Hans Keilson, a retired psychiatrist of German birth who lives in Amsterdam, was four months away from his one-hundred-and-first birthday when, in August 2010, the New York Times critic Francine Prose pointed her magic pen and declared his two long-ago novels, Comedy in a Minor Key (1947) and The Death of the Adversary (1959), to be “masterpieces” and Keilson himself “a genius”. The centenarian – from interviews a man of engaging humour – was not overly impressed. During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands he had cared for Jewish children separated from their parents, and the study of the effects of sequential trauma on children became his life work; it is his professional publications he cares about. Nevertheless he happily admits he would like someone to resuscitate and translate his first novel, published in Germany in 1933 and hopefully titled “Life Goes On” because, with his own history supplying the skeleton of the stories he tells in his novels, “you would then have the whole biography.”
And what a biography it is. As we all know now and some predicted then, “life” did not “go on” for Keilson or any other Jew in Germany after the Nazis seized power in 1933. First they banned his novel; then they banned its just-graduated author from practising medicine. Two years later, in 1936, Keilson had suffered enough indignities. He and his German Catholic fiancée emigrated to the Netherlands, to be followed, after a dangerous delay, by Keilson’s elderly parents. His father, a decorated war veteran, had thought himself immune from persecution. Keilson recalls his own incredulity at the force of the Nazi assault: “I was so German … I thought they would not do this to me.”
In Holland the medical graduate worked as a sports teacher and casual musician, and also found time to write. When the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had 50 pages of another novel to bury before he farewelled his newly pregnant partner and went to live with a Dutch couple in Delft, where he practised medicine under the alias Dr Van der Linden, worked in the Dutch Resistance and began caring for those traumatised children. By 1959, the 50 pages had grown into The Death of the Adversary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208pp; US$14.00), a novel about a nameless German Jewish youth’s obsessive fascination with the looming, glowering figure he calls “B”: Adolf Hitler. (The word ‘Jew’ does not appear in the text, but suffuses it.)
The Death of the Adversary is a kind of perverse bildungsroman, enacting the bitter process by which an intelligent, introspective boy experiences and interprets rejection, first by local playmates, then by long-term friends – as an intimate reveals himself to be an infatuated member of Hitler Youth – then by new – as an attractive young woman gaily leads him into a den of Nazi thugs. He comes to recognise the necessity of paranoia: “Enemies will never die out in the world,” because “they are recruited from former friends.” Meanwhile, he struggles to fathom what he assumes to be the powerful attraction behind B’s obsessive hatred of Jews, which he is convinced is somehow focused on his own person.
This dark narrative comes decoratively wrapped. A manuscript is entrusted to a Dutch lawyer by a mysterious German to be kept against his return; at war’s end the lawyer, who knows the owner–writer has died as a (surely implausible?) Resistance hero, hands the manuscript to a friend; the friend narrates it to us. Why the pass-the-parcel routine? Presumably to mark the document as a case study: a note-in-a-bottle from an unmapped psychological terrain now presented for our analysis (think Lolita, think Humbert). As the novel begins the writer is rapturously contemplating the death of The Adversary, with whom he is mythically twinned:
It is death, death, that guides my pen! … I have seen few who were equal to the death of their enemy … A rushing in the sky, as when a strong, ancient tree is cut down, an arrow, shot into the glittering blue of winter: my mind is in a festive mood, my enemy is entering the white land of his death.
Death is the consummation of the mysterious intimacy between the obscure narrator and the world-historical B: an intimacy the more powerful because it is secret. So why does he write its history?
I do not want to rouse the suspicion that I am sitting here trying to write a novel … I write because the movement of the nib across the paper relaxes one tension in me and gives rise to another, pleasurable one … Circumstances make it advisable to remain in my room and to go out as little as possible … All I am doing is to write down what comes into my head and has the power to move me.
We are being invited to enter the mind of a practising paranoid – but with a twist. Powerful, dedicated persons are out to kill this fellow, along with the rest of his kind.
In mesmerisingly naturalistic scenes, Keilson traces the interior evolution of this beset creature: the glances, inflections and silences through which key relationships form, re-form, disintegrate; the treacherous search for stable meaning between experience, memory and the pulsing seductions of fable. Keilson’s dedication to psychiatry is manifest, as is the stunning moral and literary poise that enabled him to complete so intellectually daring a work under such turbulent circumstances: the war at last over, he reunited with his wife and child, retrieved his manuscript, requalified for medical practice, embarked on advanced psychiatry and psychoanalytic training – and somehow had the novel ready for publication (in Germany!) by 1959.
With The Death of the Adversary we ‘arrive’ only at the vacuous consummation of Death. Comedy in a Minor Key (to be released locally in June – Scribe Publications, 112pp; $22.95) is possibly more hopeful. (Published in 1947, it must have been written even more urgently.) It is a study of a young Dutch couple who take a Jew into their Amsterdam household to hide him from the Nazis. Again we hear the un-embarrassed biographical resonance, with Keilson dedicating the novel to “Leo and Suss”, the couple who sheltered him in Delft.
Wim and Marie are novices at illegality. They have to learn caution, then to unlearn it with “reliables”; they have to learn to live gently with a tormented stranger. All they know about “Nico” is that he had once been a perfume salesman. Now he sits in his room, plays chess against himself, yearns for the evening paper and (unknown to them) struggles with engulfing, obliterating terror. Through a string of minor crises Wim enacts calm, which is his way of dealing with the world. Marie, more naive and therefore more vulnerable, is a conventional housewife, going about her daily routines, fretting over the lack of meat to add flavour to the evening soup, not in the least ‘political’. (How well the young Keilson evokes her. Then I remember that Flaubert was not quite 30 when he embarked on Madame Bovary.) In time she will discover pride in her resourcefulness; through shared dinners and cups of tea, as the quiet tendrils of domestic affection begin to grow, she begins to discover her capacity to grasp something of Nico’s anguish. Meanwhile, for Nico, bereft of every person and object from a destroyed past, enduring a present bereft of choice and a future bereft of hope, the small neat house is a place of terror. As the slow months pass, his despair deepens, his private rituals to restore some vestigial sense of self become more desperate.
Then he falls ill with an ordinary illness; Wim and Marie nurse him tenderly, call in a “good” – meaning “reliable” – doctor; Nico dies anyway. His corpse will have to be abandoned under a park bench at dead of night. But first, yielding to a powerful impulse to honour his death in the Jewish fashion, they wash the body, dress it in a pair of Wim’s pyjamas, swathe it in a blanket … to discover that by a tiny oversight they have put themselves at bitter risk, and must go into hiding. Over the next empty days Marie will suffer the beginning of the erosion of self that Nico endured to the end.
Nico’s death also means the death of a fantasy Marie had come to cherish: at war’s end the three of them – she, Wim and Nico – arm in arm, emerging from the house to stroll together while neighbours exclaim in admiring astonishment. The victory of the modest and ordinary over war’s systematic insanity.
You don’t get the chance to save someone every day … It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction. And then you’d feel that you, you personally, even if only just a little bit, had won the war.
With Nico dead, “it all had gone up in smoke. It wasn’t even a dream anymore.” This is called a “comedy” by a man careful with words. Are we being invited to celebrate the obdurate decency of ordinary men and women, the ‘banality of good’? Possibly so – but also to recognise its desperate fragility. Nico had been damaged beyond repair; now Marie is damaged too, because she has learnt to fear her fellow humans. She now knows the dread of impersonal malice. She is also wiser, tougher, more compassionate: she has dared to try to fathom the depth of Nico’s despair; she has experienced the raw passion to protect a fellow human who suffers. A “comedy”, then – but in a “minor key”. And even this harsh story might sweeten actuality. Keilson represents the bulk of the Netherlands’ police and population as “reliably” anti-Nazi yet, while there were only about 200 German police in Amsterdam, more than 100,000 Jews were flushed from hiding and deported direct to death – presumably through the action, inaction or acquiescence of Dutch police and civilians. Keilson’s mother and father were among those gathered up, then murdered in Auschwitz. Their son acknowledges their deaths to be the great guilt and grief of his life.
It is clear from his novels that Keilson, with his scrupulous observation, his elegant deciphering of the flickering subtexts of trivial interactions, above all his intrepid expeditions into interior darkness, would become a great psychiatrist. Is he also a great novelist? Here I come up hard against the problem of translation and what it does to a reader’s ability to assess, even to be aware of, the rhythm and melody of the original sentences. Imagine the slow coils of WG Sebald’s sentences chopped into neatly stackable lengths. (On this insoluble issue see Julian Barnes’s magnificent essay on the perils of translating Madame Bovary in the London Review of Books of 18 November 2010, where you will also enjoy the distinctive rhythm and melody of every Barnesian sentence.)
Keilson’s current publishers chose to leave The Death of the Adversary in its 1962 translation by Ivo Jarosy: a translation condemned by one critic as “stilted”, praised by another as “supple”. Lacking German I cannot judge, though “stilted” it often sounds to me, especially in contrast to the warmer, simpler prose of Damion Searls’s translation of Comedy in a Minor Key – a translation Prose describes as “eloquent”, an idea that grows the more peculiar the more you think about it. Some of the Searls translation I like very much, especially the opening pages, which make complex music out of the thrum of English night bombers en route to Germany: as I read I thought, How good this Keilson is! But here is Marie at the moment she realises her small, terrifying mistake:
She turned around and Coba looked into two wide-open eyes that were filling with fear from one corner to the other, from one second to the next, fear overflowing the eyelids over her whole face and down her neck and running down into her arms and her whole body …
That might be how spilling fear would feel – but would it look like that? I would say this was, in Barnes’s term, a “clunk”. But who’s to blame? Is Keilson a genius? Are his novels “masterpieces”? I doubt we can know. But read them. They will enthral you.
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