Book Review – COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY by Hans Keilson

Comedy In A Minor Key Synopsis

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans KeilsonA 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, and must then 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, 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’. (Scribe)


Hans Keilson’s A Comedy In A Minor Key the perfect example of the lesson that good things come in small (and unassuming) packages. It has been described as a masterpiece and it’s author a genius by The New York Times.

The dark humour is subtle – highlighting the arbitrary and often farcical notions that we humans use to rationalise and justify our behaviour.

‘I’ll talk to Marie, Jop. I’m not opposed to taking someone in. We have enough room.’

‘Almost everyone is doing it,’ Jop said, to strengthen his resolve. He knew it was up to the wives.

But this novel is not your standard dark comedy, it goes much deeper.

A Comedy In A Minor Key by Hans Keilson is a starkly honest and moving exploration of loss – both physical and mental.

Keilson deftly explores the subtle and every changing relationship of  the imprisoned and the prison guard – both literally and metaphorically. He considers the limitations and punishments we inflict upon ourselves with our minds and how those can be greater than that which any external force can inflict.

She had seen fear: the terrible helpless fear that rises up out of sadness and despair and is no longer attached to anything — the helpless fear that is tied only to nothingness. Not fear or anxiety or despair about a person or a situation, nothing, only the exposure, the vulnerability, being cast loose from all certainties, from all dignity and all love. The man offered it up to her so shamelessly that it felt to Marie like she was seeing him physically naked. No cry out loud, no contortion of his face or his hands, he was simply uncovered, he stood in the middle of the room, the focal point and bull’s-eye for all the poisoned arrows being shot at him from beyond life.

If I had not known the author was not English, I would not have picked this as a translation. Translator Damion Searls’ prose is artful and the telling sympathetic to its characters as Hans Keilson clearly intended it. He also manages to convey the tortured and conflicted feelings of the author brought about by his own experiences during WWII.

Hans Keilson’s A Comedy In A Minor Key is an important novel and I am the better for having read it.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 5 / 5

BOOK DETAILS: Comedy In A Minor Key (TheNile – Australia); Comedy In A Minor Key (Kobo ebooks); Comedy In A Minor Key (Amazon Kindle)

Genre: Literature, Drama, Historical

Author Information: Hans Alex Keilson (12 December 1909 – 31 May 2011) was a Jewish German/Dutch novelist, poet, psychoanalyst, and child psychologist. He was born in Germany but, following the Nazis’ rise to power, was forced to move to the Netherlands before the outbreak of World War II. An award-winning psychiatrist, he was particularly renowned for specialising in the traumatic effects of the Holocaust on Jewish survivors. (Wikipedia)

– Read an article about Hans Keilson ‘ Man of the Century’ written by Damion Searls, translator of Comedy In A Minor Key

Damion Searls is an award-winning translator of writers including Rilke, Proust, Ingeborg Bachmann, Jon Fosse, and Robert Walser.

Other reviews of Comedy In A Minor Key: Just William’s LuckMC Reviews; Tony’s Book World; Mostly Fiction Book Reviews

Another title by Hans Keilson:  The Death of the Adversary

* I received this paperback copy from Scribe Publications for review purposes. My receiving this title at no cost did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions about it.