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The Death of the Adversary: A Novel Paperback – July 20, 2010

4.0 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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

“A welcome reissue of a classic . . . This psychologically subtle and acute account of denial in the face of Hitler's rise to power received strong acclaim before disappearing from print. With the celebration last year of the 100th birthday of Keilson . . . the novel has lost none of its insidious power . . . The narrative recalls the existential depth of Camus and the fabulist absurdity of Kafka or Beckett.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The power of the unsaid haunts this devastating novel . . . A profoundly affecting exploration of the inextricable nature of love and hate, friend and enemy, Keilson's work . . . is as stimulating today as it was half a century ago.” ―Publishers Weekly

“Since Adolf Hitler, an outpouring of writing has tried to explain the violence that human beings do to one another . . . Perhaps the profoundest explanation to date comes from the pen of a Jewish writer driven from Germany in 1936 and now living in Holland. Hans Keilson's novel subtly and eloquently probes the ambivalent relation of victim with aggressor . . . Keilson traces the growth of hatred in his leading character as other writers trace love or self-knowledge.” ―Time, Best Books of 1962

About the Author

Hans Keilson is the author of Comedy in a Minor Key. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. In a 2010 New York Times review, Francine Prose called Keilson a "genius" and "one of the world's very greatest writers." He died in 2011 at the age of 101.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Reissue edition (July 20, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374139628
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374139629
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #595,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is a brief novel that is not beach reading. First translated in 1962 from Dutch into English, it is a psychological examination of how good people merely watched the rise of Adolf Hilter in the 1930's. It was written by Hans Keilson, a German Jew who fled to the Netherlands before World War II, participated in the Resistance against the Nazis and made the Netherlands his permanent home after World War II. The book is not a thriller, but an inner dialogue of a future victim who can not comprehend the evil he is observing. The prose is in a detached style with sentences that needs to be re-read again and again to fully understand them. It is worth reading.
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Format: Paperback
What is the relationship between persecutors and their victims? In The Death of The Adversary - poised on the brink of what soon will be one of the world's most horrific tragedies - an unnamed narrator in an unnamed country reflects on an unnamed figure who will soon ascend to power. Although the figure ("B") is never revealed, it soon becomes obvious that he is Hitler and that the narrator is of Jewish descent.

The narrator - who bemoans his own passivity - is blessed, or cursed, with high intelligence. Because he is unable to come to grips with evil for its own sake, he twists his logic to make sense out of the insensible; he knows B hates what the narrator represents, but he believes that the narrator desperately needs that hatred and, in fact, feeds on it...eliciting hatred in return. He goes further: in his "logical" mind, he believes that the adversary and his victims are in a state of symbiosis, feeding upon each other and because of their mutual need, neither adversary will eliminate the other. History, of course, has sadly shown how ludicrous this conclusion was.

The key character muses, "I could not give him up; I needed him. His existence meant my destruction in the near future, that much was certain. But his sudden death, or some other event that would have robbed me of his threatening presence, would equally have destroyed me. Between us two, ties and obligations had come into being, perceptible only to those whose share in the things of this world lie in suffering. A strange and questionable share, perhaps; but who can break the community that secretly establishes itself between the persecutors and their victims?"

Mr. Keilson uses a conceit in presenting these musings; his fictional (or autobiographical?
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At 100, German-born Jewish author and psychoanalyst (among a variety of other things) Hans Keilson, was surprised to say the least when he read Francine Prose's glowing praise of two of his WWII era novels in the Sunday NYT book review. The re-released novels were "masterpieces", she wrote, the author "a genius". For Keilson, who fled Nazi Germany for the Netherlands in 1936, such praise is merely icing on the bittersweet cake of his life. During the war, he had been unable to convince his parents to escape the motherland early enough. Although they were able to defect eventually to the Netherlands, they'd been too old and sickly, and had never really been able to sense the gravity of the danger they were in. Keilson's parents were soon deported and died at Aushwitz; he still suffers with guilt to this day. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Keilson reacts to Prose's words by confessing that his scientific work in the field of psychoanalysis is truly more important to him in the scope of his life than any of his novels.

At the outset of one of those novels, Death of the Adversary, the narrator explains that the manuscript herein was given to him by a Dutch lawyer, who had, two and a half years into the war, obtained it, along with other important personal documents, from a client of his, an enigmatic German, a mystery man of sorts. The anonymous author had entreated his attorney to keep these papers in a safe place until such time as he could retrieve them. "Read them and tell me what you think of them" says the lawyer to his friend, the narrator, who presumably is a psychiatrist of some repute.
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This book left me devastated. After reading the last page I still felt the book around me and could not leave it. So I did a cyber flick-back through the book to see my highlights, and was surprised to see that I could see not only what I had highlighted, but the highlights of other the other Kindle readers as well. And not only was I surprised at this discovery, but at the fact that what I had highlighted had been highlighted by the others.

"They turned into wolves and devastated cemeteries at night. But however much they tried to appear like wolves, they were not animals. It was not just a question of what they did and said, but also of what they had to keep silent about."

- Thoughts of the protagonist after spending an evening with young Nazis.

In "The Death of the Adversary" the "adversary" and his followers are not named. The adversary is merely referred to as "B", and his followers as his followers. Similarly the central character is not labeled by himself as Jewish. Merely as "other".

And so when we read of him being outcast by the other children when he was very young, and about how his mother takes him by the hand to lead him back to the children to ask them to please play with him, the effect is even sadder than it would have been, had its circumstance been explicit. 'There,' my mother said, and tried to loosen her stern, serious face into a smile. 'He's a child like you. You are all children, play with one another."

For some reason, perhaps because I had never completely comprehended the real horror of it before - the effect of the persecution of the Jewish children in Germany, Poland, Czech ...., I was struck by this scene, where the child feels only humiliation and anxiety when the children turn reluctantly to play with him.
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