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Latest Review: "Comedy in a Minor Key" and "The Death of the Adversary" by Hans Keilson

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Dan Vitale on both Hans Keilson books that FSG recently brought out: The Death of the Adversary (translated by Ivo Jarosy and originally published in 1962) and Comedy in a Minor Key (translated into English for the first time ever by Damion Searls).

This rediscovery has been getting quite a bit of attention, including a glowing piece in the New York Times Book Review in which Francine Prose claims that Keilson’s books “are some of the best ever . . . almost as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom!”1

Anyway, Dan Vitale is one of our regular, and most consistent, reviewers. He has great taste, and this review really makes me want to carve out some time to read these books . . .

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.

This is a long, thoughtful review, and I highly recommend checking out the entire thing.

1 I kid, I kid. But she did say: “For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” Which is pretty solid praise.



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