There is a story behind the recent publication of Hans Keilson’s Life Goes On. It was the Jewish author’s first novel, based on his youth and early adulthood in Depression-era Germany. When the book was published in 1933, Keilson was just 23 years old and finishing medical school. A year later the Nazi Party banned the book and forbade him to practice medicine. In 1936, a year after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Keilson left Germany for the Netherlands, where he lived under a false name and established a pediatric practice. When the Germans occupied the Netherlands, he joined the Resistance and traveled around the country treating Jewish children who were separated from their parents and living underground. He wrote two more novels, Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key, both about the war. Then he stopped—he thought he had no audience—and developed a distinguished career in psychotherapy. When he was 100 years old, the two wartime novels were rediscovered, translated into English, and deemed masterpieces. But Life Goes On appeared in English only in 2012. Keilson, having died in 2011 at the age of 101, did not live to see the translation.
Life Goes On recounts the interwar travails of the Seldersen family. Johann Seldersen, a decorated soldier, has worked for 25 years to establish his clothing shop. Though it is not as large as stores opening elsewhere in town, Herr Seldersen is proud of his shop, his customers, and his family's status. Frau Seldersen works in the store when needed and provides a comfortable, respectable household for her husband and son. The son, Albrecht, a student, spends his spare time playing his violin or hiking in the woods.
As the novel begins, Herr Seldersen's landlord announces that he wants to expand his own business into Seldersen’s space. He offers Seldersen another location. True, Seldersen's shop has been at the same location for 25 years; and, true, the new location is smaller; but it is not an undue burden on the Seldersens. They can make do, just as they made do during the war and even the post-war hyperinflation. Thus begins the series of humiliations that befall the Seldersens, as they befall all of Germany, during the Weimar years. As successive pains are inflicted on Herr and Frau Seldersen by competitors, creditors, and customers who buy on credit and never seem to remember to settle their accounts, the couple tries to hide the deepening crisis from Albrecht.
Albrecht is not oblivious; but he takes a wait-and-see attitude, seeking refuge in his books and his violin. When Dr. Köster, a judge, arrives in town and lectures to the literary society on Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger, Albrecht falls under his influence, finding in him not just a kindred spirit who values the life of the mind but also a role model. Dr. Köster is not unaffected by the economic and political crises that are rocking Germany and destroying the Seldersens, but he disdains the “bomb throwers, thugs and male hysterics” of all political parties and urges Albrecht to remove himself from such vulgarities. “The life of the mind is what saves us,” Dr. Köster says, “and it alone allows us to act in the world.” Albrecht wants to believe him. But as the Seldersens’ troubles close in on him—as his difficulties at the university grow, and he is forced to neglect his studies to earn money as a traveling musician—he is led to his own, very different conclusion about what it might mean to reconcile the life of the mind with action in the world.
Keilson's subject matter brings Hermann Hesse to mind: a young intellectual without economic prospects struggles to establish himself in a world hostile to intellect. And in many ways Keilson's Albrecht resembles a number of Hesse's characters. Unlike Hesse, however, Keilson is not given to mystical flights of whimsy, nor does he dwell intently on individual psychology. Instead of retreating into fantasy, the characters in Life Goes On face their lives and their situations “straight-on,” as they put it. During a difficult conversation with Dr. Köster, Albrecht refuses the offer of a cigarette: “Let's not make the conversation look sweeter and prettier through a haze of smoke.” Where Hesse over-expounds, Keilson is quiet and resolute. Life Goes On is filled with pauses and silences, moments in which the characters are unable or unwilling to respond to one another. By restraining his characters and his prose, Keilson allows the pain of poverty to make itself felt, as slowly and inexorably as Herr Seldersen's final bankruptcy and humiliation.
Considering the book’s origins, Life Goes On is curiously silent on the experience of being a German Jew during the Weimar era. In a later afterword to the original German version, Keilson noted that he had told the other, “Jewish” part of his story in Death of the Adversary. Still, religion—of any kind—is conspicuously absent. If the Seldersens are Jewish, they observe no Jewish rituals. Albrecht has a friend, Fritz, who appears to be Christian; Fritz does not attend church. Keilson also omits other sorts of specifics that one would normally expect. For example, he mentions no political parties by name. Keilson may have been attempting to evade the censors: thus, the book’s editor changed an explicitly Communist march at the end of the book to an event more closely resembling a Nazi rally. Keilson acquiesced, though he left the event’s actual political identity ambiguous.
Still, there may have been more than censorship at issue: Keilson may have been trying to make his novel as universal as possible. The book concerns the dilemmas of the human spirit in difficult times; its central conflict is the conflict between the eternal life of the mind and the need to act in specific, limited political situations. Perhaps Keilson’s afterword was accurate: maybe he was really saving the more concrete half of his story for a different novel.
Considered in this way, Life Goes On is not only a memoir of Germany between the wars but an entry in the canon of existentialist novels, perhaps treading familiar thematic territory but doing so in an unfamiliar, peculiarly reserved and powerful voice. It is a testament to the book that it embodies the conflict it describes. A work that argues for political engagement, it languished for years in an obscurity to which political circumstances consigned it. The book should be read not only because the conflict it describes is universal but also because it has traveled a long distance to tell us so.
Jonathan Gondelman is a freelance writer.
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