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Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel
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96 of 97 people found the following review helpful
on August 9, 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.

Keilson expertly reveals the realities of three deeply human characters living in an impossible, alienating situation. This short novel reads smoothly and feels deeply contemporary - with all the existential absurdity of a Beckett play and the character foibles of a Jonathan Franzen novel. Comedy in a Minor Key is a rare find, and I am deeply grateful that it has finally been published here.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2010
Format: Kindle EditionVerified 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.

Comedy in a Minor Key is ultimately a beautiful look at the way lives are influenced and changed through the circumstances of life and how we may never be able to truly understand someone until we are sitting in their place, experiencing their nightmare. I highly recommend this novel and am grateful that it has finally been translated after more than 60 years.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 10, 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. Despite Time magazine's listing it as one of the ten best magazines of the year, aside Nabokov's "Pale Fire" and Porter's "Ship of Fools," Keilson unfortunately fell into obscurity in the English-speaking world.

Translator Damion Searls' revivification of his work is admirable and deserved, even while I found this "Comedy in a Minor Key" to be much less rewarding than "Death of the Adversary." The former is a small, personal, intimate picture of human identity and frailty touchingly conceived, but it felt underdeveloped to me. Its size, at a mere 135 pages, gave me less time than I would have preferred to get to know Wim, Marie, and Nico. "Death of the Adversary," however, deals with looming, world-historical forces that are at work in our lives, with bigger, abstracter ideas, and was probably for that reason more compelling for me. My rating of three stars here might be a little low. I didn't know whether to go with three or four, but I can't see myself rereading it any time soon, so I chose three. I would recommend to anyone interested in Keilson that they read "Death of the Adversary," which I found to be truly spectacular.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
In an occupied country, civil disobedience becomes patriotic duty.
Wim and Marie are a normal, childless couple in their late 20s, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during WW2. They are not normally given to exuberant emotions or declarations of pathos. They are willing to hide a Jewish refugee from Germany, a perfect stranger, in their house. The organizer of the network had appealed to Wim's patriotic duty, successfully. In other cases he would appeal to Christian charity or humanitarian obligations.
How do you hide a stranger? How do you keep the cleaning woman, the milkman, the postman, the fishseller, the sister, the friend and her child, the police from noticing the secret lodger? How do you feed him and wash for him? How do you get his hair cut and how do you keep him amused? Where do you find the reading matter for him? How do you make sure that he does not go crazy? How do you handle the inevitable nervous outbursts, the conflicts about nothing that crop up when people are locked up together? How do you care for him when he falls ill? Or, one up on that desaster scenario: what do you do with the corpse if he dies in your house?
Keilson knew what he wrote about. The long-story (in the German edition it is not called a novel)is dedicated to the couple who helped him in a similar situation. The book was first published in German in 1947. It seems to have sunk like a stone. I grew up without ever hearing of Keilson, until he was rediscovered by an American translator a few years ago. Keilson has just died aged 101. His small fiction collection has been published in one Fischer pocket book: 2 autobiographic novels, this long-story and a short story. Fischer had also been his first publisher in Germany in 1933, right in time to join the ranks of the banned authors..
I would be curious to see any reviews from 1947.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 31, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Comedy in a Minor Key takes the form of a classical story which gives a "happy" ending to the reader, though not without roughing up our sensibilities. A young couple in Holland agree to take a jewish man into hiding during WW II, and the evolution of their relationship, from strangers to awkward intimates, allows the author to explore the inner psyche and motivation of his engaging characters. The reader feels a steady dramatic tension, partly owing to the concern that he will be discovered, but also the internal tension of the central characters, who chafe at confinement and the need for a continued pretense. There are useful metaphors that create a foggy atmosphere: the coveted third rate tobacco they share, the stranger's secret stash of Lucky Strikes, his chosen alias, Nico. His lungs will betray him in the end. Gaunt, ashen, feverish, emaciated, dressed in pajamas, he dies the same slow death of his compatriots in the concentration camps. His death causes an ironic turn of events that allows the author to turn up the gas on Nico's protectors, exposing them to what it is like to be deeply afraid and rootless.

This spare volume is a provocative, timeless story that should be widely read. Its elegance lies in is its seeming simplicity, but is full of nuanced and poignant dilemmas. It would make an excellent discussion book for book clubs or students.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
The plot of Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel by Hans Keilson is simple and understated and to give a synopsis here would only diminish its impact. It is a commanding, unorthodox story rich with irony and dark humor that held me completely captive. With Keilson's economy of prose this novella is one of the most intensely suspenseful stories I have ever read. Yet at the same time it is also one of the most sympathetic and charming.

The title is curious but a well chosen one. One does not usually equate comedy with the Holocaust but in this case it is dark comedy which applies to the twist and turns in the lives of an ordinary Dutch couple, Wim and his wife Marie, who as their patriotic duty resist the Nazi occupation of their country by taking into their protection a Jewish man they know only as Nico.

This novella of 135 pages is best experienced rather than merely read quickly. Keilson's prose is beautiful and sweet, powerful and stirring. With a penetrating and intimate honesty he reveals the psychological calculus of a man in hiding from the Nazi cattle cars and of those compassionate individuals who hide him and protect him. It is a short tale but an unforgettable one and it can be read in a matter of hours, but I must tell you this... I could not turn its pages fast enough and every moment of my absorption was spent rigid on the edge of my chair.

I was most riveted to the suspense of those things Keilson left unsaid in this beautiful novella. It is completely understood without explanation the risks Wim and Marie take in hiding Nico and it also goes without saying what awaits Nico if he is discovered by the Nazi police. In fact, when left to the imagination the reader can empathize even better with the fears, frustrations and resentments of Nico and his protectors, and has no other choice than to keep turning to the next page and the next with rapt attention.

Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel was first published in 1947 and was translated from its original German only recently by Damion Searls in 2010. From the dust jacket we learn that this fine novella's author was born in Berlin in 1909 and he published his first novel in 1934. During WWII he was in the Dutch resistance and after the war he became a psychiatrist specializing in war trauma in children. At the time of this first American publication, Hans Keilson celebrated his one hundredth birthday near Amsterdam. He died on the 31st of May 2011 at the age of 101.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on December 11, 2011
Format: Paperback
I already have, with its painters and architects, with its musicians, with its canals and bike paths, with its philosopher Spinoza, even with its sublime green pea soup - "Snart" - one of the masterpieces of 'folk cuisine' of the world. And I could fall in love with "de Folk" for their good humor, tolerance, and attentiveness to their own business. Now, after reading "Komödie in Moll", I could fall in love with their pragmatic courage and decency -- though there were no doubt "fascistische varkens" among them too -- exhibited in their resistance to the Nazi occupation and their concealment of Dutch Jews in their homes at risk of their very lives.

"Comedy in a Minor Key" is the tale of such a year-long concealment, by an ordinary young Dutch couple, of an older Jewish man, a stranger. It's a short book, about 130 pages in he English translation, a classic European novella which spends few sentences on description and focuses tightly on a single episode in its characters' lives. The style is as modest as in a novella by Josef Roth; in fact, comparison to Roth is the best I can offer as a guide to the merit of Keilson's writing. Keilson was himself a German Jew, born in 1909, a pharmacologist who fled to Holland in 1936. In 1941 he went into hiding, living with a Dutch couple in Delft, but emerging from concealment to work with the Dutch Resistance in counseling Dutch and Dutch-Jewish children whose parents had been reft from them by the Nazis. That experience with childhood trauma would become the core of his post-war career as a psychologist. Keilson lived to the age of 101, dying in May 2011.

Keilson's literary oeuvre consists of two novellas, this one and Der Tod des Widersachers (Death of the Adversary), both recently translated in English. "Comedy" was first published in 1947; it clearly depicts Keilson's own experience as a concealed Jew, and though the novella recounts a tragedy, it's a supremely uplifting humanistic affirmation of decency and sympathy. "Death" is a darker, more complex, fiercer psychological revelation, a first-person narration of a solitary Jew's thoughts about assassinating Hitler. I've reviewed that novella previously.

Great catastrophes need the assuagement of great art and writing. It seems to me, as a reader, that the greatness of wartime and post-war German literature is just beginning to be available and appreciable for anglophones. Keilson's serious literary oeuvre is tiny - just these two novellas - but powerful.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 13, 2011
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I enjoyed and appreciated the beautifully written--make that perfectly written--slim little novella, Comedy in a Minor Key. But it is a quiet and serious little story, not funny. I think the word "Comedy" is used ironically in the title, but there are other reviews here saying "Oh yes, it is so amusing, aptly titled," etc. I can't figure that out.

Nonetheless, "Comedy in a Minor Key" is a graceful little story, chock full of human nature and human suffering, and life as lived by the unfortunate people in the book, who are struggling to survive during wartime.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 12, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This story of a young Dutch couple who hide a Jewish stranger for a year in their home is a gem. Wim and Marie are not committed to a cause or outraged by outside influences, but they are ordinary, decent people acting out of human kindness. The narrative is presented elliptically, probing the emotions of the couple and the man they know as Nico who dies of pnemonia before liberation, thus presenting a dilemma of how to dispose of the body. The comedy referred to in the title is more about the claustrophobic circumstances and pitfalls the arrangement provides. Although written in 1947, it is only now available in a new translation. It may be that the success of and interest in the books of Irene Nemirovsky and Hans Fallada are giving new life to this genre of "lost" masterpieces from mid-century Europe, and I hope that more of Keilson's books are made available
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Hans Keilson, who died on 31 May 2011 at the age of 101, escaped Hitler and was helped by the Dutch resistance. Though a doctor, he was also an accomplished writer. The novella Comedy in a Minor Key was published after the war and tells the story of a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who are quickly persuaded by arguments of doing the humane thing, Christian charity and Dutch patriotism, to hide a Jewish man, Nico, in their home. As the story opens, Wim, Marie and their doctor are standing by Nico's bed, stunned that he has died of pneumonia. The story cycles in and out of their existence together, but also addresses the suspense of disposing of the body, very risky business. There is a plot turn at this point that I won't get into, but suffice to say there is more suspense.

This is also a terrific character study of the human condition, tackling risk, fear, the problem of being saved yet imprisoned, the satisfaction of doing the right thing and, ultimately, disappointment. Marie had always envisioned she, Wim and Nico triumphantly dancing out of the house together on Liberation Day and his death cheats her of that satisfaction. And it's the irony of it all that leads the author to call this a comedy, however in the key of sad music, because it's like that gimmick in a stage comedy where the audience is expecting a character to emerge from the curtains on one side of the stage and is looking over there when he suddenly appears out of the other.

Keilson gets emotion down right and his characters are charmingly, wryly human. He's a natural storyteller. Though I don't speak the language in which it was written, the translation offers up a strong sense of authenticity. The book flows swiftly and can be read in an evening. This reissue, published in America for the first time, was on the shortlist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award.
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