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.


  1. Oh, I don’t know. I quite like the first cover! The second looks a little too ‘murder-mysteries-for-teens’-esque.

    The first excerpt there, in particular, promises something very good indeed. I will certainly invest in a copy.

  2. Not wishing to hijack this potential comments thread into a cover aesthetics moan fest, but I’m with Lee. I like the Hesperus cover!

  3. I’m glad to have noticed, as I skimmed your last paragraph, that you have the “full of blah” and the “entirely devoid of blah” spectrum. As apt a measure of literary excellence as anything I can think of!

    I read Prose’s reviews yet I still haven’t picked up either of the books (well, that’s not true — I’ve picked them both up a number of times but I’ve never made it to the cash register with either). I imagine some of it is a bit of resistance to the neglected/lost masterpieces of World War II since I anxiously started reading the last two (I can think of) — Suite Francaise and Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone — due to their tremendous back story, but then abandoned them after finding that I didn’t particularly like the books themselves. It sounds like I’m foolish to let that get in the way of this book (and I’ll admit to the strong possibility I’m foolish to not enjoy the Némirovsky and Fallada).

  4. I loved this book, and am glad it finally turned up in English–Hepserus announced it as coming out in 2008 originally, when I first pre-ordered it, and it kept not appearing and not appearing.

    Keilson’s life is fascinating, too: he was a Dutch Jew in hiding much like Nico, and later went on to become a psychologist specialising in helping traumatised children, like those who survived the Nazi death camps. He’s still alive at the age of 101! Unfortunately this and ‘Adversary’ seem to be almost the sum of his fiction–most of his writing is psychological papers. There’s obviously something to be said for writers who produce only occasional books, but make every word count.

    By the way, if anyone can tell me what the cover of ‘Adversary’ actually IS, I’d be very grateful: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/P/0374139628.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_.jpg

  5. I read this over the holidays and loved it. Keilson has a much different literary style to either Nemirovsky or Fallada (although it did remind me of certain bits of Every Man Dies Alone/Alone in Berlin). The subtle, though unarticulated contract between the couple and Nico – the couple will do their best to hide him, but he also has to play his part by not taking undo risks that could expose both himself and the couple to danger – is so delicately done in small, yet potent scenes. I don’t want to give away the last bit, but while it was a bit rushed – it was quite ironically delicious.

  6. I quite like the Hesperus cover too, certainly more than the second one. I have to admit though I don’t like the Hesperus style as much as Melville or Pushkin either.

    The book though, that sounds rather fun. The idea of an ungrateful rescueee (what an odd word that looks, probably because I made it up) is rather clever and the whole thing sounds spry.

    Nemirovsky for some reason has never tempted. Probably something to do with the incredibly generic covers they get.

    The Franzen’s not growing in memory then I take it?

  7. From the covers, I take it that a bench in a park is key character?

    Loved the review, am intrigued by the book. Publishers should shower you with riches, because you just made another sale.

    I am tempted by Nemirovsky and Fallada, but haven’t taken the plunge. I think I will start my “re-discovered” reading with this one (and the forthcoming Sandor Marai).

    For the record, I prefer the not-Hesperus cover. The first one inexplicably hints of baseball to me.

  8. I think it’s the lighting that makes you think of baseball – a floodlight bleacher…? And yes, the bench does play a central role.

    Incidentally, apropos of JRSM’s comment about Hesperus announcing it in 2008 but not releasing it until recently, someone pointed out to me earlier this week that their edition of the book seems to be between printings – certainly online booksellers have no availability. Bricks and mortar stores probably a better bet.

  9. Hmm, looks like I’m the only one who likes the second cover a bit more, but that might just be because I’m a sucker for black and white…

    I really like the idea of “entirely devoid of blah”. In my mind, a novella should be exactly that – clean, concise mastery. No padding just for the sake of padding.

    I went to Wikipedia (is it a place now…?) to read up on Keilson and I have to admit that his life story really is enough to get me interested in his writing… Plus: music themed title. Already a point in my books!

  10. I love “devoid of blah” as a measure of literary achievement. Been meaning to comment on this post for days, but haven’t quite managed to conjure the haiku-style post I desired… Anyway, thought I should stop lurking for once and chip in to say how much I enjoyed this review. And how interested it has made me in the book – which is as good a measure of a review as the blah content.

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