We thought he would enter from the right…

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson and translated by Damion Searls

The trouble with realism in fiction is that reality is often distinctly undramatic, and indifferent to the importance of consistent theme and genre. A cop show aiming for realism will usually be gritty, but life isn’t just grit. A war novel aiming for realism may focus on mud, pain and random death, but rarely on cleaning duties and dirty jokes.

Enter Hans Keilson, and Comedy in a Minor Key. This isn’t a realist novel. It’s far too real for that.

Isn’t that a marvellous cover by the way? Hesperus Press, which for me is pretty much a badge of quality in publishing.

Wim and Marie are a young Dutch couple living on the outskirts of Amsterdam. It’s World War II and each night the British planes fly overhead on their way to bomb Germany. The Netherlands are occupied, and in a small act of resistance Wim and Marie have hidden Nico, a Jew, in their home. The trouble is Nico’s just died of natural causes. Now Wim and Marie have a corpse in their house.

What follows is an exceptionally light and subtle novella. In just over a 100 pages Keilson explores the psychology of everyone involved (including Nico, much of the book looks back to what led them all to their current situation). It’s funny, in places, but the danger is very real. Nico’s death is anticlimactic for Wim and Marie, and inconvenient, but they can’t be found with a dead Jew any more than they could with a living one.

As Wim makes arrangements with the family doctor to dispose of Nico’s corpse under a nearby park bench, Marie looks through the dead man’s few possessions. She realises how difficult it must have been for Nico, condemned to living silently in a single room, and the narrative slips back to Nico’s own perspective. In the face of everyday tedium how long can one feel grateful to people, even if they have saved your life?

When he came here, to this house, he would have happily taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied. Now he slept in a bed, ate at a table, was treated as a human being.
But the longer it lasted, the greater his demands grew. Since he couldn’t demand anything of the outer world – what he did receive was freely offered, almost a gift – his demands turned inward and more and more excessive. But people were helping him, they were helping him, didn’t that mean anything? Yes, it meant a lot. But also nothing. He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it – maybe – saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.

“The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others”. Beautiful. It’s that kind of quiet yet precise observation that makes this book so good.

In hiding a fugitive Wim and Marie are doing something brave, in a sense heroic, but nothing is ever purely from one motive. Their resistance contact, Jop, appeals to each household he wants to place someone with in a slightly different way. With Wim he appeals to patriotic duty, with someone else to their Christian charity, to another he portrays it as a “purely humane act”. We all sometimes need a little push, to help us do the right thing. There’s vanity too, of course, and the need to feel part of things:

She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face, the colour of a shut-in, which his appearance only emphasised even more. How the neighbours and everyone in the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.

Keilson takes familiar themes and stories, war, resistance, the tension of living in secrecy, but then gives them a light and human tweak which makes them fresh and powerful. The doctor, standing over Nico’s body, asks Wim and Marie what Nico did for a living. Nico, Nicodemus, wasn’t that the name of one of the ancient rabbis he asks? Nico though wasn’t a rabbi, he was just a perfume salesman. A rabbi would have been more romantic, more dramatically fitting perhaps, but perfume salesmen need saving too.

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. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right…

Hans Keilson has received a reasonable amount of attention to the blogosphere. I first heard of him with John Self’s review, here, but it was Will Rycroft at Just William’s Luck here who really sold me and persuaded me to read this. Both have my thanks. I’m pretty sure that other bloggers I follow have also covered this, but can’t now recall which. Apologies to anyone whose review I’ve not linked to and if I have missed you please let me know in the comments and I’ll correct that.

On a slightly related note, since writing the first draft of this I’ve noticed that I picked almost exactly the same quotes as Will did. For some reason I always find that slightly reassuring. Validation that if I’ve utterly missed the point at least I’ve missed it in company I suppose.



Filed under German, Keilson, Hans, Novellas

15 responses to “We thought he would enter from the right…

  1. I haven’t seen him reviewed all that often Jackie from FramLane Books did for German Literature Month. I bought a collection with all of his novelas and novellas (German) and am really looking forward to reading him.
    If someone can make a war story sound fresh and powerul then I’m connvinced I will appreciate it.
    How did you like the style. From what I read in the German press he writes extremely well. I’ll read him this year.
    Hesperus Press is interesting and their covers are often well chosen. Thank God not another slodier in a greatcoat kissing a woman in high heels. Some editors spoil the best books with their covers.

  2. I’ve seen books from this author before and haven’t been that interested, but your post makes me re-thinkthat. Agree on the Hesperus issue, and I’ll pick them over another whenever possible.

  3. I haven’t seen it reviewed before. (and there’s no translation in French)
    The idea is intriguing: what do you do when the person you’re hiding dies?
    I like the sound of it and the quotes.

    The image of the thorn is powerful. In French, you can say “to have a thorn in one’s foot” to say “to have a delicate problem”. So when I read this quote, I see that Nico who has a virtual and growing thorn becomes Wim and Marie’s thorn in their feet when he dies.

    What Jop uses to convince families to help reminds me of sales techniques. You try to identify your client’s psychololgical driving force in order to push the right buttons. Play on pride, money, empathy or whatever is relevant for the person standing in front of you to improve your chances to get what you want from them.

    Anyway, it sounds like a great novella exploring the multiple shades of grey of human behaviour.

  4. leroyhunter

    You make it sound attractive Max. I’d seen John’s review a while back. Confinement, the war…you’re right, it’s well worn stuff, but Keilson has clearly found a nice little hook to draw the reader in.

    That quote about Marie imagining parading their “guest” after liberation is funny and quite true, but terrible as well. “Look what we did! We’re great! Here’s our hidden Jew!”

  5. Caroline, the style is superb. He writes lightly and subtly, deft would be another good word to describe him. Absolutely honed prose, expertly done.

    I hate those kind of covers. They’re so tedious. They crop up often on books that aren’t even about WWII, but are set somewhere in the 20th century. A greatcoat, a brightly coloured dress, a drab background with a child somewhere in it. Hesperus respect the book and the author. I like that about them.

    Guy, apparently he only wrote two novels, this and The Adversary which I’ll pick up soon. I think you’d like this.

    Emma, spot on with every point. One of the joys of this is the complexity and precision of the psychological portaits, yet captured so (seemingly) easily and without lengthy disposition. He shows a complexity of motives.

    Leroy, that’s where that paragraph comes in. Yes it’s vain, but it’s human too. She’s doing a good thing, but it’s hard to be wholly good and there’s a part of her which wants to show off how good she’s been. To be recognised for it. At the same time Keilson isn’t judging here, he’s exploring the situation and the characters and the minor farce of our lives but he isn’t saying they should be better than they are. His isn’t a cruel gaze. After all, it may all be a bit absurd, Marie may fantasise about being recognised for her virtue, Wim may have needed a bit of sales techniques used on him, but at the end of the day Wim and Marie are risking their lives to save someone.

    I’m very keen now to read The Adversary (Will’s already covered it at his). Keilson really is an exceptional talent.

  6. Striking cover… Very reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (the Canongate edition) although I can’t think of any reason for suggesting an intentional connection.

    It sounds like a book of strong contrasts: keen psychological insight handled lightly, and a dramatic situation rendered mundane (I mean that as commendation not criticism.) As a matter of curiousity, is Kielson a contemporary novelist, writing retrospectively, or is this a novella of its time?

  7. I saw the Hunger cover yesterday, and had the same thought. Chance though I think.

    Just so. Keen insight handled lightly. Drama, but mundane. It’s very good for that.

    He’s pretty much a contemporary. This was apparently written in 1947, so not long after the events at hand.

  8. Interesting article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/17/german-hans-keilson-comedy-minor-key

    Apparently Keilson was a psychiatrist, and was himself hidden by a Dutch couple.

  9. leroyhunter

    Wonderful novella, and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment Max: subtle, gently comic yet with the darkness and absurdity of the situation never far away. In my earlier comment I had the tone quite wrong, because as you say Keilson isn’t cruel at all. Poor Marie! She really puts herself through the wringer.

    In addition to the situation with Nico, the portrait of the domestic couple is beautifully done. The story of the book’s publication history that you link to is remarkable as well. I’m definitely getting my hands on Death of the Adversary as soon as possible.

  10. I don’t think you had the tone entirely wrong Leroy. I think there is an element of showing off, of vanity, but part of what Keilson does is show that the presence of those emotions doesn’t invalidate the merit of what she’s doing. The risk is still real, the act of generosity just as meaningful, but like all human acts it’s a mix of motives not all of which are altruistic.

    Keilson isn’t cruel though, I definitely agree with that, rather he’s incredibly compassionate which sounds suffocating but here isn’t remotely.

    Thanks for the comment, it reminds me that I must read Death of the Adversary.

  11. Pingback: That Was The Year That Was: 2012 | Pechorin’s Journal

  12. Only just got round to this one, great little novella, perfectly judged. I added it after your 2012 round-up so cheers.

  13. leroyhunter

    Did you ever get to Death, Max? Caroline read it recently and I commented there that I found it very different from this, and a let-down in many ways.

  14. Not yet. I read Caroline’s very negative review and saw your comments there and that does have me more curious about it – whether I’d have the same reaction.

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