Arts & Culture

A Hans Keilson Primer

The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson has crawled to the top of my reading queue, not only because I recently read and loved Comedy in a Minor Key by the 100-year-old German/Dutch Jewish writer, but also because I’ve … Read More

By / September 14, 2010

The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson has crawled to the top of my reading queue, not only because I recently read and loved Comedy in a Minor Key by the 100-year-old German/Dutch Jewish writer, but also because I’ve become fascinated with Keilson personally. He’s gotten a lot of great press lately, mostly espousing that Comedy (originally published in 1947) has, until now, never seen an English translation, and Death has been out of print since the early 60s.  It is long overdue. In this month’s issue of The Believer, Damion Searls, who rediscovered and translated Comedy (both titles are available through Farrar, Straus & Giroux), wrote an article on Keilson with a title that pretty much says it all: "Man of the Century." If you go to Keilson’s Wikipedia page, you quickly learn that there are many names you can attach to his name.  Obviously novelist is one of them, but the two most intriguing are the fact that Keilson is a child psychologist who wrote about traumas relating to what happened in Europe during WW2. In particular, he worked with traumatized orphans.  If that’s not enough, he served time in the Dutch Resistance. All that might just seem like fodder for a good press release, but Comedy in a Minor Key was such a treat to read, that I’m inclined to agree with the Believer title that could be easily interpreted as pure hyperbole had it not been such an enjoyable book.  Keilson’s handling of the absurd is easy to grasp simply by reading the synopsis of the book: a Dutch couple take in a Jew during WW2, the Jew dies, the couple leave the body under a park bench, only to remember they forgot to remove pajamas with a monogram on it.  The Jew (both alive and dead) ends up working as more of a plot device than somebody the reader is supposed to have any attachment to.  It’s an interesting angle, and Keilson plays it like a master. 

While I read the book, all the imagery conjured up was in black and white, and I was reminded of books by Camus, Jakov Lind, and in some cases, Nabokov, but with a more gentle touch. 

Some links of note regarding Keilson:

  • Tablet discusses the authors works.