Review: Comedy in a Minor Key

Being ordinary amid the tumult


By Hans Keilson (Trans: Damion Searls)
Hesperus Press, £9.99

Our fascination with the Holocaust derives in part from the insights we assume it affords us into the way ordinary people behave under extreme conditions. There is nothing so unusual or heroic about the decision of Keilson's young Dutch couple to harbour a middle-aged Jewish man on the run from the Nazis but by shining a light through the cracks created in everyday existence by the altered circumstances in which his characters find themselves, Keilson is able to achieve a subtle yet powerful effect.

Though first published in Germany in 1947, Comedy in a Minor Key appears in English for the first time only now in Damion Searls's first-rate translation.

Keilson wrote the book when he was a German-Jewish refugee, hiding in the same circumstances as Nico, the Jewish anti-hero of his novel. He remained in Holland after the war and became a psychiatrist specialising in children suffering from war trauma. He shows himself an acute observer, alert to the minutiae through which character emerges.

Nico's female benefactor, Marie, is chiefly exercised by the successful performance of household chores and garners psychological insights from women's magazines. Though in a safe-house, Nico is deprived of the elements that gave substance to his former life (one is reminded of Viktor Klemperer's meticulous detailing of the gradual erosion of his existence as a Jew in Nazi Germany). Once his world can shrink no more his body also begins to disintegrate until he is consumed as surely as his counterparts in the camps he has escaped.

His death leads to the classic comic trope of surreptitious corpse removal "Some poor devil," remarks a milkman when his discarded body is eventually discovered under a park bench. "It'll probably turn out to have been a Jew." Marie, meanwhile, is wounded by the discovery that he had been concealing and enjoying cherished American cigarettes. It is a betrayal of confidence, a secret he had dared to keep from those who had been sharing a secret of so much greater import, and the prism through which she finally becomes aware of "the spark in him, the splinter of the great fire that burns in the world and that we call Life."

Nico's mundane death exposes the egocentricity that must surely qualify all apparently selfless enterprises: "Why," asks Marie, "did precisely the one who was hiding in their house have to die a perfectly ordinary, normal death?"

Keilson's anti-heroic cast come to life in unfussy, precise prose that never crowds its subject matter or clouds the truths it evinces. His occasional golden periods are merited by the crisp simplicity of what precedes and follows, and mirror the penetrating insights he gives us into his characters.

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