The wartime diary of a celebrated novelist.
When Keilson (The Death of the Adversary, 2011) was in his 30s, he spent a period of time in hiding. In the early 1940s, the writer and psychotherapist fled to the Netherlands with his wife and daughter. But by 1944, the Netherlands had been occupied, and while his non-Jewish wife took their child to live elsewhere, Keilson acquired fake papers and moved in with the Rientsma family. During that period, the author had an affair with a younger Jewish woman, also in hiding, and composed a series of sonnets inspired by the affair; he also wrote fiction and kept a diary. Keilson’s novels were first published in English only a few years ago, to great acclaim. The diary will be of great interest to fans of his fiction. He describes the ups and downs of his passion for Gertrud, his wife, and Hanna, his mistress. Regarding Hanna and the sonnets she inspired, Keilson writes, “I have the feeling of having sucked everything out of her it’s possible to get, like out of a lemon…and then turned it into poetry.” Those sonnets are included in this volume. Searls, Keilson’s capable translator, tells us that the “poems are written in a clipped, tightly coiled German,” with “a wrought, elliptical, intense style.” Unfortunately, those tight coils don’t come across in translation; in English, the poems feel awkward—e.g., the first two lines of the first one: “I son, you daughter, children of one blood, / so bitter ripe for Death in his fierce mowing.” In the diary, Keilson also includes notes on his readings as well as speculation on what life will be like after the war. Surprisingly, he spends little time describing that war and his experience of it. “Meanwhile, heavy fighting in the Netherlands!” he writes, in late September. “Nijmegen, Arnhem!” But then, in the next sentence: “These events, however much they grip me, are no longer my real life.”
The diary should appeal to readers of Keilson’s fiction but not most general readers.