As you might expect from a book titled Comedy in a Minor Key, Hans Keilson's novella - it's 136 pages long - is a tonally eccentric work. It's a mixture of grief, hope, fear and, if such a thing is possible, dry slapstick. At a significant point in the story, one of the minor characters hums the melody of Henri Duparc's L'invitation au voyage, a song of longing for a beautiful world. And, as it happens, that song, with its lyrics by Baudelaire, can serve as a musical corollary to the novella itself.
To begin with, Comedy in a Minor Key is about the Second World War. It is set in Holland and it is the story of a couple who take in a Jewish man to protect him from the Nazis. Wim and Marie are still young and very much in love - innocents in a way - and they do this thing out of defiance of the Germans, out of a sense of duty, and also with a sense of adventure. Without using any stylistic fireworks - the novel's language is clean and modest throughout - Keilson renders the couple vividly. They are unexceptional people, but they are kind and their kindness is, at times, awkward, though it is always touching.
The Jewish man they take in - Bram Cohen, by name, though they know him as Nicodemus and call him Nico - is older than they are, more complicated, more vulnerable, of course, but also essentially unremarkable, simply human. Before his quite ordinary death, Nico becomes almost something of a child to the young couple, but at no point does he lose his dignity. Dignity, in fact, is one of the novel's most persistently sounded notes: What must we do to live with ourselves, what are our duties to our fellow humans, what do men and women need in extreme circumstances?
It feels odd setting out the novel's ideas in this way, because part of Hans Keilson's brilliance - and I think Comedy in a Minor Key is one of the best short novels I've ever read - consists in keeping things quiet, subtle, dry. It isn't a novella in which ideas are thrust forward. It is, rather, to use an analogy, a novel in which ideas breathe. Certain notes are sounded quietly and they are given the space - or "silence" - to resonate.
For me, the work's chief accomplishment, aside from the quickness and subtlety of Keilson's characterizations, is in its juxtaposition of the day-to-day (the banal) against the historically monstrous (the Second World War, the ruthless hunt for the Jews). It's a work in which a modest, porcelain vase can stand in for the "human" while the - equally human and equally banal - desire to break the vase represents the war itself.
Said as I've just said it, it may sound as if there is something clichéd about the novel, but Comedy in a Minor Key never feels clichéd. It is so faithful to the day-to-day that it never feels as if its characters or its setting are being used to make a point. Rather, it is as if one were simply being told of a small place in which certain things happened. The novel's comedic moments come out of this plainness. For instance, once Nico dies, there is the problem not only of hiding his body but of moving it, since his corpse, naturally, stiffens and becomes difficult to carry. I can think of no other work in which I smiled at the efforts needed to move the corpse of a character I liked very much.
On the other hand, and this is entirely attributable to Keilson's artistry, knowing the small details, having a sense of the house where Nico is being hidden, knowing the main characters well … all this makes the fear, anxiety and distress of the situation these "normal" people find themselves in palpable. We are far from the collective psychosis on display in a novel like, say, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones or Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. But at times, this novella makes the horrors of the war just as palpable, if not more so, because it forces us to consider the shaky ground on which our homes - not just our societies - exist. It's obviously important to think about societies and history, but it's rarer to feel anxiety about our closets, kitchens, back gardens, laundry tickets and nosy neighbours. Keilson allowed me to see those things from an "old" angle, an angle at which, I hope, we will not again be familiar, or not soon, anyway.
A few words about Keilson himself: He is now 100 years old. Comedy in a Minor Key was first published in 1947. After the war, Keilson worked as a psychiatrist and, according to the biographical note on Comedy's sleeve, he is a pioneer in treating war trauma in children. All of that is interesting, of course, and his grasp of the subtleties of war trauma is especially evident in his characterizations of Nico and Marie. But this is a novella that undersells great culture. Aside from the mention of Duparc's L'invitation au voyage, the novel has a number of allusions to art, to literature, to high culture as well as low. I mean to say, Comedy in a Minor Key is the work of a consummate artist, a wonderful writer. And the most striking thing about it may well be that it has taken so long for such exceptional work to be translated into English.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's essay collection, Beauty & Sadness, has just been released.