Book Quote:

“Everywhere, in the grip of death, life goes on too.”

Book Review:

Review by Helen Ditouras  (DEC 16, 2010)

To be comfortable in the world of the Kafkaesque, one must slowly climb up the literary ladder, page after page, year after year. My journey began with the likes of V.C. Andrews during my tawdry youth, and then eventually reached its pinnacle with Tolstoy, and of course, Kafka. Aside from my literary snobbery (which is nothing short of a veneer – I still love me some Sidney Sheldon), having entered Kafka’s abyss of absurdity and horror makes Hans Keilson’s novel, Comedy in a Minor Key, not only recognizable, but entirely brilliant.

But I hate to take credit where it’s not deserved. I am not the lone genius who has pegged Keilson as a contemporary of Kafka – many literary critics have beat me to the punch, and rightfully so. Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key (published in 1947), is also followed by The Death of the Adversary, published in 1959, and shares some very distinct characteristics – both aesthetic and thematic, with the aforementioned tale. His minimalist prose are skillfully juxtaposed with themes of tragedy, which reflects his work as a psychiatrist post WWII, and his pioneering developments in the effects of war trauma on children. Trauma, as a reoccurring theme, resonates throughout his work.

Keilson’s Comedy ironically reveals the story of Nico – a Jewish perfume salesman hidden in the second-floor room of Wim and Marie, a benevolent Dutch couple, during Nazi-occupied Holland. In this room, Nico’s life is carefully preserved by the couple, who manage to go about their daily lives amidst the dread of exposure. Yet apart from the terror, all three characters lead lives that border on the painfully banal. Day after day, Nico anticipates the moment when Marie can deliver the daily paper upstairs. Both Wim and Marie too look forward to the clandestine conversations they share with Nico when the sun goes down. These small, but endearing rituals, keep the trio bound in camaraderie and secrecy, while Europe’s Jews are detained and annihilated. Yet despite the fact that Wim and Marie carefully tend to Nico each day, he eventually succumbs to a feverish illness which takes his life in the very room that promised sanctuary.

I refuse to spoil the novel by revealing the climax, so I will return to my musings of the Kafkaesque. Keilson deliberately avoids discussion of the occupation and its horrors in order to set the stage for the deep ironies that the novel comically uncovers. Nico is similar to Joseph K. – he is seemingly persecuted simply for existing. Both characters are confined in psychological isolation, and neither of them foresees an end. Moreover, the world in which Nico and Joseph K. live in escalates into mystery and unfathomable trepidation, with little respite. Like Joseph K., Nico endures the fear that comes to epitomize his entire existence.

Comedy in a Minor Key perfectly conveys the trauma that ordinary people experience during their life span. But more importantly, it also imparts the illogical dimensions of oppression that afflict people all over. That misery sometimes cannot be avoided at any cost is the philosophical conclusion that Keilson’s Comedy cleverly relates with pathos and farce. Keilson’s message reverberates clearly: pain and suffering is universal, and sometimes, the only way to communicate this anxiety is through humor. (Translated by Damion Searls.)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 28 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (July 20, 2010)
REVIEWER: Helen Ditouras
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Hans Keilson
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
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December 16, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Classic, Holland, Reading Guide, World Lit

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