Excuses, Excuses

Hans Keilson’s novels point out the inadequacy of a purely psychological or philosophical approach to history. 

Four years in, we’ve yet to see a great novel about the economic collapse. American literature has seemed as unable to engage directly with the crisis as the politicians. News stories have pseudo-official names within hours of their breaking, while our inability to commonly describe this crisis is reflected by its lack of a title. Is it merely a “recession,” a brief set-back in the flow of triumphant market-democracy, is it “the Great Recession,” or is it already over, merely fallout from the “financial crisis” that ended in 2008? Every month brings conflicting reports that recovery has finally arrived, or is faltering, or is continuing apace.

The crisis’s defining features in the US — student and credit card debt, underwater mortgages, precarity and underemployment — are deeply individualized, atomizing, and psychological: difficult to organize around politically, but seemingly ripe territory for novelization. While there have been a number of oblique, dystopic confrontations (A Visit from the Goon Squad, Super Sad True Love Story), and despite the oft-touted return of literary realism, there are few head-on discussions (Capital, a farce by British writer John Lanchester, is the only English language example that comes to mind). Is the bourgeois ennui of Jonathan Franzen really the best we can hope for?

The American release of Hans Keilson’s Life Goes On, first published in Germany in 1933 during the catastrophic final days of the Weimar Republic, throws this lack into stark relief. Appearing in English for the first time, the semi-autobiographical novel — Keilson’s first, written when he was only 23 — centers on the gradual but inexorable destruction of a family clothing store in an unnamed small German city suffering from Germany’s economic collapse. Life Goes On features two protagonists, Herr Seldersen (often referred to as Father), the store’s owner, and his son, Albrecht (Keilson, loosely), who enters his teenage years just as things start going downhill at the store. Herr Seldersen’s financial troubles, which he hides from Albrecht as long as he can, counterpoints painfully with Albrecht’s bildung in a country with nothing to offer its young people.

The parallels between Albrecht’s life and the current (2013) crisis make the book feel surprisingly contemporary, and raise important and still-relevant questions about what inspires political involvement. The correspondence between then and now appears most obvious when Albrecht goes to Berlin for university. In the city, Albrecht finds his education lacking and throws himself into his part-time work as a musician (which Keilson also did to pay for school). But neither gigging nor college offers a solution to the deep alienation of a young adulthood without a future: “The fact was, the students all wanted to pass their exams, even if they meanwhile had to play the trombone or the saxophone or what have you and neglect their studies. But what did that even mean: their studies? What were their prospects afterward?” We know well what the future holds for the Jewish Seldersens and Albrecht’s university cohort, but in 1933, Keilson could have no idea.

The slow collapse of the store acts as a synechdoche for the general immiseration of the German middle class during the period. This synechdoche is achieved through the many characters beyond Albrecht and his Father — classmates, business associates, friends and family — that take a central role: the scope of the novel is broader than just a pseudo-autobiographical reflection of one family’s crisis. Keilson slips freely in and out of characters’ internal monologues, always without quotation marks and often within paragraphs (a technique that will reappear in his later novel Comedy in a Minor Key), and the multiple voices diffuse the primacy of the novel’s protagonists and reenforces the sense that this story’s subject is broader than the lives of its chief movers.

Still, Life Goes On is not quite a “social novel”: Though it certainly uses the plight of the individual as a way of highlighting political and social strife, it is ultimately the interior experiences of the characters that make the novel tick. Can a novel so thoroughly interested in psychological expression be deemed political? These tensions — between the political and the psychological, between the social and the individual — are fundamental ideological and novelistic concerns. And while these dichotomies are false constructions of bourgeois individuation and subjectivity, they are also, as a result, the stuff of lived, everyday experience under capitalism. Political engagement, a struggle which necessarily emerges from individual experience, also requires the supersession of the individual as such.

What sort of experience produces political commitment? For Keilson, it is born when a person’s conflicted, often disoriented interior life meets extreme exterior political events. Such encounters run throughout Keilson’s body of work.

* * *

It is the rare obscure writer who lives to see his rediscovery and canonization, but Hans Keilson, who died at 101 last June, saw his  novels The Death of The Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key re-released (and, in the case of Comedy, translated for the first time) to widespread acclaim, appearing on best-seller lists and garnering him a number of major awards. These two long-ignored novels about life under Nazism, like Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, have reappeared just as Nazism is slipping from living memory.

Unlike Fallada and Nemirovsky, Keilson, a doctor by training, managed to escape those horrible years by hiding in the Netherlands (though hardly unscathed: his parents were killed in Auschwitz). Keilson eventually joined the Dutch resistance, for which he travelled the Netherlands, giving psychological support to children hiding from the Nazis, mostly orphaned or separated from their parents.

This would become his life’s work. After the war, Keilson would retrain as a psychologist. If it weren’t for the novels’ rediscovery, he would have been remembered (though less widely) for his contributions to academic psychology. His dissertation on “sequential trauma,” built on interviews with Dutch Jewish children who survived the war, is considered foundational in the field, according to his translator and advocate Damion Searls.

It is unsurprising, given this, that a psychological approach is predominant in his novels. His protagonists are never at the heart of historical events. There are no battlefields, no camps: Characters are always at a physical remove from the major events against which their lives inexorably bend. Albrecht witnesses a violent protest, but he is swept along in it, watching rather than participating. The town in Comedy in a Minor Key sits below an Allied flight path, but the bombs never get that close. In The Death of the Adversary, the Jewish protagonist arrives at a hotel where Hitler is speaking, but never enters the lecture hall: Losing his nerve, he waits in the lobby and listens over an intercom. Keilson prefers mundane, daily scenes, and it is mostly in characters’ reflections and conversations that the political and historical appear.

The tension between a somewhat ‘normal’ every day life and the grand dramas of Europe ripping itself to shreds is a powerful force in all his novels, but it is the central trope of Comedy in a Minor Key, where it is played for (very dry) humorous effect. In the novel, a young Dutch couple, Wim and Marie, hide a Jewish perfume salesman, Nico, in their home. But in the very first scene of the novel Nico dies of illness in his room. The obvious narrative tension (will he survive? will the Nazis find him?) thus dissolved, the book, which mostly takes place through flashback, instead portrays the quotidian experience of both the couple and Nico living in secrecy together. The daily indignities and foibles, many culled from Keilson’s experiences in hiding, become the entire scope of Nico’s world: his emotional life played out entirely within a banal house arrest in some strangers’ home.

None of the characters, neither Wim nor Marie nor Nico, are noble or particularly brave. They live in a small, quiet city in Holland, and their dramas are small-scale, playing out in awkward dinners and strained chats. A few times Nico is almost seen by visitors, and then once he is, but, as we know from the start, nothing comes of it (save fear and self-recrimination). Nico is also ten years older than Wim and Marie, and the reversal of age-based power roles, only heightened when he becomes infirm and must be cared for, widens the emotional gap created by their wildly divergent experiences. They never overcome that distance. “Even while [Nico] was alive, everything [Marie] heard him say, everything she saw — his voice, his movements  — was like something seen from the opposite of a river while mist hung over the water and masked any clear view.”

This distance between the couple and their charge mirrors the distance between their daily experience and the Nazi horror that surrounds it. Keilson’s insights into his characters’ feelings produce sympathy for all positions. But the attention to the small-scale — the domestic, the particular, the interior — can be as frustrating as it is illuminating. There is little sense here of urgency or historical immediacy. The novel opens a window onto a certain way of life specific to its time and captures moments of beautiful tenderness and sadness, but does not open to the broader questions its subject matter requires.

The contradictions of everday life in the face of massive social upheaval are nowhere more pronounced then in Keilson’s masterpiece, The Death of The Adversary, which is told from the perspective of an unnamed German-Dutch Jewish narrator obsessed with Hitler (referred to in the novel only as “B.”). His obsession with B.  mirrors what he understands as B.’s obsession with him, which is to say, with Jews. And since Hitler’s rise to power came on the back of anti-semitism, since, the narrator reasons, he is defined by his enemies, he must ultimately need them: Therefore the dictator could never destroy him, not really.

This position is is founded on a philosophical relativism that allows the narrator to underestimate Hitler by understanding the adverserial relationship between him and his victims as essential to Hitler’s survival. Here Keilson reveals the extreme inadequacy of purely psychological or philosophical responses to the historical. At the center of the novel is a very long conversation between the narrator and an (also unnamed) Jewish friend who is fighting against Hitler’s rise. The friend tries to convince the narrator of the necessity of action. The narrator argues that action would be wrong, even detestable. Instead, he says that

[Hitler] means as much to me as I mean to him…You only see him as an aggressor, who is threatening us. But that is only one side of him. Hence, you over-estimate him…for him we are aggressors, to exactly the same extent…The mere fact that we exist is sufficient to make him feel that he is being attacked, perhaps that was how it all started. The same fears which you and I, which all of us have to endure, he has to endure too. Not similar fears—the same ones!

The thinking is psychologically consistent to a certain extent: Fascism certainly is built on fear and a total submission to power which can only reflect self-hatred. But to say, as the narrator does, “I see both sides, not only one,” provides him a basis to refuse action, and thus to completely misunderstand a situation through an overvaluing of understanding.

This is not the only time the narrator is obviously dead wrong, and at times he can be infuriating: In one scene, mentioned above, he attends a rally where B. is speaking in order to civilly convince him in conversation that he’s misguided about Jews:

He will not admit his mistake straight away, of course not. But it depends on me, on my tact, on my powers of conviction, whether his eyes are finally opened. If only I could manage to convince him! Yes, at that time I still believed that people could be changed by arguments. If I could change him, it would only increase my admiration for him.

Such a position is dangerously naive, of course, but who hasn’t at some time believed they could argue down an enemy? At what point do we recognize an enemy as not merely adverserial, but existential? Keilson undercuts a series of liberal ideologies about political discourse, about loving and knowing your enemy, and about belief in the (at least potential) good will of powerful people by ascribing the ideologies to a Jew who, as a result of them, refuses to fight Hitler’s rise to power. In following these principles to their logical conclusion, the narrator fails to fulfill one of the most clear-cut ethical obligations of the 20th century.

But such a misguided narrator is also the only one who could take us into the novel’s most powerful encounter. Pursuing a crush on a coworker, he ends up in her parlor with a group of young Nazi recruits. One of the recruits is describing the desecration of a Jewish cemetery to his compatriots. All of them know that the narrator is Jewish, and the recruit hesitates before telling the story, but the narrator’s curiosity allows him to egg the man on, to get him to tell the whole story. A stronger character would object, walk out, or try to fight, but the confused, weak-willed narrator sits through the story and suffers. Such confrontations must have occurred in the early days of Nazi power, before the full development of Nazi law. It is a horrific scene.

This complex novel feels at times like an accusation, at times like an apologia (Keilson himself underestimated the danger of Nazism, and had to be convinced by his wife to flee to the Netherlands), at times like a book-length philosophical investigation into the failures of philosophical investigation. Part of the complexity is built by Keilson’s prose style, which is simple in structure and vocabulary and filled with strange logical leaps and ellisions. Conversation is rarely direct. “I always knew that words are suitcases with false bottoms,” Keilson’s narrator says. In The Death of the Adversary the word “Jew” is never spoken, nor are the Nazis or Hitler named, the latter referred to as “my enemy” as often as “B.” This technique reminds us that the name Hitler immediately evokes so many ideas, so many clichés, that it can leave little room for investigation. Though we never for a second forget what is being spoken of, the absence of the proper nouns subtly affords the reader space to retain an openness about historical ideas otherwise thoroughly considered and built up. It is a wonderful if simple intervention.

And the novel is full of these. It is rare to be able to say, “Here, then, is a new angle on Nazis,” and, written in 1959, The Death of the Adversary is hardly new. But Keilson’s narrator’s position often forces us beyond simple ideas about what it meant to live under Nazism’s rise. The narrator’s fearful admiration of Hitler forces us to look at the way anyone, even a Jew, could be deceived by fascist power, as well as to confront the shared fantasy that, if we were in Germany, we would have fought tooth and nail against Nazism.

It is easy to say, “Of course if I’d lived under the Nazis I’d have joined the resistance.” But statistically speaking that is probably not true. The vast majority of Germans and other Europeans under Nazi occupation collaborated or did nothing. It is a complicated and difficult thing to take a political stance, to make a real decision to fight for a better world: Even the appearance of Nazis, which should make the choice simple, did not force action for many until it was too late.

The narrator does not remain supplicant, an admirer of his enemy, a coward, a fool. Near the novel’s conclusion, he goes, again, to a Nazi rally, this one outdoors, and he sees B. for the first time. B. drives by in an armored motorcade, surrounded by soldiers. This image, combined with the experience in the girl’s parlor, finally breaks him from his complacency:

I understood that I was deceiving myself and that I was helping [B.] to deceive both himself and me. If I regarded him as my friend, there was no need for me to see the soldiers at the back of his car, and I could induce him to see them either, even though he was carrying them about with him. But they were always there. They were part of him.

Here, finally, the narrator recognizes that power is a truth beyond and outside mere psychological understanding: Hitler’s fear and hatred was always backed up by a gun. The recognition of naked force frees the narrator from his abstract philosophical consideration and admiration of the man. Massive power, once confronted, reveals that it is born of something both much more and much less than a psychological irregularity. The necessity of action becomes clear when the vulgarity of force gathered against you is understood.

The Death of the Adversary employs a minimal framing narrative: We’re told that the text was given by the narrator to a lawyer, who hid it throughout the war and then gave it to yet another unnamed character. Their conversation begins and ends the novel, and in it we understand that the Jewish narrator became, after writing the text,  a vital figure in the Dutch resistance, an excellent forger who died in a trap set by an SS officer but managed to take the officer down with him. The novel is, in many ways, a record of how one could arrive at a political commitment so strong you are willing to give up your life.

Political action is the end result of  Life Goes On as well. The final scene of the novel sees Albrecht’s family in Berlin, destitute, participating in a march that passes by their own apartment. But Keilson’s characters must witness personal collapse or communal atrocity before arriving at their decision, and they arrive at action too late. In our own period of increasing authoritarianism and inequality, where suffering is still distributed unevenly and is all too often invisible, how can we avoid the same errors?