Comedy in a Minor Key Essay - Critical Essays

Hans Keilson

Literary Criticism and Significance

Comedy in a Minor Key was originally published in 1947. In 2010, Damion Searls translated it from German into English. At this time, Keilson was still alive and was more than 100 years old. The novel has been critically acclaimed in North America, and it was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2010. Critics tend to highlight the unique and unexpected tone of Comedy in a Minor Key, and they praise the subtlety of its expression.

Writing for The New York Times, Francine Prose quickly declares Comedy in a Minor Key a work of genius. In particular, she emphasizes Keilson’s unique writing:

Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor and in so quiet a whisper.

Her response is echoed by other critics, who also find it impressive that Keilson responded to the brutality and horror of the Second World War without bombast or adventure.

Wim and Marie are especially typical of Keilson’s “whisper” narrative. They decide to house a stranger without adventure. There are few moments in the text where the stress and suspense of their gambit is exploited. Writing for the Globe and Mail, André Alexis suggests:

This isn’t a novel in which ideas are thrust forward.... Certain notes are sounded quietly and they are given the space—or “silence”—to resonate.

Instead, much of the impact of Comedy in a Minor Key is felt in what is not said. Linda K. Wertheimer of The Boston Globe emphasizes that

not once does the author mention Hitler. Not once does he mention death camps. Not once does he put the word Nazi on paper.

For many critics, Keilson’s narrative, which focuses on the day-to-day minutiae of hiding a stranger rather than the larger-than-life conflict of the war, actually yields a larger emotional impact than a more directly expressed narrative.

Comedy in a Minor Key is characteristic of the most acclaimed works Hans Keilson has written. Keilson was a German Jew, and he fled Germany for the Netherlands during the Second World War. There he took on an alias and worked as a physician. Works like Comedy in a Minor Key and Death of the Adversary explore Keilson’s responses to the war with subtlety and complexity. Perhaps this is why many critics mention both works in their reviews. The subtle psychology of Keilson’s characters may be attributed to his background in psychoanalysis. Keilson was regularly recognized for his work in Holland, but the delicate balance of his novels has only begun to be noticed in North America, thanks to recent translations.