January 13, 2011
Hans Keilson: Comedy in a Minor Key
Hans Keilson first came to my attention last year (and I expect I am not alone) when Francine Prose reviewed this book and another reissue in the New York Times with the following splendidly declarative opening paragraph: “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.” (But what an insult to the children of Twitter! Everyone knows it’s the last paragraph we skim.)
Comedy in a Minor Key (1947, tr. 2010 by Damion Searls) is published in the UK by Hesperus Press. They specialise in novella-length books (this one is 106 pages long), and I am a little ashamed to admit that although I’ve accumulated several of their titles, I’ve never read them until now. (Admit it: their designs just aren’t as fine as those of Melville House or Pushkin Press.)
It opens with a perspective unusual to British readers: scenes of Dutch householders hearing air raids by Allied forces during the second world war.
The first shots of the night – dull, thudding pops – were in curious contrast to the fine, almost musical sound of the airplanes. The windowpanes and doors shook and rattled, and the whole house, too lightly built, answered the explosions with a delicate, quick shudder. The beginning was always exciting, no matter how many times a person had already lived through it.
The conflict this describes – dread versus excitement – is maintained thematically through the book. The story deals with a serious topic – citizens risking their lives by harbouring Jews in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands – but handles it with lightness. The title says it all. The timeline shifts between past and present, from our heroes Wim and Maria’s experiences in taking in Nico, to their farcical actions in trying safely to dispose of his body when he dies unexpectedly.
The psychology of the characters is deftly done, though Keilson’s tendency to explain everything makes the book feel like a lighter read than it is. Jop, the resistance activist who persuades Wim to take Nico in, asks him if he has ever considered his “patriotic duty.” “The concept, which had never made the slightest impression on Wim before, much less been able to move him toward any action, sounded new and full of meaning, now that the Netherlands had been conquered and occupied.” His wife, Maria, however, hesitates to agree as readily as Wim. “It was in her nature to make all her objections up front, at the start. This made her a bit slow to take action, but it saved her from all sorts of reproachments and resentments after the fact.” And, he might have added, solidified her decision once made.
Nico, the stowaway, is rich and real too. What, he wonders, does it mean to have his life saved, if his life is reduced to one room? “The landscape, the sky, the distant sea, was not always a consolation, a balm to soothe the eye. Often, too often, it was a door that stayed closed.” When he arrives with Wim and Maria, “he would happily have taken a place on a pile of coal in a barn and been satisfied.” But the more he has, the better he is treated, the harder to please he becomes, and the more distant gratitude seems. There is comedy in the darkness and darkness in the comedy, so that at times it is hard to tell which is which. At its best, these moments double as efficient character sketches, as in this sole appearance by Leo, a teacher cum photographer who does a sideline in cutting Nico’s hair:
‘I only do one kind of cut,’ he said, eagerly rubbing his hands together. ‘I hope you like it. And if the esteemed client wishes to continue to make use of my services after the war…’
This sort of neat character summary in a line or two is surely what led Prose to her high praise: many longer-winded novelists could learn from this. If fiction can be described on one spectrum as ranging from the “full of blah” (you know the sort of thing I mean) to “entirely devoid of blah,” then Comedy in a Minor Key, quietly and without triumphalism, presses itself firmly to the latter end.