Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary

Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just released translations of two remarkable short novels by the German writer Hans Keilson, who turns 101 in December. Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) is appearing in the U.S. for the first time, while The Death of the Adversary (1959) is a reprint of an English translation first published here in 1962. Both are intensely focused works set during World War II in the German-occupied Netherlands (to which Keilson fled from Berlin in 1936 after earning a medical degree and publishing an autobiographical first novel), and each takes place in a relatively brief span of time that is expanded by carefully chosen flashbacks. But the similarities end there. The earlier book, as its title suggests, is surprisingly lighthearted given its setting, while the later book is a disturbing portrait of a man whose mind has been unbalanced by persecution.

Wim and Marie, the young married Dutch couple in whose house almost all the events of Comedy in a Minor Key unfold, are hiding Nico, a Jewish perfume merchant, from the German occupying forces. As the novel opens, Nico has just died of pneumonia, and his hosts, along with the attending physician, are deciding how to remove his body without attracting the attention of the authorities or any potentially unsympathetic neighbors who might report them. They decide that Wim and the doctor, under cover of a new moon, will carry Nico across the street to a park and leave him beneath a bench for the police to discover. All goes as planned, but the next day Marie realizes too late that they have left a telltale sign: Nico had been dressed in a freshly laundered pair of Wim’s monogrammed pajamas, additionally marked with an identifying number by the laundry where Marie had sent them. Suddenly the generous couple who had protected a Jew are themselves in need of protection.

In this book, Keilson treats his characters tenderly, sympathizing with their difficulties and forgiving them their mistakes. His prose is plain and touching, his exposition brief and purposeful. Often, as in a play, he lets dialogue do the work of characterization. Although we feel at a slight remove from all three protagonists—particularly Nico who, it must be admitted, figures largely as a plot device, his death from natural causes a gently ironic counterpoint to the sufferings so many other Jews were experiencing during the same time—Keilson portrays them without denying them their basic humanity.

The Death of the Adversary, which Keilson began in 1942 but did not complete until well after the end of the war, is a denser, more upsetting work. Presented as the contents of a manuscript deposited for safekeeping during the war but never retrieved by its author, the nameless narrator’s reminiscences are shot through with a monstrous urgency: at the time he is setting them down he is anxiously awaiting the death of a figure he calls only B. and whom he refers to as his enemy, although they have never met. It quickly becomes clear to the reader, without Keilson ever stating it, that B. is Adolf Hitler and our narrator is a Jew.

For the first few pages we are trapped inside the narrator’s obsessive thoughts in a manner reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground or a novel by Samuel Beckett, but this approach is soon largely replaced by a series of brilliant, haunting, set pieces from the narrator’s past, beginning at age 10 when his father first tells him of B.’s existence and ending some years later with his first actual glimpse of B., standing in an open limousine threading its way through a cheering crowd. In between, we are given other episodes from the narrator’s life, among them an early experience in which his mother forces him to rejoin a group of non-Jewish children who have refused to let him participate in their games; the ending of a friendship between the narrator and a young man who has embraced B.’s ideas; an incident at the department store where the narrator takes a job after completing school, during which he mediates a conflict between two angry customers and in the process attracts the interest of a friendly young saleswoman; and an evening at the apartment the saleswoman shares with her brother, where the narrator witnesses a conversation among the brother and several of his friends, all of them supporters of B. To the narrator’s silent dismay, one of these young men regales the party with a story of his recent adventure as part of a group of volunteers on a “secret assignment”: to cruelly vandalize a Jewish cemetery.

Throughout, the narrator portrays himself as an outsider humiliated by his passivity in the presence of others whose only advantage over him is the fact that they are not Jewish. Far from the placid tone of Comedy in a Minor Key, the voice of The Death of the Adversary is agitated and tense. Nearly all the figures in the novel seem surreal, at times almost freakish, poised on the brink of the devastations the war has not yet brought but which are prefigured in these smaller, personal offenses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the cemetery vandal’s description of one of his colleagues:

He ran like one possessed, it was a fantastic sight, the climax of the whole expedition, I’ll never forget it. He leaped like a black goblin from grave to grave—great big leaps, with his black body twisting and twirling in the air. He held his arms away from his body, moving them backwards and forwards as though he were rowing through the night. . . . And all the time he was making gurgling sounds that seemed to come from deep inside his guts. I went after him. I saw him trampling down the last mounds by the wall, his legs were moving faster and faster on the same spot. A mad fury seemed to have taken hold of him, he dropped down full-length on the grave, grabbed at the cold, wet earth with both hands and began to scratch and dig. His fingers devoured the soil, deeper and deeper they dug, as though he wanted to scratch the buried bones out of the ground.

The only characters in the book that are presented with the same poignancy as those in the earlier novel are the narrator’s parents, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Keilson intended their portrayal as a tribute to his own parents, who died at Auschwitz, and a lament for their fate.

After the war, Keilson remained in the Netherlands, where he later turned to the study and practice of psychoanalysis, producing a landmark study of Dutch Jewish war orphans in which he pioneered the concept of “sequential traumatization in children.” Keilson was the first to discover that childhood trauma can be compounded by subsequent, even if apparently lesser, traumas. The mental health of the children he interviewed was influenced not just by prewar anti-Semitic persecution or forced separation from their parents during the Nazi atrocities but by the process of acclimation into foster homes and then, after the war, by conflicts over their decision whether to return home or remain with their foster families. Keilson’s work as a psychoanalyst displays an empathy and a sensitivity to suffering that are surely the equal—if not arguably the superior—of any of which a novelist is capable.

In a 2008 interview, Keilson stated that The Death of the Adversary is not much read in Germany but that he was pleased with its original reception in the U.S. where Time magazine chose The Death of the Adversary as one of the best books of 1962. It is certainly one of the best to be republished this year, and one of the best novels to have arisen from the horrors of the Third Reich.

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