After the stunning success of Irene Nemirovsky and Hans Fallada , two rediscovered novels about World War Two and resistance to Germany are racing up the bestseller chart. Jacob Silverman on the genius of Hans Keilson.
The literary world prides itself on discoveries—tales of a South American genius plucked from third-world obscurity, or a new hot young thing emerging from the entropic mass of the slush pile. The sense of randomness is often emphasized: the discoverer—likely some hardworking editor—merely stumbled upon greatness. These stories create, as for an auctioneer, a useful sense of provenance, providing grist for marketing copy and newspaper profiles.
In recent years, major literary discoveries include the Russo-French-Jewish writer Irene Nemirovsky and Hans Fallada, a German who quietly opposed the Nazis. Both have fascinating, tragic life stories. Nemirovsky, who waged battle with her own Jewish identity, perished at Auschwitz, and Suite Francaise, her previously unpublished novella-cycle, earned spectacular acclaim (and sales) when it appeared in 2004. Fallada, a problem drinker, was harassed by the Nazi leadership, incarcerated in an asylum, and died in 1947, aged 56, weeks before the German publication of Every Man Dies Alone, an anti-fascist novel that has been a major success for indie publisher Melville House, which published the book in English last year. Both authors are worthy of the press they received: these novels would not have caught on without resonating within the larger culture. But the notion of discovery is a distorted one, for both writers have long been known in Europe. Nemirovsky was a bestseller in her day, and for Fallada's mix of political activism and literary acumen, the German city of Neumünster has given out the 10,000-euro Hans Fallada Prize for the last 29 years.
It's important, then, to keep one's eyes on both sides of the literary-and-commercial divide when another alleged discovery comes along, particularly in an age hungry for the lurid sheen of memoir-style truth. But, as a critic and reader, it's thrilling when that writer deserves the hype. In this case, Hans Keilson, a German physician who fled to the Netherlands before World War II and later joined the Dutch resistance, helping to spirit downed pilots and Jews out of the country, is such an example. Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just published two Keilson novels, The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key, that the author began writing while underground. Adversary was originally published in the U.S. in 1962, when it was praised by TIME magazine, making Keilson something like a re-discovery for American readers.
This is the first English publication of Comedy in a Minor Key, a slim and poignantly titled novel. Based on the author's time in hiding and dedicated to the Dutch couple that sheltered him, Comedy tells the story of Wim and Marie, a married couple in their mid-twenties, who take in Nico, a fortyish Jew fleeing Germany. Early on we learn that Nico dies from pneumonia, and the difficulty in disposing of his body in a Dutch village where everyone is known to each other forms part of the story's dark humor.
Keilson, who last year celebrated his 100th birthday, authored a major study on trauma in child Holocaust survivors, and in fiction he's equally adept at mapping his characters' psychologies. In a number of flashback chapters, he charts the mental toll exacted on all three characters, reluctant partners in a dangerous but intimate scheme. Wim, a bookkeeper, and Marie, a housewife, are what Flannery O'Connor might call "good country people"—honest folks doing what they see as their "patriotic duty" in the midst of the Nazi occupation—but they're terrified at the thought that anyone could be an informer probing for information.
Nico is, understandably, more damaged. Taciturn, sickly, worried about his fellow Jews (his parents have already been murdered), he rarely is able to leave his hideaway. When he does, for short walks on moonless nights or for the occasional meal, these evanescent periods of freedom are thrilling. In one ritual, he watches the newspaper deliverywoman approach and then steps out of his room to hear the paper come through the mail slot; "the seconds that followed next were often the richest in tension and suspense of his whole concealed life."
Keilson employs his psychiatrist's training in a far different way, yet to equally stirring effect, in The Death of the Adversary. The novel centers on an unnamed narrator, a young man, living in an unidentified country that's clearly Germany. Though the world "Jew" is never used, the narrator is undoubtedly Jewish. And though he refers to the charismatic demagogue who's rising in reputation (but has not yet assumed power) as "B.," we know that this other man is Adolf Hitler. (Later, the narrator potently summarizes B.'s effect: "gradually he altered everything, the attitudes of children, their language, their looks, their gestures, just as he had altered my parents.")
Hans Keilson's work transcends his enthralling life story, and it stands as testament to the diabolical circumstances he outlived.
The refusal to name—people, religion, country—in Adversary may seem like a stab at universality through generality, but there's a clever method at work here. Calling Hitler "B." strips away some of the reader's hindsight, the iconic images of the dictator's verbal fire and brimstone, the accreted layers of painful history. In its place, Keilson brings to the fore the narrator's bewilderment at the changing times and makes us a partner in his obsession with his oppressor ("we were bound to each other by the ties of an enmity in life and death"; "I needed him"). We follow as his increasingly baroque philosophizing leads him down rabbit holes of denial and accommodation. The resulting story is an authentic vision of 1930s Germany, one in which few could predict the horrors ahead—and those who did were often faced with the very sort of disbelieving and self-deceiving people represented by our narrator.
Ultimately, The Death of the Adversary is about this young Jew's tortuous journey from naiveté to a painful acquiescence—as he prepares to leave his country and his parents behind—about the truth of Hitler's murderous promise. It's not a journey that provides comforts, nor should it, but it is convincingly told.
Conceived in the same crucible, these two novels form a sort of diptych, about life under occupation and about life that is becoming unlivable. Death of the Adversary even contains the phrase "comedy in a minor key"—the narrator's reflection that, in this era, absurdity prefigures madness and comedy is but a prelude to tragedy. Buoyed by such insights, Hans Keilson's work transcends his enthralling life story, and it stands as testament to the diabolical circumstances he outlived.
Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, The New Republic, and many other publications.