Hans Keilson was a German novelist who fled the country in 1936 for the Netherlands where he later went into hiding. He was rediscovered in English with the publication of translations of two novels dealing with his war-time experiences in 2010 and 2011, Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary. Life Goes On is his first novel, published in 1933 and translated by Damion Searls in 2012 for US publication.
Life Goes On is set during the late 1920s and early 1930s when Germany was beset by the after-effects of the First World War, including the payment of war reparations and the hyperinflation which had led to the introduction of a new currency in 1923. To compound matters, in 1929 the world entered the Great Depression:
“That winter was the first one where all the poverty and misery was out in the open. Unemployment was rampant, sometimes affecting both father and son in the same family…There were no signs of new hope anywhere.”
The novel focuses on a Jewish family modelled on Keilson’s own: the shop owner Herr Sederson, his wife, a daughter who has already left home and the younger son, Albrecht, presumably based on Keilson himself. What is unusual about the novel is that, although in some ways it unfolds as the traditional Bildungsroman, much of it – and I would argue, the most interesting part of it – is taken up with the father’s story.
Sederson’s business has been in a decline since the war. While he fought, his wife ran the shop under difficult circumstances. He returned to “nothing but ruins…shelves empty, customers gone.” Then inflation removed any savings they had left. Now money is tight for everyone and customers cannot afford to pay, living on credit and paying their debts piecemeal. In turn, Sederson struggles to pay his suppliers:
“He had fallen badly behind in his payments and owed money everywhere. Then he read what the letter said and fear crept over him every time, even though by that point, after all the frequent repetitions, he should have been used to it. There was nothing else for him to do but sit down and write endless letters like the first one, asking for them to continue to extend their trust, pleading for consideration…”
More than once Sederson comes up with a way of reducing his debts, but the hope this creates rarely lasts long. It is to some extent in the background that Albrecht grows up; more interesting is the story of his friend, Fritz. Desperate to leave school and make his way in the world, he runs away from home to find work, at one point ending up in America. However, the economic down-turn defeats him again and again. Keilson’s point seems to be that hard work is not necessarily enough, whatever politicians may tell us.
For this is, above all, a political novel, with Sederson’s indifference to politics seen as a flaw in his character:
“You probably think that politics are only for people with nothing better to do, but if you really knew what was going on in the world, you would think very differently about it.”
It is Sederson and Albrecht’s political awakening that provides the novel with its conclusion. Initially their participation in a Communist rally was to be quite clear, but, at the suggestion his publisher, Keilson left the nature of their politics ambiguous. What remains, however, is the implication that we might ignore politics, but it does not follow that politics will leave us alone, a premise that was to be proved tragically correct in the years that followed.
This novel provides a gripping picture of the stresses and dramas of running a small business in difficult times, an antidote to the idea that success requires no luck. It also demonstrates the dangers of political apathy. Keilson’s father and mother were both murdered at Auchswitz.