The Death of the Adversary: A Novel

The Death of the Adversary: A Novel

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by Hans Keilson

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Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, The Death of the Adversary is the self-portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed "adversary" whom he watches rise to power in 1930s Germany. It is a tale of horror, not only in its evocation of Hitler's gathering menace but also in its hero's desperate attempt to discover logic


Written while Hans Keilson was in hiding during World War II, The Death of the Adversary is the self-portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed "adversary" whom he watches rise to power in 1930s Germany. It is a tale of horror, not only in its evocation of Hitler's gathering menace but also in its hero's desperate attempt to discover logic where none exists. A psychological fable as wry and haunting as Badenheim 1939, The Death of the Adversary is a lost classic of modern fiction.

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Kirkus Reviews
A welcome reissue of a classic about Nazi evil originally published in German in 1959. This psychologically subtle and acute account of denial in the face of Hitler's rise to power received strong acclaim before disappearing from print. With the celebration last year of the 100th birthday of Keilson, a psychoanalyst who was part of the Dutch resistance during World War II, the novel has lost none of its insidious power. Cast as notes left behind by an anonymous German outcast in the years before the war, the narrative recalls the existential depth of Camus and the fabulist absurdity of Kafka or Beckett, as it illuminates the protagonist's symbiotic relationship with the enemy whom he wishes he had killed when he might have had the chance. Though the narrator doesn't identify himself specifically as Jewish or his adversary as Hitler, the parable has even more resonance than a fictional memoir would. "The whole thing was a comedy, a comedy in a minor key," writes the narrator. "Tomorrow it would become real; then it would be tragedy." The most striking episodes in a novel filled with them include a rally during the enemy's ascent ("He still had to stay within certain limits, but his threats were unmistakable. He was not, as yet, master over life and death. As yet?") and a chilling rampage through a cemetery, defiling the dead. The framing of the novel suggests that these pages are being read years after they were written, and written years after the events recounted, but such distance doesn't render the narrative any less vivid: "In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of the debate with his adversary, he began to scream and rave. A lunatic!" Yet the enemy could not be so easily dismissed, as subsequent horrors would prove. A novel of psychological devastation, where the unthinkable and unspeakable exist offstage.

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The Death of the Adversary

By Hans Keilson, IVO JAROSY

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1959 Hans Keilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-7994-8


For days and weeks now I have thought of nothing but death. Though I am normally a late riser, I get up early every morning now, calm and uplifted, after a night of dreamless sleep. I feel all my powers strong and ready within me, as they have not been for a long time. I welcome the day which brings me once again the thought of death. With every breath I take, the thought penetrates further into my body, down into its most hidden recesses, and fills it entirely. It is death, death that guides my pen! God alone knows what experience laid these thoughts in my brain, like eggs. But there they lay and matured unnoticed, until one day they suddenly hatched out and introduced themselves to my consciousness. Ah, I thought, when the thought of death emerged into my mind for the first time, so there he is, and I welcomed him as one welcomes some old acquaintance who arrives one train later than one had expected. In fact, however, I had not really been waiting for him so desperately; he was early as far as I was concerned; and took me by surprise. Nor did I wish him upon myself. Previously, when I had heard other people talk about their thoughts of death — and there is nothing people like better to talk about than what they call the Last Things — it used to flash across my mind: And you yourself, what about you and death, tell us, what is your attitude? At the same time I was calmly smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of sweetened tea; I listened to the others talking and felt a sense of well-being, nothing more. I was, no doubt, what they call a benevolent neutral. Death, whether welcome or not — Good Lord, I did not know what to do with it. I was still healthy, touch wood, I enjoyed my youth, and I merely hoped that I had not been picked for anything special. All this has changed since I started thinking about death. And I do nothing else but sit here thinking about him. I am so entirely taken up with thinking about him that if my head were to be cut off now, my stomach or my right knee-joint would continue the work of thinking about him and would, no doubt, bring it to its proper conclusion.

How can I tell how the thought got into my head, into me? I do not remember, and would rather leave the threads as they have been tied than start unravelling them. It is as though one were to try to answer the doctor's question, 'When did you first feel that pain in your arm?' to the best of one's ability. I.e. 'On a Tuesday, I remember it exactly, I was walking across the market place and met an acquaintance. He told me that he occasionally experienced a slight, piercing sensation in his arm, up there, near the joint. I said, rheumatism, perhaps — who could tell what it really was? As I walked on, I too began to feel from time to time a kind of gentle, pulling sensation, up my arm right to the shoulder. There — there it was again, as gentle as a mother's experience of the child's first movement in her womb.' But no, no one can give such an answer, and whoever tells me he can is an idiot, or I a fool were I to believe him.

I cannot tell how it happened that death entered into me, but I can say what it was like to feel him there. It was as though a furious pain were disturbing my sleep at night. Only it was not a pain. It was something utterly different, something far more ecstatic than a pain can ever be, that filled me completely. I nearly passed away.

Here I must add what exactly this thought of death was that overcame me. It was not the thought of my own death, the death that I would one day, soon or in the far distance, have to die, that gripped me. By all I hold dear, such a foolish thought never entered my head, nor will it, I trust, ever weigh upon me in the future. The thought of my own death leaves me quite cold and unmoved at the present time. I do not believe that any serious person will ever occupy himself for any length of time with the thought of his own death. It's not my affair, he will say, my death is not my affair, and to think about it would mean to diminish the stature of a life, which can be great if one desires it greatly. It would mean circumscribing the limits which one's life must voluntarily accept. A man like myself — and I know, thank God, that I am not the only one — lives and works and takes up his daily task with the thought that everything will continue the same, unbroken and for ever, in the name of heaven, until the end of time.

It was the thought of my enemy's death which penetrated me and made me shudder as one does on an icy night. The death of my enemy — I think of it with all the joy a thought can have for those to whom a thought is something vital and alive. The death of my enemy — I think and experience it with all the gravity and sublimity which is due to the thought of an enemy who is worthy of one. At every moment of the day, part of my mind is dedicated to this thought. Apart from the evenings and nights, the proudest moments of the day are those when no other thought occupies me. The death of my enemy — blessed be the thought of my enemy's death. People say that one should approach one's own death with longing, like a bride approaching the bridegroom. They have always found a strange pleasure in linking the things of death with those of love. One should accustom oneself to death slowly, they say, so as to prove oneself worthy of him. Only he who has learnt to do so can claim to have shaped his life fully. But I have seen many who had slowly and painfully accustomed themselves to their own death, and were then destroyed by the death of a friend.

I have seen few who were equal to the death of their enemy. Since this thought has taken hold of me, my life has soared towards a goal. Never have I searched for this goal, nor thought that it could have been prepared for me. Ah, how contemptibly I lived until I understood what a goal there can be for a man on this earth. What do they amount to, all these other goals that people pick out for themselves in the empty belief that happiness, love, or hatred will lessen the reality of a lifeless body's empty remains. No lie, however noble, can extinguish the conflagration death lets loose in truly festive minds when the moment of truth has arrived. A rushing in the sky, as when a strong, ancient tree is cut down, an arrow, shot into the glittering blue of winter: my mind is in a festive mood, my enemy is entering the white land of his death.

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. 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.

It was a long road that led my enemy to his end. It led from victory to victory, it passed through triumphs, like the path of an immortal. It also led through low valleys, through swamps and morasses, alive with hidden lusts, full of the musty odour of sickness and malice: the life of a mortal, like my own. Today he has suffered his greatest triumph: he is entering the white land of his death. But it took a still longer journey before I, free from all those petty motivations which hatred and revenge eagerly fasten on, could encounter him at the end of his road. Even now, a trace of hatred and revenge burns in my thoughts. I wish I could exterminate even that last trace, the voluptuous roots and branchings of fury and malice: it is I who am sitting here, waiting, and he is walking into his death — do you hear, he is walking into his death! One cannot cut the lines of experience out of one's face, like the rotten bits in an apple; one has to carry them about in one's face and know that one carries them; one sees them, as in a mirror, every day when one washes oneself, and one cannot cut them out, they belong there. But all the same, it is a festive waiting, full of joy and sorrow and remembrance and good-bye for ever.

I do not desire his death in the way one wishes that some harm would come to another person, or prays for the death of an adversary so as to be rid of him.

How mistaken people are in thinking that death is a kind of punishment. I must confess that I, too, subscribed to this belief for a long time. That merely shows how much I hated him and longed for revenge. Revenge, not only for myself, my own misfortune — which at that time I still regarded as a great and exclusive possession, with which he had burdened me — but also for those among my people who had suffered as I had. Fortunately I realised the absurdity of this idea in time. That I did realise it, that too I owe to my enemy.

My enemy — I shall refer to him as B. — entered my life about twenty years ago. At that time I had only a very vague idea of what it meant to be someone's enemy; still less did I realise what it was to have an enemy. One has to mature gradually towards one's enemy as towards one's best friend.

I frequently heard Father and Mother talk about this subject, mostly in the secretive, whispering voice of grown-ups who do not want the children to hear. A new kind of intimacy informed their words. They were talking in order to hide something. But children quickly learn to divine the secrets and fears of their elders, and to grow up towards them. My father said:

"If B. should ever come to power, may God have mercy on us. Then things will really start to happen."

My mother replied more quietly, "Who knows, perhaps everything will come out quite differently. He's not all that important, yet."

I can still see them sitting there, talking.

Father was sitting on a low stool in the kitchen, a small, slightly corpulent man. His elbow was resting on the edge of the cupboard, which ran along the whole length of the wall. His round head inclined to one side, resting on his fingers. He had just finished speaking, but his inclined head made it look as though he were listening for some message. He was listening, but it must have been a saddening message that he received. Talking and listening, his face bore an expression of sorrow, of affliction, as though deep inside it a black veil had fallen across his face, both obscuring it and forming the background for everything else, all that appeared outwardly, muscles, skin and hair. From time to time a movement, even a smile, crossed the face, but whenever you looked at it, you knew that there, behind it, in the very foundations upon which it had constructed itself, you would find affliction and sorrow.

His wife, my mother, was standing opposite him, leaning against the table. She was bending forward slightly towards him, into the narrow, empty space between them, which a fly filled with its roving buzz. She was looking down upon him, sitting there so small on his stool — smaller than any child, for he was a grown-up. Innumerable times had she thus bent down to all that was smaller and weaker; without her noticing it, her body automatically assumed this bending-down-towards stance, though it still looked young and upright. She knew that he did not hear what her words were trying to communicate, that nothing coming from outside penetrated his curtain, but that her bending-down into empty space reached him. He, who in his work broke time up into little fragments and made all movement solidify into a breathless pause of arrest and stagnation, who yet in this paralysis tried to recapture some of the incessant movement, to revitalise the arrested motion, felt the movement towards him and gathered from it what others gather from spoken words.

Father had come up from his dark-room, where photographic plates lay submerged in big glass dishes. He had gone straight to the kitchen, which he found empty, and had sat down on the lowest stool. His wife heard him come up and enter. She went to him.

The kitchen was the barest spot in the whole house, full of furniture that was painted green and had been rubbed smooth and shining. Above the towel-rail hung a white curtain with blue embroidery, and a strip of white lace ran along the edge of the shelves. Everything was cold and polished. In the centre of the room, a white lampshade hung down low from the ceiling on a brown flex. Behind the man's back, a long and faded yellow curtain covered up two wooden shelves, packed with shoes, and underneath, on the floor, old newspapers lay in a corner.

At this moment the child, who had heard voices through the closed door, came into the room. The voices expressed something that lay behind the actual words, and the child, his curiosity aroused, was drawn into the kitchen.

For the child, the kitchen was a place of pleasure and delicious surprises, into which he loved to poke his fingers and lick them afterwards; it was not a place for serious conversations.

Apart from the start of their conversation, it is not merely the words that I remember — though, to the best of my knowledge, I there heard for the first time the name which I was never again to forget. But words are unimportant. Even without them, I remember the whole picture of two people in a bare, scrubbed kitchen: one sitting and resting his head upon his extended fingers, the other standing opposite him. Between them was a narrow, empty space into which a woman's body was leaning forward. And I also remember what both were trying to come to grips with, what inescapably flowed in upon them both — upon the one who was already awaiting it and leaning towards it, as though he were fleeing into it for protection, and the other opposing it, still rebelling against it, still ready to take up the struggle: the inescapable affliction. It was there in the whole picture, but also in every segment, in the folds of the faded curtain, in front of which Father was sitting, in the fly that circled round the light and defined the empty space between them with its buzzing flight. But it was also in the scrubbed, shiny wooden floor and in the closed doors of the cupboards, from which the keys stuck out challengingly, and in the light switch next to the door. The inescapable affliction filled everything, and each detail I remember draws up the next and completes a total impression that remained and still remains deep in my memory. It was not fear, it was something much stronger and more definite than an emerging fear. You could feel it slowly approaching you and pressing upon your shoulders. You could kick out against it, clamp your teeth into it, or push against it. It was as real as the light switch and the fly and the old newspapers in the corner behind the curtain.

All this was the impression of a few seconds, as I entered the room. The conversation between them went on for a few more sentences. At the same time my father looked at me searchingly, as though he were gravely considering me. The darkness in his eyes vanished. Mother leaned back and smiled at me.

"Things have not got to that pass yet," she said, "and who knows ..."

He drew a cable release from his pocket and started to play with it.

"Today I photographed a dog and a cat," he said.

"Really?" I replied, delighted. "Did they get on together?"

"No," he replied with amusement.

"How did you manage to photograph them, then?" I asked.

"I'll tell you. A woman came to my studio. She had a beautiful, big bulldog on a lead, and in her other hand a basket with a Siamese cat. 'These are Bützi and Hiitzi,' she said. 'I want to have their photo taken. They are the sweetest animals in the world; they have been living together for a year already. They are our children, only they get on better together than brother and sister. My husband would like to have a photo of them, sitting peacefully together, for his birthday. I want to make him a present of it, you understand, for the sake of remembrance.'

"'Remembrance of what?' I interrupted her.

"'Why, that dogs and cats live together peacefully in our house.'"

"You and your stories," Mother said laughingly, and raised her finger.

"But it's a true story," he defended himself.

"True or not," she said with amusement.

"But they didn't get on together," I suddenly interrupted, "you said so yourself at the beginning...."


Excerpted from The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson, IVO JAROSY. Copyright © 1959 Hans Keilson. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Hans Keilson is the author of Comedy in a Minor Key. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. In a 2010 New York Times review, Francine Prose called Keilson a "genius" and "one of the world's very greatest writers." He died in 2011 at the age of 101.

Hans Keilson is the author of Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. In a 2010 New York Times review, Francine Prose called Keilson a “genius” and “one of the world’s very greatest writers.” He died in 2011 at the age of 101.

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