Comedy in a Minor Key
Hans Keilson (Translated by Damion Searls)
All books, to some extent, reflect the period in which they were written, and I thus find stories written around the time of major historical events to be particularly interesting. Having lived in the occupied Netherlands during World War II, Hans Keilson automatically brings a certain amount of authenticity to his work about the Nazi era, and Comedy in a Minor Key retains a particular kind of war-weary weight despite being published a couple of years after the end of the war. The novella traffics in a kind of weariness, conveyed through its consistently elegiac tone and its use of meandering sentences that frequently drop off into flashbacks or flashforwards. Past recollections blend in seamlessly with the problems of the novel's present, and everything coexists as though the characters and readers alike are experiencing a dream. This narrative structure fits the mood, themes, and plot perfectly, and when a particular phrase is repeated early in the book it seems like a particularly insightful testament to the banality and repetition of life in- and, to a certain extent, out of- wartime (I am not aware whether Keilson repeated the words verbatim or whether it is the translator's interpretation). None of the characters are explored in particular depth, but as the novella concentrates on an otherwise ordinary Dutch couple who agree to take in a Jewish refugee the vagueness actually reinforces the story's already considerable emotional power. Comedy in a Minor Key is a beautifully written (and aptly titled) contemplation of aspects of daily life under Nazi occupation, made more powerful by Keilson's decision to narrow his focus and subtly concentrate on the everyday heroics that occur when people simply decide to do the right thing.