“Comedy in a Minor Key” by Hans Keilson – Too Low Key?

This is my review of Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson.

I was inspired to read this by the recent obituary for the author Hans Keilson, who died aged 101. Forced to flee as a young Jewish man from Nazi Germany to the Netherlands, he drew on this experience to write this short novel about a Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, who agree to hide a Jewish man in their spare room, only to find themselves confronted with the problem of how to dispose of his body after his untimely death.

With its focus on the mundane practicalities of ordinary life, this book seem very realistic, but is mostly saved from seeming boring by the author’s ability to create drama out of simple incidents. Without giving too much away, there is the scene where Nico, the Jew in hiding, is drawn downstairs by the smell of milk burning on the stove at the very moment when the fishmonger knocks on the door, expecting to gut some fish in the kitchen for Marie. Even though you know that “it will be all right”, this is a situation of real tension, as is also the case when Wim and the doctor remove the body from the house under cover of darkness. Having said this, I think the book would have benefited from more heightened drama, say at the end when the couple are uncertain whether or not they have “got away” with their subversive act of harbouring a Jewish refugee.

Revealing his insight as the psychiatrist he later became, the author provides telling descriptions of the characters’ small shifts in emotion. For instance, despite his gratitude, Nico hates a vase that Wim brings home and begrudges the couple their pleasure in it, because it symbolises the freedom that he has lost to go out and buy a luxury item on a whim (no pun intended).

I agree with the reviewer who found the shifting back and forth in time at the beginning rather confusing, although I do not think it matters unduly. However, in terms of structure, it might have been more moving to show the relationship growing up between Nico and his saviours, without knowing from the outset that he is going to die. When this death comes, it could have been portrayed as more of a shock. I also found the characters a little wooden at times, and did not care about them as much as I thought I should.

Although much of the translation is excellent, a few passages seem rather trite, such as the account of Wim and Marie’s relationship after Nico has died. I think this weakness has to be laid at the author’s door, and the final pages – which should be the climax of the book – are somewhat rushed and, as stated above, to be a missed opportunity for a final burst of powerful drama.

I am left uncertain as to how “good” a writer Keilson was. Is his understated approach a strength, or the result of a limited capacity to express himself? He has used his knowledge to create a compelling situation, but could he have done more with it?

Perhaps we should appreciate a writer who steers clear of overblown prose. The odd observation stands out, such as the use of the description of the door of Nico’s room after his death to convey how his visit has changed the couple’s lives permanently:

“The black door handle remained at the horizontal, as always.

But it seemed to them both that the door was closed in a way it had never been closed before.”

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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