Thursday 16 June 2016



A penetrating study of ordinary people resisting the Nazi occupation - and, true to its title, a dark comedy of wartime manners - Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of Wim and Marie, a Dutch couple who first hide a Jew they know as Nico, then must dispose of his body when he dies of pneumonia. This novella, first published in 1947 and now translated into English for the first time, shows Hans Keilson at his best: deeply ironic, penetrating, sympathetic, and brilliantly modern, an heir to Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka. In 2008, when Keilson received Germany's prestigious Welt Literature Prize, the citation praised his work for exploring 'the destructive impulse at work in the twentieth century, down to its deepest psychological and spiritual ramifications.'

Published to celebrate Keilson's hundredth birthday, Comedy in a Minor Key - and The Death of the Adversary, reissued in paperback - will introduce American readers to a forgotten classic author, a witness to World War II and a sophisticated storyteller whose books remain as fresh as when they first came to light.

A short 1947 book read back in March for Past Offences Crimes of the Century meme………oops a tad late posting then.

Secrecy and a sense of claustrophia prevails as Wim and Marie hide Nico upstairs in their house.  No telling Wim’s sister, the cleaning lady, the fishmonger who cleans the fish every week in the kitchen, no telling the neighbours. “Good people” or not someone will gossip. Jop had been caught three days ago – he was careless, he had been betrayed. Who knew which?

Nico stays in the room. A trip to the bathroom every hour and a half. No looking out the window, no turning on the light. No sneaking down the stairs in the afternoon when the paper is delivered. We’ll have to wait for Marie to bring it to us when she returns.

Marie gives Nico the news regarding Jop……..

She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything – the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love. The man offered it up to her so shamelessly that it felt to Marie like she was seeing him physically naked. No cry out loud, no contortion of his face or his hands, he was simply uncovered, he stood in the middle of the room, the focal point and the bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows shot at him from beyond life.

On cleaning day…….

He heard the women’s footsteps stomping heavily through the house, heard how she carried the laundry into the bedroom, how she moved around with the vacuum cleaner and carried out her other duties. The nearness of another human being, even one who he knew harboured no suspicions, stirred up the tense quiet and solitude of his room.    

A few months later……..

Once in mid-October…..when the cleaning lady was in the house, Nico heard someone slowly coming up the stairs at around four o’clock.

Marie with the tea, he thought, and stood up. Why is she taking such deliberate steps? Maybe she’s carrying her tea, or some laundry?... He crept to the door and waited. The steps came closer………right up to his door. There was something tense inside him. It’s Marie, I’ll take the tray from her. He carefully opened the door.

Before him stood the cleaning lady…breathing heavily…….Her pains were back………..She held the laundry bag pressed tight against her chest and looked with astonished eyes, at the man who suddenly stood there in the doorframe turning dead white.

It’s all over, Nico thought. He understood that he had done something stupid that could never be made right again. He staggered and shut his eyes………  When he opened his eyes again, the woman still stood two steps away from him in the hallway. Her suffering face now wore an understanding smile, which also made it possible to see the gaps in her teeth. Nico put the index finger of his right hand to his mouth, nodded slowly and sadly at her with his contorted face, and gently shut the door……

Nico lay with sweat on his bed, as though paralysed, his face covered with both hands. He no longer knew if the encounter had been real or just a dream. His head ached.

Life (but not as we know it) continues…….. until Nico falls ill and dies and his Dutch hosts have the problem of disposing of his body in the German-occupied city.

Enjoyable, interesting, educational and a reminder of both man’s humanity and inhumanity at the same time.

4 from 5

Hans Keilson died in 2011. Read about him and his life – Wikipedia and his Guardian obituary.

Referred to as a “genius” and “the greatest novelist you’ve never heard of” – I’ve spotlighted him on the blog before……. 2 BY HANS KEILSON.

Well worth hunting down at least one of his books, in my opinion.

Bought copy. Read in March, 2016.


  1. This does sound really interesting, Col! And I like it when an author can evoke a time and place as well as tell a good story. I think I may have to look this one up!

    1. Margot, it's a short book and I think you would like it. It's drawn comparisons with Anne Frank's Diary. Semi-autobiographical I suppose because Keilson himself had to seek refuge during the war and was hidden.

  2. Col – This sounds like a good one, but a bit too heavy for summer reading. I will check it out later.

    1. Elgin, I know what you mean. It's a bit intense.

  3. I think I'd like this story, Col. I have always been interested in reading stories on the periphery of WWII and particularly in Nazi Germany.

    1. Prashant - I think you would enjoy this one. Quite sobering.

  4. This sounds excellent, if sad, definitely on the point where our book tastes collide. Making a note now.

    1. Moira, it's a book that stays with you. I hope you "enjoy" it - possibly not the right word.