Thursday 20 January 2011

'You don’t get the chance to save someone every day'

Comedy In A Minor Key
by Hans Keilson
(translated by Damion Searls)

Hans Keilson was 101 at the end of last year (Happy Birthday Hans!) so he has had to wait quite a while for the literary spotlight to shine on him. It isn't that it hasn't at all until now as a recent profile in The Guardian pointed out: in his early twenties he might have expected his first novel to do well if the Nuremberg Race Laws hadn't led to it being pulped by his publisher a year after publication, and he was rubbing shoulders with some pretty august company in Time magazine's books of the year list in 1962 but never went on to have the glittering success of the other names like Borges, Faulkner, Nabokov or Roth. He doesn't have a huge body of work to rediscover like those authors but as Francine Prose pointed out in a fantastic review in the New York Times,

For busy, harried or distractable 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.

Vintage Classics will publish The Death of the Adversary in the summer but Comedy in a Minor Key is already available from Hesperus Press in a new translation from Damion Searls and it is indeed a little gem. In fact it is the kind of book that I would hate to spoil by too thorough a review, the pleasure is there for you to discover yourself. Wim and Marie are an ordinary Dutch couple living in Nazi-occupied Holland, Wim a bookkeeper approached one day by a colleague and sounded-out about providing shelter for a Jew in their home. Without thinking about it too much they agree to and it isn't long before the man they will know as Nico, a perfume salesman, enters their household. They are unused to carrying a secret like that and it is a while before they can muster the courage to tell Wim's sister about the arrangement. When they do they are surprised by her response.

'Excellent. How old? That'll work. Older and they're already too fossilised. I had wanted to ask you two for a long time if you'd take someone in.'
'Really? Would you have done it too?"
'One? I'd take two or four! Just not three together, that's bad in arguments and so on. It's always two against one. By the way you don't have anyone else waiting in the wings, do you? I need to take in another three soon.'

That should give you an idea of the tone of the comedy in this book. There is something comfortingly British about the domestic comedy of manners, so that with Nico in the house the couple worry not so much about the potential peril of hiding him but the awkward reality of having someone else in their home. This tone is all the more surprising not only because of the extraordinary circumstances but also because we know from the beginning of the book that Nico has done that most inconvenient of things and died of natural causes whilst under their protection. How to get rid of the body?

This doesn't mean that what unfolds is a Ladykillers-style comedy of body disposal (near the end of this clip) although there is something of that too. This is comedy in a minor key and so Keilson splits his narrative into three parts. As Wim removes the body, with the help of their doctor, to be abandoned under a park bench, Marie goes through Nico's belongings and discovers, in a book all about secrets, the tiny but somehow significant secrets he might have hidden from them. We also look back to Nico's incarceration and the confusion of a man grateful for sanctuary but who cannot hide his souring outlook behind the ever-closed curtains of his room.

He was turning into nothing. It was unbearable. It meant his annihilation, his human annihilation, even if it - maybe - saved his life. The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly.
  How proudly they had given him this room, how gratefully he had received it. How imprisoned, abandoned and wretched he had felt in it. The loneliness of loneliness. He had never liked to spend too much time at home, and now he had to. A spring arrived, a summer, an autumn...behind the curtains.
Is it possible for a man to be grateful to those that hide him but hate them too? Is it possible for a woman to feel remorse at the death of that man but also anger at that death for failing to deliver the moment of victory and vindication that she had so desired? Yes, because these are the complexities of human thought and emotion as rendered so expertly by Keilson in this wonderful novella. In my limited experience as an actor I have learnt that the best plays combine comedy and tragedy, characters that are both sympathetic and repulsive; complicity is all. Make the audience laugh one minute and hold their breath the next and you're in a position to take them wherever you want. The big achievement of this book is the restraint employed; Keilson is gently devastating. An understanding of our contradictory impulses feeds into a story that is both humane and unflinchingly honest, humorous and desperately sad, short and yet as fully rounded as you could want it to be. Some books delight because they subvert your expectations, surprise you, and sometimes it is very simple.

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. Later, though, the audience members go home surprised, delighted, and a little bit wiser for the experience. They feel that the play did turn out a bit sad after all, at the very end. We thought he would enter from the right...


Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews 5 November 2011 at 02:11  

Wonderful review. I have this title in my TBR pile and am looking forward to it even more now. With Dutch relatives and a love of 'comedy of manners' this sounds pitch perfect for me.

William Rycroft 5 November 2011 at 07:16  

Thank you Jo. From what you say it seems like this novel may well be perfect or you. I hope you'll pop back after reading it to let me know how you got on...

Max Cairnduff 16 November 2011 at 15:35  

I dug this out again after reading your (excellent) review of The Adversary. I'm back in Amsterdam mid-December and may well take this with me. The quotes are tremendous, and the word masterpiece I know isn't one you use lightly (you use it in the other Keilson review).

On a slightly different note, when in your opening paragraph you referred to Nabokov or Roth I assumed you meant Joseph. It was only on reflection I realised you probably meant Philip.

William Rycroft 16 November 2011 at 17:05  

Brilliant, I hope you do read it in Amsterdam, how appropriate. It's a really enjoyable book and a measure of Keilson's awareness of himself that he chose to write just two pieces of fiction in his life but made sure that they were both brilliant.

It was indeed Philip Roth I meant although I understand your assumption otherwise.

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