Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel

Comedy in a Minor Key: A Novel


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A penetrating study of ordinary people resisting the Nazi occupation—and, true to its title, a dark comedy of wartime manners—Comedy in a Minor Key tells the story of Wim and Marie, a Dutch couple who first hide a Jew they know as Nico, then must dispose of his body when he dies of pneumonia. This novella, first published in 1947 and now translated into English for the first time, shows Hans Keilson at his best: deeply ironic, penetrating, sympathetic, and brilliantly modern, an heir to Joseph Roth and Franz Kafka. In 2008, when Keilson received Germany's prestigious Welt Literature Prize, the citation praised his work for exploring "the destructive impulse at work in the twentieth century, down to its deepest psychological and spiritual ramifications."

Published to celebrate Keilson's hundredth birthday, Comedy in a Minor Key—and The Death of the Adversary, reissued in paperback—will introduce American readers to a forgotten classic author, a witness to World War II and a sophisticated storyteller whose books remain as fresh as when they first came to light.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374532857
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 08/02/2011
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 467,982
Product dimensions: 4.82(w) x 7.52(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Hans Keilson is the author of 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.

Read an Excerpt


"There they are again," the doctor said suddenly, and he stood up. Unexpectedly, like his words, the noise of the approaching airplane motors slipped into the silence of the death chamber. He tilted his head to one side, squinted his eyes half shut, and listened.

As if a small generator hidden somewhere in the house had started and quickly revved up to full speed, the droning sound of the night squadron flying in grew stronger. It might also — or so it seemed at first — be coming from the basement, or from the house next door ... But it was the night bombers making themselves heard, no doubt about it. In a wide formation they came from England over the beach that received the North Sea just a few miles away, shot out their flares to show the planes following behind them the flight path over Holland, and disappeared in the night across the eastern border. A few hours later they could be heard in another location, farther north or farther south, returning home, and then their noise grew fainter in the direction of the sea.

The man and woman standing indecisively near the bed, the way people stand when moved by fear and sadness at the same time, also looked up a little and listened.

"Already. So early," the doctor whispered to no one in particular.

Wim looked sideways at him, confused, as though not sure what this comment referred to.

The first shots of the night — dull, thudding pops — were in curious contrast to the fine, almost musical sound of the airplanes. The windowpanes and doors shook and rattled, and the whole house, too lightly built, answered the explosions with a delicate, quick shudder. The beginning was always exciting, no matter how many times a person had already lived through it.

It was near the end of March and the days were getting longer again. When the doctor arrived, around seven o'clock, it was still light out.

Still, Marie had blacked out the windows in the room on the second floor, where "he" lived, as she had been doing for months. This involved a somewhat complicated system of cords and hooks. She preferred to do it herself because she was afraid that someone might see him from the street — a rather exaggerated concern, since there was no house opposite.

Their house stood on the western edge of the city, on a street of identically shaped new buildings — two rooms with a sliding door between them on the ground floor, three rooms and a bathroom upstairs, and an attic with a crawl space — across from a park. Past the park, the immeasurable west country, with its greenhouses and the pasturelands depopulated by the war, spread out all the way to the horizon, interrupted by canals and dams. Behind that was the mist of the sea. A silver seam out there, like glittering frost, held together the earth and the sky and the water.

This nightly ceremony of blacking out the windows belonged to a regimen of precautions that had moved into their house on the same day as the stranger. When the sickness came too, she performed these actions with even greater care, with a vague feeling that the sick man posed an even greater danger to them than someone healthy.

He had lain in bed for about two weeks. After a year of staying in this room day in and day out had driven the last emaciated traces of life from his face, the fever had given it back a certain color and curvature. In the final days, he spoke hardly a word. It was coming to an end.

When Marie turned on the light in his room in the evening, he still turned his face to the wall, an old habit. In the change from the dim outside light to the flat dull light of the electric bulb, his face appeared gray, like parchment. But his weakened body lay like a lump, motionless under the wool blanket. The lamp at half strength in the middle of the room cast more shadow than light.

Since he had gone into hiding in their house, they had screwed in a lower-watt bulb, to save money. And added a bluish cloth to the milky white lampshade to absorb more light.

Wim and Marie were not fearful people by nature. When they decided to hide someone in their house, they understood the risk they were taking on — to a certain extent, insofar as one can ever judge risk a priori. For risk falls under the category of Surprise, which is precisely what you can't calculate in advance.

What if he suddenly got the idea to open the window himself during the day and stick his head out? Or turn on the light in the middle of the night, after taking down the blackout curtains? Not out of recklessness or to play a trick on them, but ... You never knew, with a person in his situation, if he was about to do something stupid. No matter how you look at it, it's no bed of roses to force yourself to sit alone in a room, for twelve months or often even longer, always with a certain danger in view, or to shuffle around the room — in felt slippers, of course.

Because for heaven's sake, the cleaning lady who came for half a day twice a week, or the neighbors, could never know that someone was staying here on the second floor. Even if you could completely trust them, "Thank God." Everyone on this street was "good." Andwho knows if someone else in felt slippers wasn't creeping around in one of these neighbors' rooms too, preferring not to stick his nose outdoors during the day. Anyway, it was better not to talk about such things. There was so much gossip going around ...

"No one can know, you hear? Only if we agree to that —" Marie had said, back then.

"Of course —" Wim answered calmly. "That's obvious, no one. But you need to think it over carefully, there'll be a lot of ..."

"I've already thought it over," countered Marie. He should have known that she never did anything without thinking it over. "No one, not even Coba."

"Not even Coba, agreed," Wim confirmed.

Coba was his sister. She lived nearby, in a suburb half an hour away by streetcar. The two women were very good friends, and Coba came by to see them so often that in the long run it was impossible to keep it a secret from her. And really, why keep it from Coba? ... But Wim had said, "Agreed." They would learn over time. And in the end, every situation conceals within itself certain unforeseen possibilities.

"And Erik?" Marie continued.

"Erik?" Wim asked, taken aback, and again: "Erik?" No question about it, she was nervous. The most nonsensical names were coming into her head. "What makes you think of him? For as long as we've been married, he ... hold on ..." He thought about it. "I think he's been here once. There's nothing to worry about with him ... More likely when Mother comes; what then?"

Marie was startled. "I hadn't thought of that ..." She rubbed her head with both hands and then fixed her hair again, even though nothing needed fixing. "Yes ... whenever we have any guests ... How will Mother take it?"

"So you want to tell her?"

"When she stays with us, Wim — naturally I'll tell her."

"I'm not sure it is so natural," Wim had said, and tugged his tie straight ...

The first wave of airplanes was now flying over the row of houses.

All three of them stiffened in the same slightly hunched-over position — one never felt totally free. Their heads were tilted a little to one side. As the shots thudded at short intervals now, one after the other, their neck muscles twitched with the tension of listening and with the danger that was hurtling by over their heads, which made the whole house shake in unsteady expectation. The motors pounded powerfully. These artificial constructions of levers and corrugated metal, called to rigid-winged, brief life, filled the land and the sky with the rhythm of their iron pulse.

Here in the room someone had died.

"There they are again ..." Those had always been his words too. Sometimes, when they would still sit together over dinner in the back room — the only time in the day when he, as arranged, came downstairs — he had suddenly, in the middle of a bite, thrown back his head so that his large, hairy nostrils were visible under the sharply curved ridge of his nose and, with his mouth full, his hands planting the cutlery vertically on the table, he spoke those four words: "There they are again!" It was as if he had been waiting for them.

If the planes came later, when he was alone in his room, sometimes even in bed, he sat up straight and uttered this formula into the silent bedroom.

Of the three of them, he was always the first to hear the airplanes.

Wim didn't let it bother him. "Well ...," he answered, more in question than in agreement. But not directly skeptical or denying either. Rather, in the tactful, uninterested way one leaves a matter undecided when it is theoretically possible at some point in time, even if not exactly this one. He certainly never interrupted his meal because of it.

"Yes it's true," Marie said, and hesitated before taking the next bite from the fork she was holding in place —"Yes, Nico's right ... can you hear it?" She speared her knife into the air.

"So early today," Nico went on, and looked at the clock on the opposite wall. "Ten past seven." His eyes shone because his ears had not betrayed him. The droning grew louder. Wim heard it too.

The first shots of the night — dull, thudding pops — were in curious contrast to the fine, almost musical sound of the airplanes. The windowpanes and doors shook and rattled, and the whole house, too lightly built, answered the explosions with a quick shudder. The beginning was always exciting, no matter how many times a person had already lived through it.

"They want to get back home early; pass the potatoes please, Marie," Wim said. He was satisfied with this dry explanation and felt that he had rid the world of this not particularly interesting situation. "Eat! It's getting cold!"

"No, Wim, no," Nico responded, a little worked up, as though for him it was an existential question, and he let his head with its stuffed cheeks sink forward again until he was looking straight ahead. "No, there are reasons ... they have a long flight ahead of them, you understand? Maybe Berlin or — yes, it must be Berlin, we are right in the flight path to Berlin here." He spoke with conviction, as though he bore active responsibility for preparing the plans for this night of bombing.

"And how was it for you today, Nico?" Wim usually went on, breaking off then and there all questions of Berlin.

Nico answered in the same good-spirited tone: "Good, Wim, thank you; I am satisfied, the lodgings are good, I practiced my languages for a while, English and French"— or whatever he had done that day.

"How many chess games did you win?"

For he played chess, not especially well but with undiminished zeal.

When Nico had had a good day, he answered this obliquely mischievous question with a similar sort of answer, something like: "None, Wim, not even one. My opponent was too clever for me today ..."

He always played himself. Hour after hour he sat at the little square table in his bedroom, the board with the pieces in front of him. The chair on the other side of the table was empty ... e2-e4, e7-e5, g1-f3, and so on. He often sat for a long time with his head in his hand, deep in thought. About a chess problem? Or about — — —?

The next day, he could barely wait for Marie to appear upstairs at five in the afternoon with the newspaper.

Hidden behind the curtains he had watched the newspaper delivery woman come quickly across the small front garden. He often left his room just as quickly — in slippers, of course, as they had agreed at the beginning — so that leaning on the banister upstairs, he could hear the newspaper rustle as it was stuffed through the mail slot and then hear it fall onto the stone floor. The seconds that followed next were often the richest in tension and suspense of his whole concealed life. Did they truly understand that, his hosts?

He stood on the last step and waited the short while until Marie appeared from her room, where she would sit, busy with her sewing, at this time of day. She picked up the paper, unfolded the page, read the headlines — lies! nothing but lies! but what could you do, you had to have a newspaper for the groceries — turned it over, read the personal announcements, the deaths, engagements, births — even in wartime people still fell in love and brought children into the world, of course — and then, still reading, walked up the stairs.

"Nico," she called out, in a half-whisper that even an eavesdropper would never have been able to hear; only he could hear it; she knew he was standing and waiting upstairs —"Nico, you were right again, it says ..." She was glad to give him these little pleasures.

But it often happened that she forgot, and Wim was the first to pick up the paper when he came home from the office. Or that she was out shopping in the city when it came.

Then Nico sat on the top step and fought a terrible battle with himself about whether he shouldn't try it and carefully, carefully ... he could take off his slippers too, creep downstairs in his socks; it would make a small bit of a difference, surely ... or down the banister, the way he used to as a boy — he knew exactly on which steps the wood gave and creaked, the third and the fifth from the top, and the first and fourth after the turn in the stairway.

But in the end he didn't dare to do it. Even if he was convinced that no one, no one in the world, could hear him ... It was against their agreement, so he didn't do it. It was almost too much for his strength. No one knew what battles raged inside him.

He quickly called to mind something else then, ordeals, the horrors that had certainly awaited him but which he had escaped — to other, new tortures here. "Ordeals and horrors are waiting everywhere," he muttered to himself. "Everywhere."

After a while he stood up and crept back to his bedroom. — "Well, well," the doctor said as the strikes of the antiaircraft guns thundered hard nearby, "those are some big ones."

An unending row of night bombers came over the block of houses. It was as though they were flying through every room in the house at once.

He looked back and forth at this wife and husband, felt their suppressed fear of the death that came both quietly and loudly, and looked at the shadow play of the hanging lamp on the yellowish wall of the room.

Then he bent over the bed again and touched the body with his fingers. It was slowly growing cold.

Wim had clasped his hands behind his back, and he stared at the floor. We have to bury him, he thought, of course we do, you have to bury a dead man. But how —?

"A night like this in the bomb shelter, while the house collapses above you ..." The doctor didn't finish his sentence. Dead is dead, you can die anywhere. And live ...?

Marie put her hand tenderly on the curved edge of the high footboard. For her it was like touching the dead man himself. She looked at him. Unshaven and worn out, he lay there with eyes closed. The hair on his head, falling tangled and uncombed onto his bony, low forehead, was black; the whiskers of a beard that had run rampant during his sickness glimmered red. The relaxed, half-open mouth and somewhat hanging chin gave the suffering face a more oval shape. How old he looked! All this together, and her memories of Nico, the man she had kept in hiding in her house, combined into a specific train of thought in Marie's mind. Strange that it had never come to her while he was alive, not like this. She couldn't help thinking of the Bible, even though she was not a church-minded type at all. She thought of the Old Testament, that he was a son of its people. Job could have looked just like that, she thought.


"What was his real name?" The doctor asked.

Isolated gunshots still in the distance ... the same as in the beginning, a humming sound from the house next door, or from the basement ...

Wim shrugged his shoulders. Even now he didn't reveal the name. It remained a secret. "We called him Nico."

"Nico? Nicodemus? — Wasn't he the only one of the ancient rabbis who ..."

"Yes, yes," Wim said. "Ours sold perfume."

The doctor made a wry face.

"A perfume salesman? Yes, well, we'll all need a little prettying up after the war. It's not the worst thing. Poor Nico!" His words sounded bitter, almost as if reproaching Nico for deserting them.


Excerpted from "Comedy in a Minor Key"
by .
Copyright © 1947 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.

Reading Group Guide

1. What makes Comedy in a Minor Key different from other tales of the resistance that you have read? In what ways is fiction (especially wry fiction) sometimes the best means for conveying historical fact?

2. Midway through chapter ten, Hans Keilson describes Marie's disappointment over Nico's death: "She had secretly imagined what it would be like on liberation day, the three of them arm in arm walking out of their house. Everyone would see right away what he was from his pale face. . . . It would give them a little sense of satisfaction, and everyone who makes a sacrifice needs a little sense of satisfaction." Is Keilson's satire also realistic? What motivates the benevolent people you know?

3. How did the novel's timeline affect you? How did your impressions of Nico shift as you learned about him through a series of flashbacks?

4. What makes Nico alluring to Marie? Is he at the mercy of his caregivers, or does he exert power over them in some ways? Are any aspects of his life still in his control?

5. The book's closing line offers an image of life for Wim and Marie without Nico. How was their marriage transformed by him?

6. Keilson's work contains many elements of twentieth-century existentialism, for which Camus and Kafka became well known. What is unique about Keilson's perspective on human existence? What does his book say about our obligations to one another, and the nature of suffering in the world?

7. How might the story have unfolded if it had been told from Nico's point of view? What does he think of Wim and Marie?

8. Born in Germany, Hans Keilson became a physician and was forced to flee to the Netherlands in 1936 after the Nuremberg Laws made it illegal for Jews to practice medicine in Germany. He was active in the Dutch resistance. Does Keilson's biography shape the way you read this work, or is a novelist's biography irrelevant?

9. Much of the tragicomedy in the novel lies in the predicament of how to dispose of Nico's body. How did you react to this? What universal experiences are captured in these images?

10. Discuss the role of Coba, Wim's sister. What does it mean to Marie to have Coba's companionship and support? How is Coba different from her brother?

11. When Keilson's novel The Death of the Adversary was named a best book of the year by Time in 1962, the magazine's reviewer wrote that Keilson's work examines why there was widespread ambivalence toward the Holocaust while it was unfolding. What portraits of ambivalence are offered in Comedy in a Minor Key? As Dr. Nelis fabricates a reason to call on Wim and Marie's house, and the laundry-tag issue is resolved with the help of local police, what message does Keilson give us about ambivalence versus resistance?

12. What impressions of Judaism do the novel's non-Jews offer? How does Marie understand Nico's distinction between a religious identity and a cultural one?

13. The author chose to make Nico a perfumier. What is ironic about this? What do we learn about him in chapter four as he makes suggestions for Marie's ideal scent?

14. What does Comedy in a Minor Key say about the time period during which it was written? What is the difference between reading it in 1947 as a new release, and reading it in the twenty-first century as a classic? Is there any contemporary equivalent to the genocide Nico faces in the novel?

15. What elements of Comedy in a Minor Key echo the persecution described in The Death of the Adversary? Read together, do the storylines complement or contradict each other?

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