After reviewing Hans Keilson’s novel, Life Goes On (see earlier blog post), and after reading Francine Prose’s soaring praise of Keilson’s other books, “masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius,” I had to read The Death of the Adversary.
In The Death of the Adversary, Keilson’s narrator, a young man growing up during the ascendancy of Nazism and Hitler Youth, obsesses about Hitler, and yet, throughout the entire novel, he never once utters Hitler’s name. “My enemy—I shall refer to him as B.—entered my life about twenty years ago. At that time I had only a vague idea of what it meant to be someone’s enemy; still less did I realize what it was to have an enemy. One has to mature gradually toward one’s enemy as towards one’s best friend.”
The decision not to name his enemy reminds me of Louise Gluck’s essay, "Disruption, Hesitation, Silence," in Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry, which discusses the power of the unspoken. “I am attracted to the ellipsis, to the unsaid, to the suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence,” writes Gluck. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete.”
As the novel progresses, B. does assert great power over the narrator’s psyche, and the relationship—albeit one of hatred—intensifies. At one point, a good friend (who soon is a friend no longer) twists and distorts the obsession even more by telling the narrator, through a strange anecdote, why B. is necessary. Once, says his friend, the Kaiser received from his cousin, the Tsar, a gift of a herd of elk. The Kaiser took them back to his own country and with the help of his foresters, found the ideal area for them, forest land with steppes, ancient beech trees, everything they had at home. Soon, though, they began to die. The Kaiser couldn’t figure out what was wrong. One day, a forester told him what was missing: “They lack one thing,” the forester said, “Wolves.”
The anecdote haunts the narrator, in part, because in another intriguing act of omission, the friend doesn’t explain the meaning of it. “Why did he tell me the story at all? He must have had some definite reason, I thought, for telling me this particular story.” The anecdote weaves into the narrator’s psyche; he even repeats it to someone in slightly different form.
While Keilson creates dramatic power by not naming, he also generates tension by displaying in great and precise detail the psychological interior of his narrator. Keilson’s psychological realism gets a big boost because of the scent of autobiography that infuses the entire novel. Keilson was born in 1909 and practiced medicine in Germany until the Nuremberg laws forced him to flee to Holland. So when the narrator hears B. speak and describes his voice, the reader can’t help but think Keilson, too, heard his voice and this was how it felt.
“It was into this soundless tension that his first words dropped. They did not destroy the silence; no, they were so much part of it that it seemed as though they arose out of it. Rarely have I heard a human voice speak into so tense a silence. It sounded like a voice from the grave—dark, deep, and a little uncanny. A shudder ran down my back. One hears a voice like this with one’s whole body. What is it, I thought, why this weird, strangled beginning?”
Keilson goes on, describing the narrator’s encounter with B.’s voice (the narrator is sitting in a hotel lobby and B. is speaking in the auditorium) for four pages and the effect is, by the end of the scene, the reader feels B.’s voice, too.
The narrator, as shown above, is able to analyze his feelings, reactions, and moods with such a level of curiosity and honesty that the result is unexpected psychological details. In one of the most devastating and tense scenes, the narrator is in an apartment, listening to a young Nazi thug describe how he and a group of others desecrated a Jewish cemetery. The narrator, astonishingly, doesn’t say a thing. “I decided to stay here to the bitter end, at any price, even that of self-denial—something which, I must confess, was no great hardship to me.” As the scene goes on and on (nearly 30 pages), and the thug gives more and more detail, the narrator chokes on his shame. “You’re a swine, I thought, not to get up and put an end to this disgusting and disgraceful performance.” After the story finishes, the narrator still stays, drinking with them and thinking to himself, “they were both good-natured and friendly, cruel and evil. They felt that it was a good thing to be cruel, they were cruel, and when they could be kind, they were kind. But now they had been told that it was a good thing to be hard and cruel, cruelty had been presented to them as something just and noble, and they behaved accordingly. They turned into wolves and devastated cemeteries at night.”
In her review, Prose tells readers, “Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers.” I wholeheartedly agree. Now to read his other novel, Comedy in a Minor Key.
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