Thursday, October 28, 2010

The risk of standing in another's shoes (Books - Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson)

Hans Keilson wrote Comedy in a Minor Key over fifty years ago after emigrating to Holland from Nazi-occupied Germany. Keilson was a child psychiatrist as well as an author, and a few of his books were recently re-released on the occasion of his 100th birthday. Comedy... concerns a Dutch couple who take in a Jewish man who must go into hiding or risk being deported to a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They risk their own lives to save Nico, as he is known to them. They give him a bed, food, and friendship, hiding him from the cleaning lady and the milkman, but when he dies they panic, because his dead body is more of a risk to him than his live one ever seemed to be.
Before the doctor left he went up to Marie, took her right hand in his hands, and said in a solemn voice, There is no one here to offer condolences to. That's often how it turns out. But still, it must be a loss for you. In fact, you probably have the most difficult burden - problem," he corrected himself...
"But it's not as dangerous as you think," the doctor continued, because he had the impression that they were still a little frightened. "There are a lot of other things that could have happened. Never mind, infectious diseases that we have to report - diptheria, a child with polio. That is very, very unpleasant. But there are also children born in circumstances like this..."

"That's impossible," Marie stammered. It was horrible to think of. Children? Did people have no sense of responsibility?

"Really, it's true," the doctor confirmed, having guessed Marie's thoughts. "I have personally brought quite a few into the world. Four little Jewish babies. Strong boys. They scream just like every child screams when it comes into the world. But that's the danger! Someone could hear them! The neighbors! In childless marriages, after twelve, fourteen barren years, suddenly there are children born. Naturally they are sent off to other families."
Keilson has an eye for the ironic detail that arises in the midst of everyday life. He smiles in the face of disaster - very much like Chekhov. These conflicts are life, he seems to tell the reader. The Nazis are murdering millions, a world war is fought, and people still have the nerve to be born, sicken, and die day every day. And he does so, at least in this translation by Damion Searls, in straight forward, everyday prose. His language is clean and his ironic eye is a compassionate one. As Marie takes care of Nico, first in health and then in sickness (it's almost a second marriage for her), she struggles to imagine herself in Nico's shoes so that she might understand him.
Then Nico came to her mind again. She had understood him. The whole time he was hidden in her house she thought she understood better and better - understood both him and the other thing that stood behind him, invisible, which he embodies - until at last, alone in his room, she got to what was behind his secret too. But now it seemed different to her, as though she herself had entered into this secret in a new way. And she remembered having seen, every once in a while, a flitting in his eyes as though dogs were hounding him.
Lovely writing. This story, like many that I like, is about the struggle to know another person's circumstances the way they do. It is can be difficult to know another's circumstances, especially if that is in any way unpleasant. For example, when someone is grieving or when they are ill. I think that might be why so many people think that other people are handling grief or illness well when they are being positive. This is more wishful thinking on their part, so that they might skirt negative feelings. As though in fear we might catch pain by imagining it. Standing in another's shoes is the only true way to imagine another's life, says this book. In that act is an element of risk, so not everyone is up to it. That practice is called compassion, and it is the subject of this wonderful little novella.


Sheila O'Malley said...

Wow, it sounds wonderful. I love your words about positivity and what it looks like from the outside (or, how people want to perceive it).

Ted said...

Yes. A good story. I have begun to call that phenomenon the conspiracy of happiness or the conspiracy of positive thinking.

Unknown said...

This sounds excellent. As if I didn't already have enough to read....I'm going to have to look for this one.

Ted said...

CB - Yes, super and I could see it being a relevant and accessible read for your students too.