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Distinctive study in the psychology of occupation and resistance,
This review is from: Comedy in a Minor Key (Paperback)
'Comedy in a Minor Key' is a translation of Keilson's short novel - we would say 'novella' - 'Komödie in Moll' (1947). This was one of the first works of fiction published after the end of the Second World War to deal directly with the experience of occupation. Keilson, a German Jew, fled Germany in 1936 for Holland, going into hiding from 1941 and playing an active role with the Resistance in assisting other refugees. After the war, he enjoyed a distinguished career as a psychiatrist.
The novel's plot is very simple, and the jacket copy summarises it in a few words. A young Dutch couple agree to shelter an older Jewish man, who after living with them for a year or so inconveniently dies. They are forced to dispose of his body and then to await the outcome.
The 'minor key' to which the title refers is the prevailing mood, which is not one of dark despair but rather the suppressed, muted tenor of life among people who are living in limbo, unsure what the future will bring. Keilson deliberately avoids the blood-and-thunder clichés of the thriller: there are no frothing Nazis, no close shaves. The author has also chosen to tell his story in non-linear fashion, so that although the outcome is uncertain until the final page, certain dramatic possibilities are deliberately sacrificed to the overall effect.
The jacket blurb, apparently intoxicated by the words 'comedy' and 'minor key', hard-sells the book as 'farcical', 'dark and desperate', a comedy that threatens to become 'a black ineluctable tragedy' with 'moments of terror' - all of which risks disappointing the reader. In fact, the entire point of Keilson's novel is his focus not on the refugee's plight - though we are given insights into his state of mind - but on the young couple, who are forced to examine their own values and the nature of their feelings and relationship while leading a normal life so as to draw no attention to themselves or their guest.
All this happens quietly; 'sotto voce', as it were. The relatively flat emotional tone and the way in which the very real danger is kept in the background are unusually faithful to the texture of ordinary life. The result is convincing, but depends to a degree on the reader's powers of empathy and willingness to read between the lines of mundane events. At its best it reminded me of a less melodramatic version of those post-war dramas in which domestic banalities barely conceal an undercurrent of existential disquiet.
This is a modest book by an author of modest but genuine powers (perhaps better known in the Anglophone world for a later novel, ' Der Tod des Widersachers' (1959: translated as 'The Death of the Adversary', 1962)). Nonetheless, worth reading for anyone interested in post-war European fiction. This translation by Damion Searls, the book's first appearance in English, was a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction (won by Jennifer Egan's 'A Visit From the Goon Squad') on its appearance in 2010, in which year the author celebrated his hundredth birthday.