Posts Tagged ‘hans keilson’

Almost Lost in Translation Part 2

June 19, 2020

Beyond Sleep by W F Hermans (1966, translated by Ina Rilke in 2006)

Willem Frederik Hermans was a Dutch writer who is generally regarded as one of the three most important post-war writers in the Netherlands, alongside Harry Mulisch and Gerard Reve (one of whom may feature later). Despite this, his only previous translation into English was in the 1966 anthology The World of Modern Fiction. Luckily Ina Rilke rescued Hermans from this indignity by translating Beyond Sleep in 2006. The novel tells the story of Dutch geologist on an expedition to the north of Norway which does not go according to plan. This was followed the next year by the more serious The Darkroom of Damocles set during the German occupation of Holland. Sadly, neither made a huge impression, but in 2018 his novella, The Untouched House, also set during war-time, was translated by David Colmer and published by Pushkin Press, who now plan to reprint the previous two novels, so perhaps a Herman revival is on the cards. You can read a review of Beyond Sleep by Michel Faber here.


Seven Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (written during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006)

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was a Russian writer of short stories and novellas, most of which were unpublished in his lifetime (1887-1950) due to a combination of bad luck and Soviet censorship. It was not until 1989 that his work began to be published in Russia with a collected edition finally appearing between 2001 and 2005 According to Adam Thirlwell “Krzhizhanovsky’s fiction is based on the fact that language makes things possible that are not possible in reality.” Although the New York Review of Books Classics imprint has become his de facto publisher in English (beginning with Memories of the Future in 2009), his stories first appeared in 7 Stories from Glass New Russian Writing translated by Joanne Turnbull in 2006. Krzhizhanovsky continues to appear in translation with a fifth volume from NYRB, Unwitting Street, is due in August. You can read a review of 7 Stories on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here.

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada (1947, translated by Michael Hofmann in 2009)

Alone in Berlin (or Every Man Dies Alone – the direct translation of its title in German used on its original publication in the US by Melville House) was published in 1947, the same year as Hans Fallada’s death. Though Fallada’s work had been translated into English throughout the thirties (indeed, he thought of immigrating to England after Hitler came to power), he was long forgotten until the publication of Michael Hofmann’s translation in 2009. Fallada’s story of an ordinary couple’s resistance to the Nazis was a huge success (you can tell from this list that UK readers still have a keen appetite for anything related to the Second World War) and, like Suite Francaise, was made into a film. Further translations followed, including two more from Hofmann (A Small Circus and Tales from the Underworld) and another late novel, Nightmare in Berlin, translated by Allan Blunden. You can read my review of Alone in Berlin here.

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson (1947, translated by Damion Searls in 2010)

Hans Keilson was also a German writer, but he left Germany for the Netherlands in 1936 (he was Jewish) and later, under the German occupation, had to go into hiding. His experiences informed Comedy in a Minor Key, translated by Damion Searl and published by Hesperus Press in 2010. This short novel is about a Dutch couple hiding a Jewish man, but (proving it’s not entirely autobiographical) the man dies and the couple must find a way to dispose of the body: it’s a fairly dark comedy. Round about the same time the novel he wrote while in hiding, The Death of the Adversary, (in a 1962 translation by Ivo Jarosy) was republished and his first novel, Life Goes On, was translated by Searl in 2012. Though he lived until the age of 101, there were no further novels, though you can also read his 1944 War Diary in English. You can read a review of Comedy in a Minor Key by David Ulin here.


The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo (1986, translated by James Womack, 2010)

The Argentinian writer Silvina Ocampo has, for many years, lived in the shadow of her husband Adolfo Bioy Casares, and his (and her) even more famous friend, Jorge Luis Borges. Yet throughout her life she published regularly, although her work mainly consists of stories (many for children) and poetry, leaving her lacking the major novel which is often use to launch a writer in English. The Topless Tower is more a story than a novel – it would be generous to call it a novella. In it the narrator finds himself locked in a windowless room in a tower, which he first saw in a mysterious stranger’s painting. It was a slim introduction to Ocampo’s work, but was followed in 2015 by a selection of her stories, Thus Were Their Faces, and, more recently, the posthumous novel The Promise and her first collection of stories from 1937, Forgotten Journey. It seems her work is finally making it into English. You can read my review of The Topless Tower here.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (a selection of short stories written between 1920 and 1952, translated by Ann Marie Jackson in 2014)

Teffi was a Russian writer who began publishing short stories in 1905. She left Russia after the Revolution and settled in Paris. Up until 2014 her stories had only ever been published in English in anthologies. This changed when Pushkin Press brought out a collection of her work translated by Anne Marie Jackson, Subtly Worded, revealing Teffi to be an adept and often amusing proponent of the form. This was followed by two other collections, Rasputin and Other Ironies, and the autobiographical Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. You can read a review of Subtly Worded at JacquiWine’s Journal here.

Life Goes On

November 29, 2015

life goes on

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.

german lit month

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.