Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers (1959) Literature and War Readalong November 2013

Death of the Adversary

I wish it hadn’t happened but it did. I couldn’t finish Hans Keilson’s novel The Death of the AdversaryDer Tod des Widersachers. Not because I ran out of time but because – frankly – I hated it. I hate parables and books that whiff of Kafka (and are not Kafka) and  . . . If  you want to write about Nazism and the rise of Hitler, why don’t you mention it. Why does Hitler have to be referred to as “B”? Why is it never stated that the narrator is Jewish . . . It’s obvious, of course, but the way this is handled is just annoying.  Ilse Aichinger does a similar thing in her novel Herod’s ChildrenDie grössere Hoffnung, but it never feels like mannerism, it’s powerful, expressive and chilling.

I’ve read about 2/3 of The Death of the Adversary and there were passages I thought masterful but they had nothing to do with Nazism and/or oppression but were mainly taken from either childhood or young adult memories. There is a story in which the narrator tells how he forged stamps. This was psychologically subtle. There are other instances in which we see that Keilson’s observations are the result of his being a psychiatrist.

The book’s central story tells how a young Jewish boy first learns about his adversary “B”, a man who slowly rises to political power. His power can be felt in the growing number of followers and how they accept his theories and apply his laws and rules, which first lead to exclusion of the Jews, and then to their persecution. I don’t see what is gained in calling Hitler “B”. Did he want to show the universality of evil? He wanted to show the banality of it, which becomes obvious when he sees the man. And the way he treats the adversary as a recurring motif, showing that he is  s much on the inside as on the outside  . . .  Most of the time, I agree, things are not black or white but I don’t want this concept applied to Hitler and Nazism.

There is also a parable-in-the-parable – the story of the elks and the wolves, which I found particularly ambiguous. Elks were living under the best conditions, however they were not striving but dying. Why? Because there were no wolves. In order to live they would have needed adversaries.

I almost always finish books because some stories need every single passage to become a whole. Given that The Death of the Adversary is not only a parable but a disjointed book – I wouldn’t really call it a novel -,  I’m pretty sure, the end wouldn’t have made me think differently. From what I’ve seen so far, Keilson might be a good writer but he’s not a novelist.

I know that I’m one of a very few who didn’t like this book. But I really didn’t and although I’m sure that Comedy in a Minor Key is different – I’m not going anywhere near Keilson’s fictional work  for a while.

Other (favorable) reviews

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Mel u (The Reading Life)


The Death of the Adversary was the eleventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the Vietnamese novel The Sorrow of War aka Thân phận của tình yêu by Bao Ninh. Discussion starts on Monday 30 December, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

45 thoughts on “Hans Keilson: The Death of the Adversary – Der Tod des Widersachers (1959) Literature and War Readalong November 2013

  1. I have not read. I will at least say that as you mention, some of the elements here do sounds as if the author was influenced, and perhaps is even imitating Kafka. I do certainly relate to getting annoyed with something that seems like a subpar derivation of a great style.

  2. Oh no. I’m not sure how I would take to it. I like experimental novels, when they don’t seem so experimental. This one might annoy me.

  3. Sorry to know that you didn’t like Keilson’s book, Caroline. It is sad when a book annoys us and it is tough to move to the next page. That parable-in-a-parable involving the elks and the wolves looks quite interesting to me, but I can see how it might not fit in with the rest of the book. (assuming the rest of the book was consistent within itself, of course 🙂 From your description, it doesn’t seem to be that way.) Hope your next book is better.

  4. I liked it precisely because of the abstraction. I cannot handle realism in a holocaust novel. The Kafka reference puzzles me – I’ve seen it mentioned before but cannot work out how it applies to this novel.

    • I can take realism any day and find it much more honest.
      It reminded me a lot of Kafka’s Process which I abandoned as well. The fact that he uses an abbreviation, or just the first letter of the word and the way it sounded so administrative and detached.
      I’m glad you liked it though. At least that saves me a bad conscience.

  5. Zero plot? Ohhhh. Definitely not for me.
    I used to finish books, no matter how terrible they were, because I had to see if they got any better. I believe I was disappointed every time. Now I won’t go past 100 lousy pages.

  6. Uh-oh, I might know what you mean since I also had trouble with Kafka’s Trial. Really like his shorter fiction though. I no longer finish books that don’t deliver. There are so many others waiting to be read. No need to trudge through something that’s a drag. Very rarely do they reward your perseverance.

    Btw, it wasn’t until I saw Orson Welles film of The Trial that I appreciated the story. The parable makes sense in the film. It’s full of imaginative, surreal scenes and Anthony Perkins is the perfect choice for K. Really brings it to life.

    • I saw a play based on the Trial once. That was awful. I still remember all the charcaters climbing high fences. Bah. But the Orson Welles movie sounds very good. I haven’t seen it.
      I have a hard time not finishing a book but in this case, it was too much of a chore. I simply couldn’t.
      Like you I like Kafka’s shorter fiction but not the longer books.

  7. Caroline- here is my thoughts on why the narrator called Hitler “B”- part of my family lived many years under the dictator ship of Ferninand Marcos in the Philliipines, Marcos was not a Hitler or a Stalin but those who were perceived as against him disappeared, family members even small children were taught by parents to never mention his name anywhere for fear of being reported as an enemy. Marcos has been dead a long time but not long ago about fifty people in our community in Manila went on a field trip north which included a stop at the ancestral home of Marcos, now a state museum. His preserved body is on display. you could see the still felt emotions of fear in people over forty, many on the trip were not even born during his rule and felt nothing. Some People in the group feared to enter his bedroom, including my wife, thinking somehow he could still harm them. Of course they know he cannot but this is how deep an impact just a rather mild dictator had. Marcos was not an insane killer like Hitler so imagine the much greater fear he produced. It is not logical but I think the author was very right to never mention Hitler by name.

    • Thanks a lot for this comment, Mel. It makes a lot of sense and now that you mention all this, I remember a few instnaces in my life (I was stalked) in which I referred to the perosn only with initials for fera I might some how “Call” him. And the “bedroom” incident you mention strikes a familair chord as well. Your comment really gives me food for thought.

  8. Caroline- to me part of the theme is hiding the truth from yourself, in the small crushing detail where the father packs his rucksack in perpetration for going to a concentration as if it were a week end trip and in the account of the trashing of the Jewish cemetery we see this where the narrator listens to this horrible story and goes along as if it was a great story never showing any feeling. The elk – wolf parable is very subtle and may be part of the self deception. The narrator just cannot face what Hitler represents so he falls back on parable. As Lilly said, the narrstor’s character develops as he begins to see the full horror “B” represents.

    • Intellectually, I get this but it leaves me cold.
      I remember when he mentions self-deception as the most powerful deception. i thought that was very well said and clearly the psychiatrist was speaking.

  9. I’ve always had a negative impression of this author’s books. I can’t tell you why, can’t quite place my finger on it, but I intuitively knew I wouldn’t enjoy them. You’ve just confirmed that.

    • Max loved another of his titles, so maybe they are very different but overall, I have a feeling, even, if you got along with it, it wouldn’t make your end of the year best of.

  10. I am so sorry that you couldn’t finish the book, Caroline. Leaving a book unfinished always makes me feel guilty but sometimes you just can’t go on.

  11. Your reaction reminds me of my reading of Therapy.

    Sorry you had to abandon a book. We’d always want to pick the right books since our reading time is limited compared to all the books we’d like to read.

  12. As usual I am still reading (at the halfway mark), so will come back and read your post properly soon. I’m not sure what I think so far–it’s not a book I am enjoying reading-to be honest, but sometimes I can appreciate a book on a different level. I tend to be more of a plot-driven reader, so this is more of a challenge for me to read. Funnily it is the sections about his childhood that I find the most interesting (like the part where he forges the stamps….)–I suppose as those are the sections that most resemble a regular story? I often struggle with experimental fiction, but I feel like I need to keep going since I abandoned two books already this year (meant to go back and finish them but suspect it won’t happen now before the end of the year) and want to finish the last two.

    • I think we feel the same about it. I mentioned the childhood memories as the best bits. 🙂
      I don’t mind when a book is less plot or story driven but I just didn’t like the tone.

  13. Since we tend to agree about these kinds of books, I’m going to take your word for it. I hadn’t had a chance to start the book, but now I think I may just skip it. I didn’t realize this was a parable, and the ambiguity with “B” and the disjointed structure don’t make me excited to give it a try. Well, they can’t all be winners!

  14. I did not read it because I could not get it through the library. After reading your review I am absolutely sure I would have hated it. If I had gotten it and read the whole thing (which I would have done just for you) and then found out you did not finish it, I would have had to make a flight to Switzerland to punch your cat. LOL So you see, it all worked out well.

  15. Well you know, the good thing here is that this proves you’re human! Sometimes it’s a real gift to others to say: I hated something, I couldn’t finish it, I thought I’d love it but I was wrong. We’ve all been there! It’s an experience every keen reader can relate to. I have the greatest admiration for books when they manage to bring something completely and compellingly real into being, so I’m not sure this would be my first choice (despite the intriguing background of the author). Though oddly enough I do love Kafka (though more Brief an den Vater than anything else – I always found that a cracking piece of writing, and it is more ‘real’ than his fiction).

    • I struggled hard but then I had to admit that it was just too much of a struggle.
      I could imagine that you would find this interesting. I’m not sure you’d like it but it contains a lot of insight from the psychiatrist. I would just prefer he’d wrote a memoir.

  16. I did love his other book as you say Caroline (I called it a masterpiece I think), and I hope to enjoy this one still. I’m sorry you didn’t though and given you weren’t you were absolutely right to bail.

    Still, conversely I am now more tempted to read it to see if I love it where you didn’t or if I share your reaction.

    Better luck with whatever you’re reading now!

    • I’ll be very interested to read your thoughts on this.
      Tony (Ton’y Book Wolrd) read both and liked this one far less. He came to it after having read the one you appreciated so much.
      It wasn’t fortunate to start reading Keilson with this.

  17. Very interesting. I loved Comedy in a Minor Key, and yet I found this a fairly sizable disappointment. It seems an unfair reaction, as it is so transparently sincere and troubled, yet I felt that it was like a personal exercise that had mistakenly leaked out into the public domain of the novel. You’re right, there is little enough to engage the reader and it is a slog to get through, partly because of the choices he makes (ie “B”, strange flashback structure etc.) and partly because the schemes of reference and description he uses seem incomprehensible (which is why it struck me as “personal” to Keilson) – for example, the strange mix of loathing and magnetism that “B” inspires is poorly explored.

    Certain episodes stuck – the football match, the night-time visit to the graveyard – but overall I was uncomfortable and dissatisfied at the end.

    • I’m very grateful for your comment. Not that I don’t trust my own judgement but I was really wondering whether it was just me or whether the novel was as flawed as I felt it was.
      I found a lot poorly structured and ambivalent, the mix of loathing and magnetism you mention.
      There are episodes which are powerful I agree but I couldn’t force myself to the end. I’ll try Comedy in Minor Key some day. But I stll need time to digest this.

      • Comedy is totally different, which is what threw me, but should reassure you. Max is right to say it’s a (small) masterpiece.
        Forget about Keilson, pick up Comedy one day out of the blue, and you will be in for an unexpected treat.

        • I remember Max’s review and when I read this I just couldn’t belive that two books of the same author would be so different. It seems possible though.
          I bought his collected works – in German – it contains a few other novellas and short pieces, but I’m not going to experiment. the next one I’ll read will be Comdey. Now I’m almost looking forward to it.

  18. Pingback: German Literature Month III – Author Index | Lizzy's Literary Life

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