By SAM SACKS
The revival of the German-Jewish writer Hans Keilson began in 2007 when translator Damion Searls found a copy of his 1947 "Comedy in a Minor Key" in a bargain book bin in Austria. This brief and tender work describes an ordinary Dutch couple's fumbling attempt to hide a Jewish man from the Nazis. In 2010, Mr. Searls's translation of the book was published with an earlier translation (by Ivo Jarosy) of Keilson's final novel, "The Death of the Adversary" (1959), a subtle investigation of the pathology of hatred that existed during the Holocaust between Nazi persecutors and their victims.
Life Goes On
By Hans Keilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 265 pages, $15
Keilson was still spry enough at 100 to enjoy the acclaim from the Netherlands, his adopted home since he fled Germany in 1936. (He died in 2011 having fulfilled his impish wish to live longer than Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.) He eventually left behind fiction writing to devote himself to psychiatry, studying the effects of war trauma on children, and it was in this field that Keilson believed he had done his most important work. Yet his reputation as an author of three wise and humane novels set during a barbarous period of history will only be burnished by the English-language publication of his debut novel, "Life Goes On" (1933).
Written when Keilson was just 23, "Life Goes On" is a work of Germany's Great Depression. Herr Seldersen, a decorated war veteran in his 50s, has owned a fabric shop in a provincial German town for over 20 years. At a time when he should be contemplating retirement, he finds his business beginning to fail. Keilson is an unsparingly meticulous chronicler of Seldersen's grinding struggle to stave off bankruptcy. (The story is purposefully vague about the external causes of the nation's economic collapse in the 1920s—issues such as hyperinflation, the withdrawal of foreign aid after the U.S. stock-market crash, and the rise of political extremists are not explicitly discussed, in order to focus on its consequences to one small business owner and his family.)
The daily burden of creditors' notes forces Seldersen to plead for extensions and take on usurious loans. His wife, meanwhile, must make house calls to the shop's wretchedly impoverished customers to try to extract some fraction of their overdue debts. The need to grub for every penny strips the couple of their dignity. "Everything stuck to him, clung to him," Keilson writes, "pulled at his hands, his body, and sullied him. He had a constant feeling of needing to wash himself." Soon Seldersen is reduced to borrowing money from competitive clothing merchants, putting up his own furniture as equity.
This is necessarily unhappy material, but "Life Goes On"—aided by another strong translation from Mr. Searls—is not lachrymose or manipulative. Keilson achieves a tone of philosophical equanimity, asserting his characters' decency even as they are driven to degrading lengths for survival. One of the book's most interesting figures is the Seldersens' son, Albrecht, whom we see mature from a coddled teenager to a university graduate compelled to scrape out his own toehold in the depleted workforce of Weimar Germany. Albrecht is struck by the nationwide sense of fear and lethargy—"the powerful, deadly exhaustion in the air"—and determines that his only hope for self-definition is in abandoning the life of the mind for a role in politics.
In this way, Keilson illuminates how a generation raised during economic catastrophe will be drawn toward radical political action. In an attempt to escape censorship, however, the Nazi Party is not named in "Life Goes On" (the novel was nevertheless banned shortly after its publication, the catalyst for Kielson's decision to flee to Holland). Yet the practical circumscription has the upshot of unsticking the novel from its historical time period and giving it an uncanny sense of contemporary relevance. "Life Goes On" will have a particular resonance for any reader fighting to stay afloat amid our current recession.
In America, contemporary novelists have tried to anatomize the predatory bankers and compromised politicians responsible for the recent economic meltdown, but relatively few have persuasively depicted the lives of the workers and smal- business owners directly affected. Keilson was the son of a shopkeeper, and his minute study of Seldersen's decline bears the insight and respect of personal memory. "Life Goes On" puts a profoundly sympathetic human face on economic hardship.—Mr. Sacks writes the fiction chronicle for the Saturday Journal.