“Comedy in a Minor Key” by Hans Keilson

“Comedy in a Minor Key”  by Hans Keilson (1947)  – Translated by Damion Searls – 135 pages

Wim and Marie are a young couple living in what was called Holland during World War II.  The Germans have just conquered and are occupying Holland.  The Nazis are rounding up all the Jews, robbing them of all their possessions, and putting them on cattle trains bound for concentration camps.  Wim and Marie decide to hide a Jewish man in their house.  Why?  “Patriotic duty.”  “A purely humane act.”  “Almost everyone is doing it.”  “Christian charity for the persecuted.”  “It’s the only way we can fight back, the only way we can do anything at all to show that it is not right.  Civil disobedience.”

Nico is a middle aged man, a former perfume salesman, a Jew.  The Holland underground places him in Wim and Marie’s house.   At first as you can imagine, it is a somewhat clumsy situation, having a stranger living in your house, a stranger that must be hidden at all times.

A perceptive study of ordinary people resisting the Nazi occupation, this novella is probably the lightest read of any book I’ve ever read about the Nazi era.  For one thing there are no Nazis in the book, except their looming presence.  The main reason this is a light read are the personalities of Wim, Marie, and Nico.  All of the dialogue is very natural, mostly in very short sentences, just as people would talk in this situation.  Wim and Marie make a well-matched couple, and Nico fits in as best he can.  “Comedy in a Minor Key” is a fast-paced vivid read with its share of scary moments.

The author of this novella, Hans Keilson, started out as a German, a Jew, but also hid out in the Netherlands during World War II.  He actually wrote the first fifty pages of this book while he was in hiding from the Nazis.  However the character who is hiding in this novel, Nico, is not Hans Keilson, because Nico is somewhat older than Keilson would have been at that time.  “Comedy in a Minor Key” is dedicated “to Leo and Suus, in Delft”, the couple that sheltered Keilson while he was hiding.

The dust is finally beginning to settle around the World War II literary scene, and we are discovering or re-discovering just who the exceptional authors were.   So far, we have discovered Stefan Zweig, Irene Nemirovsky, Hans Fallada, Dawn Powell, and Hans Keilson.  Someday hopefully another generation will figure out who the great writers of the early 2000’s actually were.

Hans Keilson turned 100 years old eight months ago.

8 responses to this post.

  1. Not to mention Imre Kertesz (whom I’ve reviewed), and more. As I recollect the Nazis are mainly a looming presernce in Anne Frank too … but of course the outcome is not a good one in that book. Anyhow, this sounds like a very interesting book – with yet another slant – but oh dear, I am loaded up to the gills at present.


    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      I’m sure I’ve missed many of the writers that have been re-discovered from the World War II era. Thanks for mentioning Imre Kertesz.
      Your are probably very busy with your Australian writer project, and I want to mention that I will be highlighting an Australian writer in my post following my next post. It’s not one of the usual, but still very famous.


  2. Posted by winstonsdad on August 26, 2010 at 7:25 PM

    vasilly grossman as well could join that list ,I think the old saying of the cream rises ,serves books well what may be pouplar then may not have been the best same as the present time but after time well written prose ,still seem to sell and appeal to the reader ,with a timeless quuality to the writing ,all the best stu


  3. Hi winstonsdad,
    I’m not very familiar with Vasilly Grossman’s work, at least I don’t think I am. Somehow I suspect I read a couple of his books a long time ago and have forgotten him. Another writer from that era who I really like is Abram Tertz. He was a Russiam writer who was re-discovered in the early 90s but is in danger of being forgotten again.


  4. Its amazing really how much this era continues to fascinate. Sometimes I think its time to move on then another book comes to the surface and shows us that the events of the time were titanic, of eternal human significance and will never fade. I’ve read many books on the period – I’d rate The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell as the best, the most disturbingly horrible, the one that sticks in the memory the most.


    • Hi Tom,
      How come is it that “the best” books always turn out to be 983 pages? At least there is no waiting list for “The Kindly Ones”, 23 copies and none of them checked out.


  5. […] “Comedy in a Minor Key” by Hans Keilson […]


  6. […] reviews of Comedy In A Minor Key: Just William’s Luck; MC Reviews; Tony’s Book World; Mostly Fiction Book […]


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