16 December 2011

Comedy in a Minor Key, by Hans Keilson

I noticed this on the new arrivals shelf at the library (that shelf is like the chewing gum rack by the cash registers at the grocery store: it is not to be resisted) and a few days later a friend of mine mentioned having just read it and liked it, so I figured I'd give it a go. It's a very short novella - I read it in bed this morning with a cup of coffee (I love Fridays!). The internet tells me that there is an upsurge of interest in its author, who died in March of this year - two NyTimes articles (which are annoyingly packed with spoilers) describe him as one of the greatest authors of our times. To be honest, I don't really share that view. Comedy in a Minor Key is certainly an interesting read, but it's not going to make my all-time greats list, though it is a very interesting book.

The novella is the story of a young couple, Wim and Marie, who are hiding a Jewish man named Nico in their upstairs room during the Second World War. He gets sick and dies (that's not a spoiler, it happens on page 3) and they have to dispose of the body. To describe it that way makes it seem as if it's suspenseful - and it's not. Which is kind of an interesting aspect of the book: its strangely placid, unruffled nature (one is tempted to speculate that there is something very Dutch about it). It's a slight, subtle sort of text - this is not to disparage it, but rather, to say that it's not some kind of deep, anguished exploration into the tormented psyches of people living through a hellish war, but a calm, rather sparse story. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a comedy, or even light-hearted, but it's not a depressing read by any means, despite the subject matter. There are moments of humor, moments of insight, and moments of sadness. The narration has a kind of thoughtful quality, as though it were turning these events over in its mind, musing over them but without necessarily coming to any conclusions. It has that modernist feel that you get in authors like Conrad, of a somewhat hazy world, and language as this shining light trying to see its way through the mists and understand something about what's happening. Overall, it's definitely a book worth reading.

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