Hans Keilson's "Death of the Adversary"
, Star Tribune
Pushing on, in the hardest of times
- Article by: DYLAN HICKS
- Special to the Star Tribune
- January 1, 2013 - 4:40 PM
German Jewish writer Hans Keilson's third and final novel, "The Death of the Adversary," found support among critics and readers when first published in the United States in 1962. It had been almost entirely forgotten, however, by 2010, when Farrar, Straus & Giroux reissued it along with the first English translation of Keilson's swift second novel, "Comedy in a Minor Key." Following celebratory reviews, Keilson was abruptly lifted from obscurity to something close to literary celebrity; the fact that the 100-year-old writer was alive to enjoy the renaissance made the story even more welcome.
Keilson grew up in a town about 30 miles east of Berlin. He escaped Germany in 1936 for the Netherlands, where he spent the war in hiding and working with the Dutch resistance. His parents died in Auschwitz. He remained in the Netherlands for the rest of his life, working mainly in psychology, a field in which he did influential work on the effects of childhood trauma.
"Life Goes On" (FSG, 288 pages, $15) is the novel Keilson wrote before his exile. Published in 1933 and banned by the Nazis the next year, it's an autobiographical account of a provincial family trying to muster a "miserable, limping survival" as the worldwide Depression worsens during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Johann Seldersen, an unassuming textile merchant, is growing increasingly desperate in the teeth of dunning creditors and slow-to-pay debtors. His son, Albrecht, finds solace in books and in a few friendships, one with an older intellectual mentor, another with a troubled, adventuresome peer. Albrecht eventually goes to university in Berlin, where he plays in a dance band and begins to develop a political consciousness.
Written when Keilson was only in his early 20s, "Life Goes On" is unsurprisingly the least distinguished of his novels. Although his empathy and budding intelligence are apparent, his novelistic chops remain in development. He didn't impose a plot on the material, and the storytelling often lurches even when the potential for drama is high. The prose, translated by the polyglot Damion Searls (who also handled "Comedy"), sometimes achieves a refined simplicity, but at other times is redundant and rather too plain. Still, the book's pacing is suited to the family's grinding descent into penury, and the country's unrest -- one character warns of "the path of thugs and male hysterics" -- becomes deeply ominous in hindsight.
The narrator of "The Death of the Adversary" circumspectly "avoid[s] all names and direct references." Here, too, Keilson doesn't always spell things out: Political organizations are unspecified, for instance, and the Seldersens aren't identified as Jewish. Perhaps especially because of this, a few endnotes illuminating the book's historical context would have been useful. An afterword by the author, originally written in 1984, compensates somewhat. Though readers are advised to turn first to Keilson's outstanding later work, the English debut of "Life Goes On" fills a gap both in Keilson's corpus and in 20th-century European fiction.
Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician and author of the novel "Boarded Windows."
© 2015 Star Tribune