Life Goes On by Hans Keilson

Life Goes On: A Novel BY Hans Keilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Paperback, 272 pages. $15.
The cover of Life Goes On: A Novel

Hans Keilson’s story is one worth telling and retelling. The German-born doctor and writer’s years hiding from the Nazis in the Netherlands, his membership with the Dutch resistance during the Second World War, and his groundbreaking work as a psychotherapist dealing with the treatment of trauma in Jewish children after the war are all fascinating topics—all the more so when you realize that he did these things in the first half of his 101-year life (he died in 2011). And somehow, during all of this, he found time to write books. In 2010, FSG released two of Keilson’s novels, 1959’s The Death of the Adversary (previously translated into English but out of print) and 1947’s Comedy in a Minor Key (which had never been published in the US). They inspired a great deal of fanfare, with the New York Times labeling Keilson as one of “the world’s very greatest writers.” The success has led the publisher to look further back into Keilson’s writing career, translating and publishing Life Goes On (1933), a book that Keilson wrote in his early twenties. Set in Weimar-era Germany, the novel is based on Keilson’s experiences in the years after his native country’s defeat in the First World War.

While life does indeed go on for the characters in the book, it is obvious from the start that most people in sixteen-year-old Albrecht Seldersen’s world are headed for a struggle. Albrecht’s parents, who own a small clothing shop, spend the entire book trying to make ends meet, collecting debts owed by their customers, and simply attempting to keep going as the country descends into the chaos that would soon allow Hitler to take control. Meanwhile, Albrecht is left trying to navigate the rough waters of being a teenage boy, attempting to figure out what to do and where to go. His father, a veteran of the First World War who “received the Iron Cross in recognition, but he never wore it,” is a broken man who offers little help or comfort. Albrecht’s friend Fritz tries to avoid the fate of his plumber father, but all of his schemes—dropping out of school, planning a move to America—land him in increasingly difficult situations.

This is the second of Keilson’s books masterfully translated by Damion Searls, and it stays with you long after you’ve read it, in part due to its backstory: Published in 1933—the year Hitler took over the German government—by the famous publishing house S. Fischer, the book was soon banned by the Nazis. Two years later, hiding in the Netherlands and working under the pseudonym Benjamin Cooper, Keilson would write the two books that would win him acclaim as a novelist. Both The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key take place in Nazi Germany; they are a Jewish man’s reaction to what was going on in the place that he grew up, observed from a not-so-safe distance. Comedy, a darkly humorous tale that earned Keilson comparisons to Franz Kafka, is about a Dutch couple who hide a Jew in their house, only to have him die under their roof, causing all sorts of problems (namely, how do they dispose of the body without the Nazis discovering they were hiding it). Death, on the other hand, is an even stranger novel told by a narrator who both hates and obsesses over Hitler.

Life Goes On is a coming-of-age story, yet the events seem just as sad and absurd as the ones in Keilson’s other two novels. The book not only features a young man facing the questions presented by most bildungsromans—who am I? What do I do with my life?— but is also a portrait of the author confronting huge historical questions in real time, without the benefit of hindsight. Namely: Are things as horrible as they seem? Will they get worse? Keilson could not see the future. He did not know that he’d be forced to flee his homeland, or that his parents would be sent to their deaths. But it’s clear that the author knew something awful was in motion—going onward—and the bleak portrait he offers in this book turned out to be eerily prescient.

Jason Diamond is the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn and the Deputy New York Editor at Flavorpill.