Comedy in a Minor Key
by Hans Keilson
Reviewed by Yevgeniya Traps
A slim, striking novel, Comedy in a Minor Key was first published in the Netherlands in 1947 and has never before appeared in an English translation. This edition coincides with the still-living author's centennial. It relates the story of Wim and Marie, a married Dutch couple, who agree to hide Nico, a Jewish perfume salesman, in their home during the Nazi occupation of Holland. That Hans Keilson knows whereof he writes -- as a Jewish German doctor, he sought refuge from the Nazis during World War II in the Netherlands, where he was eventually forced into hiding and taken in by a couple to whom the book is dedicated -- contributes an unsparing authenticity, a hard-won sincerity. The work is stunning in its simplicity.
As the book opens, Nico has died after a lingering illness. The death presents an immediate problem -- how to dispose of the body? -- but there is also the need for Wim and Marie to understand how their sacrifice, the daily complications of an arrangement fraught with nearly unfathomable danger, has come to this mundane end: Nico "had defended himself against death from without," Marie thinks, "and then it had carried him off from within." There is something about this order of things that fills her with "a little embarrassment, a little disappointment....Why did precisely the one who was hiding in their house have to die a perfectly ordinary, normal death, the same way people die all the time, whether in wartime or peacetime?"
The irony of comedy is the way our attempts at coming together are inevitably, invariably shadowed by death. Comedy in a Minor Key is not a depressing book or a pessimistic one, but it acknowledges the possibility that good is no less banal than evil. In this, the novel is oddly similar to the otherwise stylistically incongruous Slaughterhouse-Five: like Vonnegut, Keilson refuses the illusion of free will and limitless possibility, all the while repudiating self-pity, pathos, and despair. Where Slaughterhouse is madcap, Comedy is subdued, but its intimate vision of a domestic haven buffeted by war and its quiet insistence on dignity also create something fresh and honest. It is not the sweeping forces of war and history that finally concern the author here, but rather the small gestures we make, the little kindness and cruelties, the daily business of human relationships.
The novel's tone is one of tenderness without sentimentality, and its wisdom is a muted one. We know so little of each other, for "people veil life itself with precious garments, behind which, as under ashes, the double-tongued fire of creation smolders. Love, beauty, dignity: all that was only put on, so that whoever approached the glowing embers in reverence would not singe his grasping hands and thirsting lips." War tears "the protective covering," threatens to reveal the "shameful and unbearable." Keilson asks us to look anyway -- to see, beyond easy heroism, something more complicated and sadder and kinder.