The man whose book I'm reading has just died

Hans Keilson, author of a Kafkaesque novel of Nazi Germany called The Death of Advocacy, died yesterday at the age of 101.

The book, published half a century ago, was recently rediscovered and is becoming a runaway bestseller in the manner of Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. Unlike Nemirovsky, Keilson lived long enough to experience vindication.

Hans Keilson on 20 October 2001

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

     First published in English in 1962 (and in Germany in 1959), The Death of the Adversary is nowback in print almost half a century later. Within six weeks of being published in the US last year,the novel sold 30,000 copies, becoming a New York Times bestseller. A semi-autobiographical account of life under Nazi-occupied Europe, The Death of the Adversary was written whilst Keilson was in hiding during 1942 and the pages then buried in his garden for safekeeping forthe duration of World War II. It is an affecting account of what he outlived. Keilson’s first novel,Life Goes On, was accepted for publication just before his twenty-third birthday in 1933 and wasthe last novel that Fischer Verlag was allowed to publish by a Jewish writer before theNuremberg race laws came in to effect.The Death of the Adversary is a portrait of a young man helplessly fascinated by an unnamed ‘adversary’ whom hewatches rise to power in 1930s Germany. It is implicit – though never stated – that our narrator is Jewish and hisadversary is Adolf Hitler.

Like Suite Française, the novel captures firsthand the minutiae of fear, anger, denial andperseverance that accompany life under the shadow of tyranny. The Death of the Adversary is also a tale of horror,not only in its evocation of Hitler’s gathering menace but also in its hero’s desperate attempt to discover logic wherenone exists.‘With seeming effortlessness, Keilson performs the difficult trick of showing how a single psyche can embrace manycontradictory thoughts, and how naturally extreme intelligence and sensitivity can coexist with obtuseness, denial andself-deception. To say that reading this novel makes it impossible not to understand how so many European Jewsunderestimated the growing menace of Nazism is to acknowledge only a fraction of its range. In fact the novel showsus how many human beings, in any place, at any time, protectively shield themselves from the most frightening truthsof their private lives and their historical moment’ .

 

LATE Extra: There’s a fine obituary in the Times, June 3.

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