Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel Hardcover – Jul 20 2010
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“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.
Top Customer Reviews
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……..Read more ›
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.