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Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel Hardcover – Jul 20 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 Reissue edition (July 20 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374126755
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374126759
  • Product Dimensions: 13.1 x 1.5 x 19.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 249 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #418,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


“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 . . . Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author's eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name . . . Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world's very greatest writers.” ―Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

“This first-ever English translation of Keilson's gripping 1947 novel about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish perfume merchant in their home during WWII marks a welcome reintroduction to the author's unfortunately obscure oeuvre . . . Beautifully nuanced and moving, Keilson's tale probes the more concealed, subtle forces that annihilate the human spirit.” ―Publishers Weekly

“[Comedy in a Minor Key's] design is so neat, spare, and geometric that to think of it is like tapping a spoon to a crystal glass.” ―Yelena Akhtiorskaya, The Forward

“A brisk, engaging work of Holocaust literature that deserves to be better known.” ―Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

“What Keilson had experienced, body and soul, went into this precisely composed book, which succeeds in capturing the tragedy of countless anonymous victims alongside the grotesquerie of the individual tragic case.” ―Ulrich Weinzierl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

About the Author

Hans Keilson is the author of The Death of the Adversary. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. In a 2010 New York Times review, Francine Prose called Keilson a "genius" and "one of the world's very greatest writers." He died in 2011 at the age of 101.

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Secrecy and a sense of claustrophia prevails as Wim and Marie hide Nico upstairs in their house. No telling Wim’s sister, the cleaning lady, the fishmonger who cleans the fish every week in the kitchen, no telling the neighbours. “Good people” or not someone will gossip. Jop had been caught three days ago – he was careless, he had been betrayed. Who knew which?

Nico stays in the room. A trip to the bathroom every hour and a half. No looking out the window, no turning on the light. No sneaking down the stairs in the afternoon when the paper is delivered. We’ll have to wait for Marie to bring it to us when she returns.

Marie gives Nico the news regarding Jop……..

She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything – the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love. The man offered it up to her so shamelessly that it felt to Marie like she was seeing him physically naked. No cry out loud, no contortion of his face or his hands, he was simply uncovered, he stood in the middle of the room, the focal point and the bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows shot at him from beyond life.

On cleaning day…….

He heard the women’s footsteps stomping heavily through the house, heard how she carried the laundry into the bedroom, how she moved around with the vacuum cleaner and carried out her other duties. The nearness of another human being, even one who he knew harboured no suspicions, stirred up the tense quiet and solitude of his room.

A few months later……..
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Based upon an actual event (an ill-fated husband-wife conspiracy) in Berlin during the Nazi regime, this novel reveals the paranoia-inducing police-state, with informants everywhere, including within the nuclear family; the brutality of the clerk-mentality elevated to power; and the victimizing by the sociopaths and other flotsam of society that rose through the ranks of the Nazi party. The style is engaging, making for a fast read; the cavalcade of characters is fascinating and believable; and the pathos evoked by the thwarted aspirations of the good people (for whom the reader forms great sympathy/empathy) becomes frightening - how easy it is for a society to slip to the depths of persecution and control, and how difficult it can be to make any difference by attempting to inform, or conspire with, others or to rebel against such a machine.
I had done previous reading on the holocaust/Nazi Germany for a moral philosophy course paper: this novel, by Hans Keilson, who lived in Berlin during WWII, and experienced the terror, the mind-control, and the efficiency of the police state, opened my eyes to one aspect I had not previously dealt with adequately: how, when the punishment is certain death (by beheading!) does an average person avoid being a cog in the machine, and how does a person make a moral stand that is more than a gesture? The novel seems desperate to find an answer, but....
An amazing little novel.
Comedy In A Minor Key
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0xa055d324) out of 5 stars 40 reviews
96 of 97 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0bc2fd8) out of 5 stars Feeling that you, even just a little bit, had won the war Aug. 8 2010
By C. R. - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who conceal Nico, a Jewish perfume salesman, in their spare bedroom for a year during World War II. For Wim and Marie, their generosity isn't born out of political passion or response to injustice, but rather a sense of decency and neighborly kindness. In contrast to heroic war tales of the resistance and defiant rebels, Wim and Marie naively stumble through the awkwardness of a housing a stranger on the run from the enemy. The clumsiness of living with a stranger and riskily concealing him takes a dangerous turn when he passes away from illness, and the two are forced to dispose of his body.

Hans Keilson is enjoying new attention with English language readers due to the first English translation of Comedy in a Minor Key even though it was originally published in 1947, as well as the re-issue of his book The Death of the Adversary. This slim volume (only 135 pages) quietly relates a bleakly funny tale about human compassion that is startling and deeply affecting.

What I find so exciting about this work it wryly breaks expectations. As Marie observes thinking about the man they have concealed "He had defended himself against death from without, and then it had carried him off from within. It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left." For Wim, Marie, and Nico, their actions aren't those of heroes. Marie feels slighted by her guest concealing from her, Wim fumbles in banal yet clandestine operations, and even Nico commits selfish acts. In their efforts to do something grand, life in all its accidents and frustrations interrupts.

Keilson expertly reveals the realities of three deeply human characters living in an impossible, alienating situation. This short novel reads smoothly and feels deeply contemporary - with all the existential absurdity of a Beckett play and the character foibles of a Jonathan Franzen novel. Comedy in a Minor Key is a rare find, and I am deeply grateful that it has finally been published here.
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0bc3048) out of 5 stars Leaves the Reader Feeling as if they were in the "Upstairs Bedroom" Sept. 3 2010
By Robert Brooks - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Comedy in a Minor Key is a truly phenomenal short novel. The title reveals a great deal about the subject of the novel: a dark, almost absurdist comedy set amongst a traditionally sad background. The novel centers around the lives of three characters: A married couple, Wim and Marie, and their "guest" 'Nice' who comes to join Wim and Marie out of the necessity of the times.

Kielson adeptly develops the characters of all three characters, helping the reader to feel as though they were (1) the "man of the house" in WWII Belgium seeking to do the right thing, (2) the housewife forced to deal with the everyday realities of hiding a man in her home without allowing the neighbors to find out and (3) the man hiding in the upstairs bedroom of a couple he never knew because his background makes him eligible for death. Kielson moves from the mind of each character frequently, sometimes within the same paragraph, forcing the reader to think about the same conversation through each person's lens.

Kielson also employs a narrative device that is particularly powerful in the novel: he moves back and forth in time without warning or background. This often gives the novel the feel of being timeless, almost infinite. This is especially effective when considering the point of view of Nico, as he (and anyone in his situation) must have felt that time almost stood still at moments, and then suddenly jumped forward with events of great magnitude. Kielson helps the reader to have similar emotions, sometimes feeling that time was almost standing still and then suddenly a great burst of information or events would occur.

Comedy in a Minor Key is ultimately a beautiful look at the way lives are influenced and changed through the circumstances of life and how we may never be able to truly understand someone until we are sitting in their place, experiencing their nightmare. I highly recommend this novel and am grateful that it has finally been translated after more than 60 years.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0bc3324) out of 5 stars Hiding and Identity, Comedy and Tragedy Nov. 9 2011
By A Certain Bibliophile - Published on
Format: Paperback
The premise is simple enough. A married couple, Wim and Marie, decide to take in a Jew named Nico during World War II. In hiding him, the comfortably middle-class Wim and Marie learn what it means to live the precarious life of a Jew in 1940s Holland, in what would have otherwise been a set of rather ordinary circumstances. Soon afterwards, Nico becomes ill and eventually dies in their house, leaving the couple in the unique position of needing to dispose of a body no one can know they had there in the first place. They eventually leave him wrapped in blankets in a nearby park, but soon discover that they might have left a clue to their identity behind. Therefore, in a wonderful turn of irony, Wim and Marie are themselves forced to instantly flee their house for fear of being discovered by the police.

The title is beautiful and wholly appropriate to the story. Juxtapositions are everywhere: there is the comic lightness of opera bouffe as Wim and Marie try to figure out how to get rid of Nico, but also the crushing dramatic realization of how this has all come about because of how some humans have chosen to treat others; the interplay of the quotidian as the couple go about their day-to-day existences in war-torn Holland with only the audience to find that this will one day be a place of grand historical importance.

Writer Francine Prose recently wrote in a piece in the New York Times that she has come to include Dutch writer Hans Keilson in her personal list of the world's "very greatest writers." On that alone, I took up Keilson's "Death of the Adversary," and was just as impressed. Despite Time magazine's listing it as one of the ten best magazines of the year, aside Nabokov's "Pale Fire" and Porter's "Ship of Fools," Keilson unfortunately fell into obscurity in the English-speaking world.

Translator Damion Searls' revivification of his work is admirable and deserved, even while I found this "Comedy in a Minor Key" to be much less rewarding than "Death of the Adversary." The former is a small, personal, intimate picture of human identity and frailty touchingly conceived, but it felt underdeveloped to me. Its size, at a mere 135 pages, gave me less time than I would have preferred to get to know Wim, Marie, and Nico. "Death of the Adversary," however, deals with looming, world-historical forces that are at work in our lives, with bigger, abstracter ideas, and was probably for that reason more compelling for me. My rating of three stars here might be a little low. I didn't know whether to go with three or four, but I can't see myself rereading it any time soon, so I chose three. I would recommend to anyone interested in Keilson that they read "Death of the Adversary," which I found to be truly spectacular.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0bc3840) out of 5 stars Logistics July 16 2011
By H. Schneider - Published on
Format: Hardcover
In an occupied country, civil disobedience becomes patriotic duty.
Wim and Marie are a normal, childless couple in their late 20s, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during WW2. They are not normally given to exuberant emotions or declarations of pathos. They are willing to hide a Jewish refugee from Germany, a perfect stranger, in their house. The organizer of the network had appealed to Wim's patriotic duty, successfully. In other cases he would appeal to Christian charity or humanitarian obligations.
How do you hide a stranger? How do you keep the cleaning woman, the milkman, the postman, the fishseller, the sister, the friend and her child, the police from noticing the secret lodger? How do you feed him and wash for him? How do you get his hair cut and how do you keep him amused? Where do you find the reading matter for him? How do you make sure that he does not go crazy? How do you handle the inevitable nervous outbursts, the conflicts about nothing that crop up when people are locked up together? How do you care for him when he falls ill? Or, one up on that desaster scenario: what do you do with the corpse if he dies in your house?
Keilson knew what he wrote about. The long-story (in the German edition it is not called a novel)is dedicated to the couple who helped him in a similar situation. The book was first published in German in 1947. It seems to have sunk like a stone. I grew up without ever hearing of Keilson, until he was rediscovered by an American translator a few years ago. Keilson has just died aged 101. His small fiction collection has been published in one Fischer pocket book: 2 autobiographic novels, this long-story and a short story. Fischer had also been his first publisher in Germany in 1933, right in time to join the ranks of the banned authors..
I would be curious to see any reviews from 1947.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa0bc3858) out of 5 stars Up in Smoke Oct. 31 2010
By A. colbert - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Comedy in a Minor Key takes the form of a classical story which gives a "happy" ending to the reader, though not without roughing up our sensibilities. A young couple in Holland agree to take a jewish man into hiding during WW II, and the evolution of their relationship, from strangers to awkward intimates, allows the author to explore the inner psyche and motivation of his engaging characters. The reader feels a steady dramatic tension, partly owing to the concern that he will be discovered, but also the internal tension of the central characters, who chafe at confinement and the need for a continued pretense. There are useful metaphors that create a foggy atmosphere: the coveted third rate tobacco they share, the stranger's secret stash of Lucky Strikes, his chosen alias, Nico. His lungs will betray him in the end. Gaunt, ashen, feverish, emaciated, dressed in pajamas, he dies the same slow death of his compatriots in the concentration camps. His death causes an ironic turn of events that allows the author to turn up the gas on Nico's protectors, exposing them to what it is like to be deeply afraid and rootless.

This spare volume is a provocative, timeless story that should be widely read. Its elegance lies in is its seeming simplicity, but is full of nuanced and poignant dilemmas. It would make an excellent discussion book for book clubs or students.

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