In a recent issue of The New Yorker, James Wood uses his review of Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question to dwell at some length on the disappointing and reductive nature of most comic writing, especially the self-conscious Comic Novel. At the other end of the spectrum are quiet, hauntingly comic novels like Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which I just finished reading. This is not laugh-out-loud comedy, it’s not even the kind of comedy that brings a slight smile to the reader’s face. Keilson’s comedy lies in his characters’ attempts to paper over harsh realities with a facade of routines, manners, and habits.
In the early years of the Second World War, Wim and Marie agree to shelter a Jew who goes by the name of Nico in the second floor of their Amsterdam house. After a few awkward adaptations, life goes on as normal. The world is menacing but Wim and Mimi keep their heads down and go about the business of surviving hardships, like the scarcity of cigarettes and the lack of decent laundry detergent. They seem like an old couple, whose days are well-scripted, until we find out they are only twenty-six and twenty-eight years of age. They seem to be well-meaning, if simple people, so it is quietly comedic when Marie deprecates some acquaintances with the comment that they are “good people, but a little simple.”
While Wim and Marie struggle to maintain normalcy, Nico struggles to remain grateful.
The little thorn that grows invisibly in anyone who lives on the help and pity of others grew to gigantic proportions, became a javelin lodged deep in his flesh and hurting terribly. How proudly they had given him this room, how gratefully he had received it. How imprisoned, abandoned, and wretched he had felt in it.
Nico ultimately dies, probably of pneumonia. In a remarkable scene that is painful, awkward, dangerous and yet somehow comedic, Wim and a doctor try to carry the stiffening body into a park where they plan to abandon it. In this instance, comedy has nothing to do with being funny, it seems to function almost as a framing device that threatens to undermine the seriousness of the events- but never does. In fact, at every turn Keilson threatens to make this book turn into comedy, but he never does, leaving the reader slightly unsettled.
As Marie cleans out the room of the deceased Nico, she discovers a secret.
A secret! It was not only that they had sheltered him – he himself, his person, his life, constituted the secret. It was as though a no-man’s-land lay all around him, alien and impenetrable. It was impossible to bridge the gap. Even while he was alive, everything she heard him say, everything she saw – his voice, his movements – was like something seen from the opposite bank of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view. It almost melted away into the impersonal, colorless swirls of fog. Now he was dead and they had managed to get him out of the house – but a secret had been left behind, as one last thing. At first it seemed to her that she, tears in her eyes and alone in his room, had discovered it, as though the fog had suddenly lifted and the other riverbank had come closer, right up next to her, so that she could see it precisely and know everything about it: its slope, its bushes and shrubs and hollows. Yet the more she looked, the more it rose like mist from the water, enveloping everything. Marie was frightened when she realized that a secret you discover by chance only conceals another, still greater secret behind it, which can never be discovered. And that every bit of knowledge, every revelation, is only like egg whites whisked until they’re sweet and mixed into the dough to break it up and release its flavor…
Marie thinks, momentarily at least, that she has finally found a connection with their secret lodger. But within a day, she and Wim find themselves much closer to Nico than they ever imagined. After Nico’s body has been removed from the park by the police, Wim and Marie discover that they had dressed him in clothes that contained a laundry mark that could be traced back to them, leaving them no choice but to go into hiding just as Nico had done.
Amazingly, this is the first English translation of centenarian Keilson’s novel, which first appeared in 1947. Hans Keilson, Comedy in a Minor Key. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Translated by Damion Searls.