Comedy in a Minor Key--Hans Keilson

Prowling through the aisles of my local library, looking largely for science fiction and dark fantasy, I stumbled across two books by Hans Keilson.  Mr. Keilson appears to be Belgian and he celebrated his 100th birthday last year.  I have not heard or seen any sign that Mr. Keilson is no longer with us, so I assume he is still going strong.

Comedy in a Minor Key written in 1947 and the translation date for the work is 2010.  It is a story set during World War II.  Wim and Marie, a young Belgian couple, agree to take in Nico, a Jew.  Many in their community have performed similar service and most seem to be favorably oriented toward the Jewish community.  Still, there is a great deal of risk involved.  Nico succumbs to pneumonia while staying with Wim and Marie and so the story is propelled forward.

Comedy in a Minor Key is a comedy in the classic sense of that word.  While there may be some dark humor á la The Trouble with Harry, there is little or nothing that is outright funny here.  The story is a sort of reverse holocaust story.  We know the holocaust is happening and we know the danger people who protect Jews are in.  But the high notes of this composition are the struggle of Nico to be grateful for the refuge given the huge burden he imposes on the family and which is imposed on him--living largely as a voluntary prisoner, confined to one room most of the time, isolated from family, friends, and those with whom he used to associate.  The story centers around this struggle and the struggle of the young couple to keep their cool while playing host to a person whose presence could mean work-camps or death for them.  Against this dark back-drop of themes the action of the short novel plays out.

What is remarkable is the way that even in translation, this subtle tension is teased out and this conflict of emotions is enacted.  The writing is simple, subtle, to the point,   the story pointed and poignant.  This is a very different Jewish chronicle of the war and as such, worthy of attention.  We get a perspective that is very unusual because we too infrequently here about those few who did escape the camps.  Here we do and the tale told is fascinating and compelling.

Highly recommended *****


  1. I plan to read Death of an Adversary in the next several weeks, or months. Francine Prose's review in the NY Times made an impression on me. K

  2. Dear Kevin,

    I have that one on my TBR pile as well. I may take it up after three "light reads" I have lined up. (And maybe after a retake of _The Master and Margarita_).

    Thanks for your note, I'll need to see Ms. Prose's review.




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