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Weimar Stories

Rob Sternberg

Life Goes On, by Hans Keilson, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 265 pp, $15, ISBN: 978-0374191955

Until recently, the name Hans Keilson was largely unknown to readers in the English-speaking world. Just one of his three novels had been translated from German into English. That novel, Death of an Adversary, was included on Time magazine’s list of the best books of the year for 1962. But a celebrated and prolific literary career did not follow. According to his latest translator, Damion Searls, Keilson stopped publishing fiction after Death of an Adversary on the hunch that he had no readership.

Now his English readership has expanded – at least for the moment. In 2010, a year before Keilson’s death at the age of 101, Farrar, Straus, Giroux reissued both Death of an Adversary and published the first English edition of his second novel, Comedy in a Minor Key. A piece in the New York Times Book Review on both novels soon appeared, in which Francine Prose did her very best to canonise Keilson’s name.

In October last, Farrar, Straus, Giroux released the first English translation of Keilson’s debut novel, Life Goes On. As with Comedy in a Minor Key, its translator is Damion Searls (the reissue of Death of an Adversary kept the original translation by Ivo Jarosy). Originally published in 1933 when the author was twenty-three, Life Goes On was quickly banned by the Nazis. Its author was Jewish, for one thing, and there are strong communist undercurrents throughout.

Life Goes On is part bildungsroman, domestic drama, and cri de coeur. Set against the backdrop of the Weimar Republic in the years following the Great War, it’s also an illuminating historical record of a desperate and volatile period for Germany, when the country suffered through a severe economic depression that would eventually make way for the rise of National Socialism.

The depression is tidily characterised by Herr Selderson, the beleaguered middle-aged shopkeeper at the heart of the novel’s domestic drama:

Look ... if a worker has no money, he needs to buy his clothes on credit, because he needs them, he can’t walk around naked. But then I don’t have enough money, and I can’t pay my suppliers, and they had to buy the goods somewhere too. So the slowdown keeps going, all the way up, to the factories that make the products and the banks that give them credit.

It’s a vicious circle, one that Herr Selderson can characterise well because he’s caught inside it. His creditors are pursuing him with threatening letters; they want him to settle his debts with them, which he cannot honestly pay. His stock is depleted. When a longstanding customer comes in looking for a fabric he doesn’t have, he secretly sends a shopgirl to purchase the fabric from a competitor across the street. The profit he makes on the sale is negligible, but that’s not the point: he contrived the scheme to maintain the customer’s loyalty. At night, Herr Selderson panics about being reduced to a peddler.

Meanwhile, the papers report on suicides of shopkeepers and businessmen also beset by “poverty, shame, despair, God knows what”. These headlines serve as grim harbingers of another possible fate. Amid all the turmoil are the stirrings of political uprising. But at the age of fifty-six and with four years of frontline service behind him – he is the recipient of the Iron Cross – Herr Selderson has a notion of civic duty that begins and ends with voting. When an old acquaintance tries to recruit him to attend Communist Party meetings, Herr Selderson declines, fearing that taking an overt political stance will cost him the patronage of customers with different party affiliations.

Leave it to the young and inexperienced to believe that the collective pursuit of a single goal can effect positive change. Albrecht, Herr Selderson’s son, is seventeen when the novel begins. Although he’s a relatively self-absorbed teenager at the outset, the events of the novel awaken a spirit of political activism in him. The change occurs when he moves from his small town family home to study in Berlin. There, the regular street rallies and protests show him that there is an alternative course of action to his father’s hopeless resignation in the face of economic hardship. Near the end of the novel is a long dialogue scene where Albrecht expresses his newfound convictions to a former mentor who had hoped he would serve a higher master – literature.

In an afterword dated 1984, when Life Goes On was first reprinted by its original publisher, Keilson explains how he changed the final scene just prior to publication. In the original, Albrecht and his father raise their fists in a Communist salute, in solidarity with workers marching on the street outside a Berlin window. The year of publication being 1933, his editor thought it wise to make their political allegiance more ambiguous. Three years later, Keilson escaped Germany for Holland, where he remained in exile for the rest of his life. His parents, he further notes, died in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Unlike Keilson’s other two novels, Life Goes On does not deal with Nazism and anti-Semitism, neither directly nor indirectly. For much of the novel, Albrecht acts as foil to his father’s pessimism and apathy about the future, that is, until the end, when both characters are united in a common cause. Thus the novel’s title and the relatively hopeful moment Keilson stages at the end may strike present-day readers as painful, unintended ironies. Both give Life Goes On an added measure of tragedy, as well as an optimism and innocence shared by its characters.

Rob Sternberg is a writer based in Toronto. He blogs about books on his website, robsternberg.com.