Needless to say, we were totally unprepared for the demand for these books that ensued on the publication of this review, so I, too, had to wait several days to find out for myself what she was talking about.
The Death of the Adversary was published in translation in 1962 but subsequently disappeared; Comedy in a Minor Key, originally written in 1947, is published in translation for the first time. Keilson, who is still alive at age 100, was born in Berlin and was a practicing physician; he moved to Holland in the mid-thirties after the Nazis prevented him from practicing his profession, and still lives there. (On a personal note, I should mention that my mother was born in Berlin about a year after Keilson was, and also went to Holland in the mid-thirties; I would very much like to know if they knew each other).
The Death of the Adversary is the more complex and psychological of the two books. The first-person narrator tells of an unnamed country in an unspecified time where an unnamed figure seeks to and eventually does attain full power; this figure hates the narrator and the narrator's kind of people, but the narrator derives from that the feeling that the leader desperately needs that hatred, feeds on it, and therefore the narrator himself seeks to return the hatred of his adversary, believing that they in fact therefore have a great deal in common. He also believes that because of this mutual necessity neither adversary will actually harm the other--a belief that of course turns out to be tragically mistaken. The narrator is eventually able to flee to a neighboring country--Holland--just as Keilson did, although his parents were left behind.
The most riveting scene in the book (which Francine Prose also mentions) describes an evening in the home of an attractive young woman with whom the narrator is just beginning what he imagines will be a romantic relationship, which is interrupted by the entrance of her brother and a few of his friends, who turn out to be thugs in the thrall of the new movement — this is still before it has taken power — one of whom describes in exhaustive detail a raid that he and some cohorts made on a cemetery in their town, defacing the gravestones and monuments. The narrator is entranced and horrified by this story, unwilling to admit that he is one of the "others" but also unable to join in their maniacal pursuits.
One should bear in mind that nowhere in this book do the words "Hitler", "Nazi" or "Jew" ever appear. This is powerful stuff.
Comedy in a Minor Key is also apparently somewhat autobiographical. It tells the story of a very ordinary young couple in occupied Holland who take in a fugitive and keep him — or try to keep him — hidden, but notwithstanding their best efforts he grows ill and dies; this is followed by bumbling efforts to remove and conceal the body.
This is a much less intense book than the other, its sense is disarmingly simple and sincere. The young couple, Wim and Marie, is depicted as relentlessly ordinary but their courage is all the more compelling for this treatment of their personalities. Keilson may well have hidden in some such house, but it is even more likely that he was involved as the Doctor who appears in the story.
These books really must be read together. They are important human documents and also strong support for the notion of the importance of literature. Keilson apparently wrote only one other book (published before he left Germany), and devoted the rest of his life to medicine and psychology, so these books will not open floodgates of undiscovered masterpieces from this author. Do seize the moment and read these two; you will be impressed as with few other books as to the resilience of the human spirit.
— Jeremy Nussbaum
Order The Death of the Adversary (paperback, 14.00) and Comedy in a Minor Key (hardcover, 22.00) by Hans Keilson