy in a Minor Key” is a testament to the power of consolation in an inconsolable situation, not to make things better but to allow us to see them as they are.
“Marie understood,” Keilson writes in what may be the book’s most moving passage, “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.”
“The Death of the Adversary” is a very different sort of novel: stylized, fable-like, the first-person account of a man who sets himself up in opposition to a rising dictator, clearly modeled on Hitler, yet known here only by the initial B. It’s a difficult work, densely rendered, and comes off as less engaging than “Comedy in a Minor Key.” Partly this is the fault of the translation, which feels out of date. Yet even more, it’s a matter of perspective, which is as impersonal in these pages as it is direct in the other book.
For Keilson, the key point is the symbiosis between victim and victimizer: “It was towards the person created by my own imagination,” his narrator reflects, “that my feelings of fear, sympathy and hatred were directed.” That’s a fascinating idea, the narrator’s need for the metaphorical counterweight of the dictator, and in places — most notably an extended scene in which he listens to a young man recall the desecration of a cemetery — Keilson evokes this tension in three dimensions, with all the questions of identity and self-exposure woven in. At the same time, the novel’s abiding abstraction (even in the desecration scene, we know it’s a religious cemetery, but not which religion) means it never rises to the vivid physicality of daily life, and when Keilson tries to mitigate this by framing the story as a found document, it feels like a contrivance, another way to distance us.
To be fair, Keilson understands what he’s up against. “I always knew,” he writes, “that words are suitcases with false bottoms, and that even with the best intentions one deviates from the straight and narrow path prescribed by honesty and human decency.” That’s true: We can’t help but write our way around the problem, trying to express in language that which cannot be expressed. If this is the main failing of “The Death of the Adversary,” it’s also the miracle of “Comedy in a Minor Key.”