Friday, November 19, 2010

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

Novelist and poet Hans Keilson, a member of the Dutch resistance movement during World War II, wrote about the plight of ordinary, decent Dutch people coping with the Nazi occupation when his memories were quite fresh. His book Comedy in a Minor Key was published in 1947 in the Netherlands but has only now been published in English in the U.S. It was worth the wait.

The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II has been the subject of numerous books, including the well-known Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. In Comedy in a Minor Key, Keilson tells a less romanticized story. Its central characters are Wim and Marie, newlyweds living in a Dutch village who agree to shelter an older man known to them as Nico through the war. They give him an upstairs room with a secret closet in the wall and ask that he not stand in the windows, which have the standard black shades of wartime. He joins the couple downstairs for meals. Wim takes Nico his afternoon tea. Being quiet people, always discrete in their conversations, they get along fairly well, but each makes little mistakes that let neighbors, friends, and utilities servicemen know that a man is being hidden.

This is not a spoiler alert - Nico dies - the jacket flap tells us right off - and the story goes in directions I did not expect. What Keilson does so beautifully is tell us how sheltering a Jew transformed the young Dutch couple. Wonderfully told and being only 135 pages, Comedy in a Minor Key would be a great choice for book clubs.

Keilson, Hans. Comedy in a Minor Key. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. ISBN 9780374126759.

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