A re­vived voice of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture

Los Angeles Times - - Book Review - DAVID L. ULIN BOOK CRITIC david.ulin@latimes.com

Com­edy in a Mi­nor Key

A Novel Hans Keil­son Trans­lated from the Ger­man by Damion Searls

Far­rar, Straus & Giroux: 136 pp., $22

The Death of the Ad­ver­sary

A Novel Hans Keil­son 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

A reis­sue and a new trans­la­tion have led to a re­dis­cov­ery of the psy­chi­a­trist’s nov­els. 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 it 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.”


Jür­gen Bauer

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