You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Primal Place

Hans Keilson is not entirely unknown in America. His most important book, the autobiographical novel The Death of the Adversary, was published here in 1962, and was named one of Time magazine’s best books of the year. Among psychologists, he is also known for his seminal research on the psychology of traumatized children, particularly Holocaust survivors. But it is safe to say that Keilson’s name will mean nothing to most readers, and that the republication of The Death of the Adversary, accompanied by the first English translation of his novella, Comedy in a Minor Key, which first appeared in 1947, is effectively his second American debut. Considering that Keilson is a hundred years old—he was born in Berlin in 1909, and has lived in the Netherlands since the Hitler era—this gives his books an uncanny time-warp quality. Just as the Holocaust is slipping from living memory into history, he arrives bearing new testimony.

Reading Keilson is also a reminder that, when it comes to writing by Holocaust survivors, the word “testimony” is decidedly ambiguous. Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of a German Jewish refugee who is hidden by a Dutch couple during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and Keilson was a German Jew who survived the war in Holland; but there is no way to tell, from the text or any of the publisher’s accompanying materials, whether the book is based on his own experience or on the experience of someone he knew, or if it is wholly invented. On the face of it, it seems impossible that Keilson, who was thirty years old when World War II broke out and became a member of the Dutch resistance, could be identified with Nico, the sickly, middle-aged perfume salesman who is hidden by the stolid Wim and Marie. Yet the reader inevitably looks to the book for a certain kind authenticity. It is impossible to read it, or to judge it, in the same way we would a novel on the same theme by a writer born in 1979.

Considered strictly as fiction, Comedy in a Minor Key is fine but small. Keilson employs a familiar style of documentary terseness, full of short sentences and concrete, matter-of-fact details: “The stranger swept his hand over his hair”; “Then, at around four o’clock, Marie came upstairs with a cup of tea.” This kind of thing gives the book a cinematic feel, and it could be translated quite effectively to the screen. In one well-crafted episode, Nico smells milk burning on the stove, and assumes that Marie has forgotten it and left the house, and since milk is scarce and rationed, he decides to risk coming downstairs to turn off the burner. To his surprise, he finds that Marie is still there, and in the next moment, inevitably, the doorbell rings, and he must lock himself in the bathroom and hide while she tries to get rid of the neighborhood fishmonger.

What makes this more than a run-of-the-mill suspense story is the buzz of tacit reproaches that follows. It is clear to both of them that Nico has implicitly accused Marie of being a bad housewife by wasting the milk, and he fears that he will be accused in turn of being a bad guest by endangering his protectors. Only their gestures, however, hint at the nervous tension in the house. Discussing the episode at dinner afterward, Nico gives the table “a light blow of his fist,” while Marie “pointedly [looks] with great interest at the picture above the stove as though she were seeing it for the first time.” In moments such as these, Keilson sensitively depicts how heavily the burden of gratitude weighs on Nico, and how careful Wim and Marie have to be not to remind him of it.

Yet Keilson also deliberately robs such moments of their narrative power by revealing the story’s ending on its first page. When we first see Nico, he is already dead—not at the hands of the Gestapo, but from a simple chest infection. All the sacrifices that Wim and Marie make for him, all the risks we see them run, are known in advance to be futile. Worse, it turns out that the moment of greatest danger for them comes when they can no longer do Nico any good: disposing of his corpse, they make an elementary blunder that could set the police on their trail. If there is “comedy” here, it is a bleak and ironic kind, as in the scene where Marie almost trips over Nico’s corpse: “Since she had left the front room at full speed and shut the door behind her, she had no other choice, her feet acted on their own, defending themselves as though she were suddenly standing in front of an abyss, taking a couple of tiny steps and then jumping over Nico with a little leap, a small, barely noticeable jump, just enough to clear the body.”

In Comedy in a Minor Key, Keilson writes from the point of view of the Dutch couple rather than the Jewish refugee. As a result, the reader hears no more about Nico’s experience as Jew in Germany than the well-meaning but unimaginative Wim and Marie can guess:

“They have it hard,” Wim said. “They’re like rabbits, hunted. And now it seems like the off-season, when they’re safe, is over.”

“Why do they let themselves be hunted?”

“What else should they do?” Wim asked. “Run away or let themselves be caught…?”

“And yet they want to keep on being rabbits,” Marie said. “Can you understand that?”

“It’s their religion,” Wim explained.

It was not until he published The Death of the Adversary, twelve years later, that Keilson turned to these questions from his own, Jewish perspective. The back cover of the new edition of the novel says that it was written “while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II”—one imagines Nico secretly writing the testament that would explain himself to Wim and Marie. This makes it a much more interesting and ambitious book than Comedy in a Minor Key, and also, at times, a more troubling one. Even if Keilson did not actually write the whole novel while in hiding—I note that his German Wikipedia page says that only the first fifty pages were written during the war—it has the strengths and the flaws of a book written in the thick of an experience, which the author has not yet mastered or fully understood.

In this instance, the immediate, undigested experience is that of a German Jew confronted by the unstoppable rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler is the “adversary” of the title, and the novel charts the anonymous narrator’s relationship with him, from his childhood until the last days of World War Two. “Relationship,” of course, is a strange word in this context. Ordinarily you can only have a relationship with someone you know personally, and who knows you in return. The interesting premise of Keilson’s novel is that persecutor and victim also have a relationship, and a peculiarly intimate one—so much so that the narrator’s feelings about Hitler come to dominate his entire life. “I wish that he who throughout his life knew that he was my enemy, as I was his, should carry into his hour of death the knowledge that my thought of his death will be worthy of our enmity,” Keilson’s narrator says early on. “I will not relinquish one inch of this enmity. It remains our imperishable possession, even in his last hour on earth. So much do I owe to this enmity which filled our life, even at the hour of death.”

This gives a good sense of the formality, tending toward pomposity, of the novel’s style. The clipped, efficient narration of Comedy in a Minor Key gives way in The Death of the Adversary to a dark and grandiose rhetoric of fate (“There are encounters which fate sets down, as though in invisible writing, a long time before they occur”). This effect is compounded by Keilson’s decision not only to withhold the name of the first-person narrator, but also to refer to Hitler himself only as “he,” or at most with a pseudonymous initial, “B.” Even the words “Germany” and “Jew” are kept entirely out of the text. The effect of all this anonymity is not to conceal the facts of the story but to estrange them, and so to lend them new force.

Consider the moment when the narrator, while he is still a child, first hears the name of his adversary. He has overheard his father and mother talking about B. and has been disturbed to hear his father say, “If B. should ever come to power, may God have mercy on us.” (Keilson never provides a concrete timeline, but if the narrator, like the author, is supposed to have been born about 1909, then the date of this conversation would be the early 1920s—say, 1923, the year of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s first attempt to seize power.) After brooding for a while, the boy asks his father what he meant.

“B. is our enemy,” he said and looked at me thoughtfully.

“Our enemy?” I said incredulously….

“Yes, yours and mine, and that of many others as well.” He laughed loudly and I thought he was laughing at me. The corners of his mouth were pulled down. He seemed to be looking at me with contempt….

“My enemy too?” I asked. “I don’t even know him. Does he know me?”

“Certainly he’s your enemy too. I’m afraid we shall get to know him.”

“But why?” I continued my questions. “What harm did we do him?”

“We are…” my father replied.


That silence quite obviously occupies the place where the word “Jews” should be, and the narrator’s refusal to use it comes to seem like an important symptom. For even as he suffers from anti-Semitism—he is ostracized by other boys and has his heart broken when he learns that his best friend has become an admirer of Hitler—he holds himself aloof from Jews and keeps an ironic distance from his own Jewishness. (In this respect he is rather reminiscent of Victor Klemperer in his diaries.) In several scenes, Keilson shows Jewish acquaintances trying to challenge this isolation, suggesting that it is just an expression of the narrator’s fear and moral pride: “What you’re after is something impossible: you are trying to plaster up the crack that runs through this world, so that it becomes invisible; then, perhaps, you’ll think that it doesn’t exist anymore.”

But Keilson also shows us the narrator’s thinking from the inside. First he wonders if there may be some justification for Hitler’s anti-Semitism (“what a friend often doesn’t tell you…that is something you frequently only learn through your enemy,” his Nazi friend muses), then he wonders if it may just be a misunderstanding. In one painfully exposed passage, the narrator fantasizes about meeting Hitler and convincing him that the Jews are not so bad after all. Eventually, these delusions are savagely stripped away. In a stunning set piece, the narrator listens as a group of Nazi thugs, unaware that he is Jewish, confide their experiences desecrating a Jewish cemetery. Yet even then he seems to want to lose himself in a vaguely mystical rhetoric of sacred enmity: “But there, where you are struggling with yourself, in that primal place, I want to take hold of you and be held by you.”

Keilson effectively communicates the moral disorientation that a Jew might experience in a society suddenly gone sick with Jew-hatred, just as he gives a terrifying sense of the way that, in a dictatorship, the name and face of the dictator become insidiously inescapable. Still, the basic premise of the book—that there was something profound and fateful about Hitler’s attempt to destroy the Jews, that it was more than just the sadistic campaign of a monstrously capricious hatred, that it may constitute an “experience” and a “relationship” for the Jew to learn from—is finally unacceptable and more than a little repellent. Oddly, Keilson himself seems to come to the same conclusion. After spending the whole novel immersed in his narrator’s uncertainties, he tacks on an epilogue in which we learn that the narrator ended up dying in a gun battle with Nazi police: “He drew his revolver and fired as he was falling.” It is as though, in the end, Keilson wanted to keep faith with the man of action and resistance that he actually was. This is just one of the many discordant elements that make The Death of the Adversary hard to like but fascinating to read. It would be impertinent to condescend to the confusions that it records.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. A version of this piece originally appeared in Tablet Magazine.