A Jewish gentleman — a student of psychology, a violinist and above all else, stratospherically above all else, a writer — makes the wise decision to exit Germany in 1936. In hindsight, the decision to pitch camp in the Netherlands was less wise. By 1941, he is in hiding. By the end of the war, he will be among the rarefied 24 percent of the Netherlands’ Jewish population to survive.
The gentleman is Hans Keilson. He has holed up in Delft. He has a degree of wary mobility. He is able to visit Gertrud, the non-Jewish woman with whom he fled Germany and with whom he has a daughter in 1941. She lives across town with the little girl. Just a block away hides a 22-year-old Jewish woman, Hanna, with whom he is having a tormented/self-seeking sexual intimacy. He starts a diary in 1944 because “writing does not make a diary unnecessary — it requires a diary, presupposes it. The issue is an art that comes only from ‘life’ — a courage to strive for truth. Nothing else.”
So then, not the easiest-going of gents, and certainly not for the two women in his life. “But what about Gertrud, will I find my way back to her? … still so full of surprises and tenderness. But how will I stand it. Not at the expense of my writing.” And Hanna, after the secrets between them melt away: “I have the feeling of having sucked everything out of her it’s possible to get, like out of a lemon … and then turned it into poetry.”
Morality and experimentation clash. “It’s like when you take another path to the goal than the one you’d originally planned, but, having chosen it, never give it up to the bitter end, so as to appreciate the strange new beauty of the surrounding landscape.” From the bed to the head: “an experience not fully undergone can often be so oppressive and difficult.” He tunes in Rilke: a poem embodies experiential “ways of being, which we have to reveal completely in order to grasp a given experience as the expression of lived life” — the accumulation of traces that make us. Still, “I’m not so rotten yet that I can’t feel ashamed!”
He will encounter more profound discomforts but his most dire grappling is with his writing. “I approach art musically. I hear from the sentence how the melody should continue … So little success … Recopy, scrutinize, shift things around. Endlessly. After initial satisfaction come deepest despair.”
Now, at 35, “I’ve lived … in a state of high tension, especially the last few years, when I was writing more.” Forget the jackboot kicking in the door; Keilson’s greatest fear is the next sentence, the next word — to be not only right but true, moving to higher ground.
“1944 Diary” ends with the 46 sonnets he wrote that year, each as fit to burst as Diamond Jim Brady’s trouser buttons after dinner (Keilson makes little note of also scribbling his novel, the super, touchingly gallows-humored “Comedy in a Minor Key”).
Despite the sonnets’ obscure economy of means — no room for fancy dancing, no matter how sincerely felt — here is found the man’s humanity, the tender and daring vulnerability. Keilson is the poster boy for Fitzgerald’s holding two opposing ideas — awareness and denial, flappable and detached — to taste disobedience but feel the solemnity of a father’s covenant to his child, and to turn it into poetry.
Peter Lewis is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in New York.
By: Hans Keilson, translated from the German by Damion Searls.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 227 pages, $25.