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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Comedy in a Minor Key

Hans Keilson

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To purchase Comedy in a Minor Key

Title: Comedy in a Minor Key
Author: Hans Keilson
Genre: Novel
Written: 1947 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 135 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Comedy in a Minor Key - US
Comedy in a Minor Key - UK
Comedy in a Minor Key - Canada
Comedy in a Minor Key - India
Komödie in Moll - Deutschland
  • German title: Komödie in Moll
  • Translated by Damion Searls

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Our Assessment:

B : effectively told small story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe . 3/8/2010 Linda K. Wertheimer
The Globe and Mail A+ 3/9/2010 André Alexis
The LA Times . 26/9/2010 David L. Ulin
The NY Times Book Rev. A 8/8/2010 Francine Prose

  From the Reviews:
  • "The bookís strength lies in the artful way Keilson reveals the inner emotions of rescuer and fugitive." - Linda K. Wertheimer, Boston Globe

  • "(A) tonally eccentric work. Itís a mixture of grief, hope, fear and, if such a thing is possible, dry slapstick. (...) It feels odd setting out the novelís ideas in this way, because part of Hans Keilsonís brilliance -- and I think Comedy in a Minor Key is one of the best short novels Iíve ever read -- consists in keeping things quiet, subtle, dry. It isnít a novella in which ideas are thrust forward. It is, rather, to use an analogy, a novel in which ideas breathe." - André Alexis, The Globe and Mail

  • "How Wim and Marie deal with it, from the practicalities -- what to do with the body, how to erase the traces of this man's presence -- to the existential questions, forms the substance of this delicately balanced novel, a book of such profound and understated beauty that it almost seems to function as a parable." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Coded language and circumlocution are also factors in Comedy in a Minor Key, but the novelís tone is lighter and indeed comedic, its subject not violence but the goofy, quotidian kindness that is one possible response to violence." - Francine Prose, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Comedy in a Minor Key is a novella set in the German-occupied Netherlands during the Second World War. During this time Wim and Marie take in a Jewish man, Nico, and hide him in their house -- a dangerous but noble act, and apparently not uncommon; during Nico's stay they are even approached by someone else who asks whether they could harbor someone (putting them in a difficult position, since they can't admit they already have someone in hiding). However, Nico got sick and died, and the novel shifts back and forth between their efforts to dispose of the body and recounting what it had been like having him there.
       The story begins with bombers flying overhead at night, and the entire book has a similar feel of danger that is palpable but not immediately threatening. It is difficult to keep Nico's presence in the house secret, and there are times when the danger seems heightened -- when, for example, the man who arranged for him to stay there is arrested -- but it never comes right to their doorstep. Dangers lurk everywhere, but in this novel it never comes too close -- the authorities remain out of sight. Indeed, the characters try and largely manage to maintain a sense of normalcy throughout; even disposing of the body by carrying it off to the local park and leaving it under a bench is merely another case of doing what needs be done (though, as it turns out, they are perhaps not as careful as they should be when they do it).
       The novella tells of the difficulties of hiding someone like this for such a long time, both for him -- always tempted to sniff out a bit more freedom, a bit more of the world beyond his upstairs room -- and the couple. The unusual status of this boarder -- a guest, but a stranger, and almost completely at their mercy -- also complicate matters, but Wim and Marie, and Nico, muddle through.
       When Nico simply dies it is not only sad for them, but also something of a letdown:

It was practically a trick he had played on them with his death, on the people who had kept him hidden for an entirely different purpose. He didn't need to go into hiding in order to die, he could just simply ..., like all the countless others.
       Comedy in a Minor Key offers an interesting glimpse of these small heroics of this awful time, and is particularly appealing in how it presents what is rather extraordinary as almost mundane. However, with danger kept so at bay, and those who become involved, including a doctor and Wim's sister, Coba, completely reliable Comedy in a Minor Key perhaps is ultimately a bit too innocuous: it is a fine, small story -- but also only that, with neither the body nor weight of a novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 March 2011

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Comedy in a Minor Key: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature
  • See Index of Dutch literature

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About the Author:

       German-writing Dutch author Hans Keilson was born in 1909.

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