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Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel Paperback – August 2, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

A German Jew who survived the war by hiding in Holland, Keilson later became a psychiatrist and published the first systemic study of children who had suffered from Nazi persecution. This selection is one of two novels Keilson began writing during the war. Its better-known sibling, Death of the Adversary (Eng. trans 1962), explored the thoughts of an oppressed man; plotless and psychological, it was something of an aesthetic experiment. Not previously translated, Comedy in a Minor Key takes a different approach: it tells the story of a Jewish man who dies in hiding from the perspective of the Dutch couple who shelter him and dispose of his body, and offers only slight clues as to the thoughts of the man in hiding. The story is simple and lean, but irony is plentiful, particularly when the couple must themselves go into hiding after realizing that tags bearing their name were left on the deceased’s clothing when his body was discovered. In spite of potentially comedic elements (and its title), most readers will not find this to be an essentially humorous book. They will find, however, a brisk, engaging work of Holocaust literature that deserves to be better known. --Brendan Driscoll --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“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 . . . Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author’s eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name . . . Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers.” —Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

“This first-ever English translation of Keilson’s gripping 1947 novel about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish perfume merchant in their home during WWII marks a welcome reintroduction to the author’s unfortunately obscure oeuvre . . . Beautifully nuanced and moving, Keilson’s tale probes the more concealed, subtle forces that annihilate the human spirit.” —Publishers Weekly

“[Comedy in a Minor Key’s] design is so neat, spare, and geometric that to think of it is like tapping a spoon to a crystal glass.” —Yelena Akhtiorskaya, The Forward

“A brisk, engaging work of Holocaust literature that deserves to be better known.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

“What Keilson had experienced, body and soul, went into this precisely composed book, which succeeds in capturing the tragedy of countless anonymous victims alongside the grotesquerie of the individual tragic case.” —Ulrich Weinzierl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reprint edition (August 2, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374532850
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374532857
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.4 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,109,795 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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96 of 97 people found the following review helpful By C. R. on August 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who conceal Nico, a Jewish perfume salesman, in their spare bedroom for a year during World War II. For Wim and Marie, their generosity isn't born out of political passion or response to injustice, but rather a sense of decency and neighborly kindness. In contrast to heroic war tales of the resistance and defiant rebels, Wim and Marie naively stumble through the awkwardness of a housing a stranger on the run from the enemy. The clumsiness of living with a stranger and riskily concealing him takes a dangerous turn when he passes away from illness, and the two are forced to dispose of his body.

Hans Keilson is enjoying new attention with English language readers due to the first English translation of Comedy in a Minor Key even though it was originally published in 1947, as well as the re-issue of his book The Death of the Adversary. This slim volume (only 135 pages) quietly relates a bleakly funny tale about human compassion that is startling and deeply affecting.

What I find so exciting about this work it wryly breaks expectations. As Marie observes thinking about the man they have concealed "He had defended himself against death from without, and then it had carried him off from within. It was like a comedy where you expect the hero to emerge onstage, bringing resolution, from the right. And out he comes from the left." For Wim, Marie, and Nico, their actions aren't those of heroes. Marie feels slighted by her guest concealing from her, Wim fumbles in banal yet clandestine operations, and even Nico commits selfish acts. In their efforts to do something grand, life in all its accidents and frustrations interrupts.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Robert Brooks on September 3, 2010
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Comedy in a Minor Key is a truly phenomenal short novel. The title reveals a great deal about the subject of the novel: a dark, almost absurdist comedy set amongst a traditionally sad background. The novel centers around the lives of three characters: A married couple, Wim and Marie, and their "guest" 'Nice' who comes to join Wim and Marie out of the necessity of the times.

Kielson adeptly develops the characters of all three characters, helping the reader to feel as though they were (1) the "man of the house" in WWII Belgium seeking to do the right thing, (2) the housewife forced to deal with the everyday realities of hiding a man in her home without allowing the neighbors to find out and (3) the man hiding in the upstairs bedroom of a couple he never knew because his background makes him eligible for death. Kielson moves from the mind of each character frequently, sometimes within the same paragraph, forcing the reader to think about the same conversation through each person's lens.

Kielson also employs a narrative device that is particularly powerful in the novel: he moves back and forth in time without warning or background. This often gives the novel the feel of being timeless, almost infinite. This is especially effective when considering the point of view of Nico, as he (and anyone in his situation) must have felt that time almost stood still at moments, and then suddenly jumped forward with events of great magnitude. Kielson helps the reader to have similar emotions, sometimes feeling that time was almost standing still and then suddenly a great burst of information or events would occur.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Certain Bibliophile on November 9, 2011
Format: Paperback
The premise is simple enough. A married couple, Wim and Marie, decide to take in a Jew named Nico during World War II. In hiding him, the comfortably middle-class Wim and Marie learn what it means to live the precarious life of a Jew in 1940s Holland, in what would have otherwise been a set of rather ordinary circumstances. Soon afterwards, Nico becomes ill and eventually dies in their house, leaving the couple in the unique position of needing to dispose of a body no one can know they had there in the first place. They eventually leave him wrapped in blankets in a nearby park, but soon discover that they might have left a clue to their identity behind. Therefore, in a wonderful turn of irony, Wim and Marie are themselves forced to instantly flee their house for fear of being discovered by the police.

The title is beautiful and wholly appropriate to the story. Juxtapositions are everywhere: there is the comic lightness of opera bouffe as Wim and Marie try to figure out how to get rid of Nico, but also the crushing dramatic realization of how this has all come about because of how some humans have chosen to treat others; the interplay of the quotidian as the couple go about their day-to-day existences in war-torn Holland with only the audience to find that this will one day be a place of grand historical importance.

Writer Francine Prose recently wrote in a piece in the New York Times that she has come to include Dutch writer Hans Keilson in her personal list of the world's "very greatest writers." On that alone, I took up Keilson's "Death of the Adversary," and was just as impressed.
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