As Darkness Falls

For busy, harried or distractible 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.

First published in the Netherlands in 1947, “Comedy in a Minor Key” is only now appearing in English, in an eloquent translation by Damion Searls. “The Death of the Adversary” (skillfully translated by Ivo Jarosy) appeared here in 1962, but has long been out of print. Born in 1909, their author, the centenarian Keilson, lives with his wife in a village near Amsterdam where until recently he practiced medicine, a profession he followed in his native Germany until the Nuremberg laws forced him to flee to the Netherlands. There he was active in the Dutch resistance and later became known for his work with children traumatized by the war.

Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author’s eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for story­telling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name.

This unusual strategy is employed throughout “The Death of the Adversary,” whose narrator, a young man growing up during the ascendance of National Socialism, is at once obsessed with Hitler and unable to speak or even think the name of the Führer, whom he can refer to only as “my enemy” or, occasionally, “B.” The word “Nazi” is never mentioned, and only the most coded allusions are made to the fact that the protagonist is Jewish.

The challenges and rewards of this technique are most striking in a pivotal, devastating scene. Our hero is visiting a young woman with whom he works at a department store, and on whom he has a crush, when their pleasant evening is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of her brother and his friends. Almost instantly, without much being said, the narrator and the reader grasp that the intruders are Nazi thugs, just as it is obvious to the intruders that the narrator is a Jew. After a strained, abstract conversation about the burden of having a conscience and the relief of shedding that burden, the youngest of the goons is encouraged to describe a “secret assignment” in which he has participated. His story is long, gripping and almost unbearably horrific, though no one is hurt in the commission of this crime but a few of its inept perpetrators.

Listening, the narrator analyzes his own reactions with a characteristic detachment that is at once coolly clinical, incantatory and overwrought: “You’re a swine, I thought, not to get up and put an end to this disgusting and disgraceful performance. It did me good to call myself a swine, and at the same time I suffered under it. His story aroused all the fury and hatred hidden within me, I suffered under it and at the same time it did me good to suffer. I could have wept, and at the same time it did me good, like a father who is beating his child with tears in his eyes and experiences the twofold delight of being able to beat it and to suffer under it at the same time.”

With seeming effortlessness, Keilson performs the difficult trick of showing how a single psyche can embrace many contradictory thoughts, and how naturally extreme intelligence and sensitivity can coexist with obtuseness, denial and self-deception. To say that reading this novel makes it impossible not to understand how so many European Jews underestimated the growing menace of ­Nazism is to acknowledge only a fraction of its range. In fact the novel shows us how human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truths of their private lives and their historical moment.

Coded language and circumlocution are also factors in “Comedy in a Minor Key,” but the novel’s tone is lighter and indeed comedic, its subject not violence but the goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence. Wim and Marie, an ordinary Dutch bookkeeper and his wife, have agreed, more from reflexive decency than careful reflection, to hide a Jewish perfume salesman whom they know only as Nico. Unlike the resolute resistance heroes familiar to us from books and films, Wim and Marie are dithery and uncertain, desperately trying to do the right thing beyond the right thing they are doing. Fretting over the serious and trivial problems of sheltering Nico, they seem to have wandered in from a Beckett play or a Katherine Mansfield short story.

Nico dies of natural causes, inspiring a series of elegant plot twists. And Wim, behaving with a typical mixture of tenderness and anxiety, disposes of the body in a nearby park. Only after the corpse has been found, rescued from under a bench, does Marie allow herself thoughts that seem plausible, unexceptional, yet wildly brave in how much they reveal about the secret workings of the heart. Having grown attached to their boarder, she is grief-stricken, but also slightly annoyed at the surprising turn things have taken:

“And then, too, there was a small, all too human disappointment left over: that he had died on them. You don’t get the chance to save someone every day. This unacknowledged thought had often helped them carry on when, a little depressed and full of doubt, they thought they couldn’t bear this complicated situation any longer and their courage failed them. . . . She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. . . . How the neighbors and everyone on the street would look when he suddenly walked out of their house and strolled up and down the street with them. 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. It all had gone up in smoke. It wasn’t even a dream anymore. None of the three of them had any luck. But really, him least of all. Poor Nico!”

That passage should give you some sense of Hans Keilson’s particular and astonishing gifts. Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers.

Francine Prose’s most recent book is “Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.”


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