Life Goes On

Hans Keilson was born in Germany in 1909 and died in Amsterdam at the age of 101, having practiced as a psychoanalyst for almost six decades. During World War II, Keilson joined the Dutch Resistance and later, as a psychoanalyst, pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children. Keilson had, of course, endured traumas of his own (both his parents were killed in Auschwitz), and the three novels that he wrote between 1933 and 1959 might be seen as attempts not only to depict Nazi terror but also to analyze its underlying psychology.

All three novels are semi-autobiographical, and each has its own perilous history. Life Goes On was published in Germany in 1933, when Keilson was twenty-three, and it was banned by the Nazis in 1934. Comedy in a Minor Key, first published in the Netherlands in 1947, is dedicated to the Dutch couple that hid Keilson after he treated their daughter. Death of the Adversary was unfinished when the German army occupied the Netherlands, and Keilson buried the fifty pages he had. He completed the novel years later, and it was first published in German in 1959. An English translation by Ivo Jarosy of Death of the Adversary appeared in 1962, but it was the 2010 republication of this novel that brought Keilson to wider attention, part of the same wave of rediscovery that brought light to the works of wartime novelists Hans Fallada and Irène Némirovsky. Keilson’s two later novels were proclaimed masterpieces:  Now, with the publication of Damion Searl’s new translation of  Life Goes On, all three Keilson novels, which together span the period from the Weimar Republic through the ascent of Hitler to the Nazi occupation of Europe, are available in English; and this early work is revealed as an indispensable prologue to a gathering horror.

“Seldersen the shopkeeper had never in his life wanted anything to do with people whose heads seemed to be bursting with big, boundless ideas,” Keilson writes of the middle-aged resident of a small Prussian town during the late 1920s. But, as the novel opens, Seldersen, a German Jew and a decorated soldier who fought for his country in the First World War, is already being buffeted by the looming economic depression and by the rise of National Socialism.

Big ideas intrude on this small life, at first in small ways. Seldersen’s landlord asks his tenant to move from the store he and his wife have tended for twenty-four years to a smaller location. “I have to worry about myself too,” the landlord explains. “My children are still young, while your son will be done with school in a few years and your daughter is already in Berlin. What about me, what about me?” The question is mockingly posed by the narrator, Seldersen’s teenage son Albrecht,  a character obviously based on Keilson. Albrecht ‘s existential struggles — at first romantic and self-absorbed, later urgent and real — seem to mirror those of his creator, and indeed, Keilson explains in his afterword that he began writing Life Goes On when his early attempt to sign up as a patient at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute failed. The young man was told that there was no reason for him to enter analysis. “I went back home, furious,” Keilson writes, “and sat down to write the opening sentences of the book.”  

In its more introspective passages, Life Goes On reveals this early, passionate impulse to describe the miseries and yearnings of youth. Albrecht realizes, for example, “that sometimes a thought he vaguely sensed in himself (merely a breath of air, a soft sound) could, when he sensed it in someone else, a poet, be transformed into a fixed, clear harmony, ringing out loud and clear and purifying and strengthening his soul…” The shadows of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse loom large here; the book that enchants young Albrecht with its “captivating melancholy sweetness” is Mann’s Tonio Kröger. But an increasingly brutal world will crush Albrecht’s romantic aestheticism as surely as it crushes his parents’ livelihood. And Keilson keeps our attention largely fixed on the quotidian details of the Seldersens’ decline.
“Money was at the center of their lives,” Albrecht observes, “its well-ordered movements in and out of the house were what guaranteed a secure and dignified existence…”  As the debts of customers accumulate on Seldersen’s books and as he in turn begs credit from his suppliers and later shoulders increasingly crippling loans, his faith in order and security is replaced by shame and despair. Yet, Keilson writes of the shopkeeper, “Even an old workhorse stays alive, dragging its cart slowly down the road.”

Like most of the characters in Keilson’s fiction, the shopkeeper is no hero. Early on, he rejects an invitation by Knipfer, a “consumptive little radical,” to attend political meetings. “To a certain extent, this passionate participation strikes him as ridiculous, dilettantish, even unmanly,” Seldersen muses. A short time later, however, Frau Seldersen will declare, “You’re not a man anymore,” and her defeated husband will simply answer, “No.” It is a terrible moment, plainly rendered, and this unadorned directness is Keilson’s great strength. Whether he is describing Albrecht’s new school principal (“…there was a new punctiliousness and precision”) or the final acts of a destitute Berliner (“…he would laugh a humble laugh and act hopeful, then maybe go and shoot himself the next day or stick his head in the oven”), Keilson reveals both the thing itself and the shadow that it casts, behind or ahead.

If Life Goes On seems at times to be a struggle between realism and romanticism, that may be the point. Albrecht wants nothing to do with the world, just as his father wants nothing to do with politics. The son longs for the life of the mind, his father for a quiet existence. The novel ends, however, with the Seldersens watching a parade of workers and students marching past Albrecht’s flat in Berlin. First Albrecht raises his arm in salute, then his father reluctantly raises his. Keilson later told the novel’s translator that he originally described his characters raising their fists in the Communist salute, but the publisher in 1933 made him change this to a more ambiguous gesture.

Decades later, Keilson further intensified the struggle — corporeal and psychological — that so powerfully animates Life Goes On when he created, in Death of the Adversary, a protagonist who is obsessed with Hitler, his indispensable enemy, and who attempts to impose meaning and reason on a force dedicated to annihilating both. “I was merely a caricature, a mask, which he had shaped in his dread,” the narrator observes of Hitler, and Keilson allows us to see how this, how anything, is a possible truth when truth itself is lost.