Published when the author was just twenty-three, Life Goes On was Hans Keilson's literary debut, an extraordinary autobiographical novel that paints a dark yet illuminating portrait of Germany between the world wars. It is the story of Herr Seldersen―a Jewish store owner modeled on Keilson's father, a textile merchant and decorated World War I veteran―along with his wife and son, Albrecht, and the troubles they encounter as the German economy collapses and politics turn rancid.
The book was banned by the Nazis in 1934. Shortly afterward, following his editor's advice, Keilson emigrated to the Netherlands, where he would spend the rest of his life.
Life Goes On is an essential volume for readers of Keilson's later work. At the age of one hundred, with his one copy of the first edition of Life Goes On in hand, Keilson told The New York Times that he would love to see his first novel reissued, and translated as well. "Then you would have my whole biography," he told them. He died at the age of one hundred and one.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Hans Keilson is the author of Comedy in a Minor Key and The Death of the Adversary. Born in Germany in 1909, he published his first novel in 1933. During World War II he joined the Dutch resistance. Later, as a psychotherapist, he pioneered the treatment of war trauma in children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The landlord walked into the store. He was fat and moved with the gestures of a woman.
“I would very much like to speak with you, Herr Seldersen,” he said pompously.
Father was sitting behind the counter by the shop window, reading. That is what he usually does when he is alone with no customers. In the past few months, he has had a lot of time to read; sometimes he reads the whole newspaper three times in a single day. When he heard footsteps, he jumped up as quick as he could and said, in a punctilious voice, “How may I help you?” Then he saw it was his landlord, and his face relaxed. He laughed.
“So sorry to bother you, Herr Seldersen. It’s only me. My wife said I should drop by and see if you were alone, so I came over. Actually it’s not urgent, but I would like to speak with you.” He expressed himself in a roundabout way, with everything veiled in obscurity.
Father came out from behind the counter to the front of the store, next to the high stack of linoleum rolls. The landlord’s ambiguous words have made him a little anxious. Who knows what’s happening now? he thinks.
“Here’s the situation, Herr Seldersen,” the landlord begins, suddenly strangely abrupt and to the point. “The corner store next door is opening up. The jam business’s lease is up in six months.”
The landlord does not want to renew the lease, even though he has received an appropriate rent for the place for many years and has made a handsome profit from the store. But his own shop, selling paper, writing supplies, and newspapers—where he has been for twelve whole years—has now become too small for him. He wants to expand, he is feeling the pressure. Fine.
You wouldn’t believe what I have stuck in storage, he brags, I could fill a whole warehouse! Pictures, books, pens, stationery, souvenirs. In addition, the newspaper publisher that he represents here in the city wants him to expand to a branch office; it’ll have a big green sign outside listing the names of all the newspapers and journals he stocks, and a large display window where he can hang the latest issue for passersby, all cosmopolitan and generously furnished. So he wants to expand into Herr Seldersen’s store, which is located next to his own. He’ll tear down the wall between the two and convert the two small spaces into a large business. Herr Seldersen, then, would move another door down in the same building, to the corner location, and otherwise everything would stay the same. That’s his plan. What does Herr Seldersen think? Isn’t it splendid? Just think, a corner store, on the main traffic street along the market; how many people have had their eyes on that corner! There’s no better location.
Herr Seldersen stood there the whole time the landlord was talking, as though listening to a speech, but he knew everything as soon as the landlord started. Now it was his turn to say something, and he said:
“Yes, well, I have to talk to my wife first.”
Nothing more. No contradiction, no refusal, he just had to talk to his wife first.
The landlord hadn’t dreamed it would be so easy. “Of course, go ahead and talk to your wife; there’s no hurry, it’s six months away. Of course, I’d set everything up for you, repaint, new floors, anything that needs doing. We’ll come to terms on everything; first you should just think it over.”
Father said nothing—he leaned against the counter, reached his hand back to support himself on the countertop, and said nothing. Then Frau Seldersen walked into the store and saw the two men. The landlord or his wife come over often; they and the Seldersens visit each other, they are on good terms. When the landlord and his wife had their last child two years ago and the doctor and midwife needed additional help, they called Herr Seldersen. Whatever anyone wanted, he could do—fix watches, sole shoes, wire doorbells, polish floors, take down curtains and put them back up again—he knew everything. And on that occasion too he put on a big apron and ten minutes later a bouncing baby boy was born. They never forgot what he had done.
“It’s good that you’re here, Frau Seldersen,” the landlord said. “I’ve just been talking to your husband.”
“What’s wrong?” Mother asked anxiously. The landlord started over from the beginning. Frau Seldersen listened and felt a terrible shock. She kept calm at first, but soon her nervousness started to show; her gaze moved from the landlord to Father standing there with a blank look as though not wanting anyone to guess his thoughts, then back to the landlord. After only a few sentences she understood what was happening. Father is like a child in a situation like this, she thought, awkward and helpless, and if she hadn’t come in just in time he would have accepted it all in silence, not answered anything, and kept his thoughts to himself.
“Really, that’s asking a bit much,” she began. “We’ve been here in this store for more than twenty years and now you want to throw us out.”
“Throw you out? How could you think such a thing, no one’s throwing anyone out! You would move to the corner store next door, isn’t that a good location?”
Mother was agitated; this was all so unexpected. “Yes, but why this change right now when no one knows where we’re heading?” They still had a few years left to work—not another twenty-five years, by God—and they had known things would change, but at least they would be in the same place.
“Why put up such a fight?” the landlord suddenly asked in a sharper tone. “It doesn’t matter if you’re here or next door, anyone who wants to shop in your store will walk the three extra steps to the corner. Three steps, no more, in the same building, it’s ridiculous...”
Mother shook her head. These last comments bounced off her as though she didn’t hear them at all.
“... when you yourself say that you don’t plan to stay very long anyway, that you’re going to retire soon.”
“Yes, retire,” she repeated bitterly.
“All the same,” the landlord continued, “I have to worry about myself too. My children are still young, while your son will be done with school in a few years and your daughter is already in Berlin.” What about me, what about me?
“But you do own the building,” Mother interjected. He laughed. Yes, true, the building, she’s right, the building does belong to him. Pause.
Can she see the gray hairs on his head? They belong to him too. Ha-ha, he owns the building, if only she knew the worries he had she wouldn’t say that so casually, no; the building brings him nothing but cares and worries. Here the roof leaks and workmen have to come to fix the ceiling, there a pipe bursts and he has to call the plumber, there’s the garbage disposal, and then property taxes on top of it all.... He held his head in his hands. No, just recently he had told his wife: Little Mother, he said, the building is nothing but a huge headache, it has never brought me a minute of happiness. He had inherited it from his mother and he hadn’t wanted to accept it, he resisted it to the end, but finally what else could he do? (The mortgages were paid off during the inflation, before they were revalued.) He gave a heavy groan.
“But the corner location is so much smaller,” Herr Seldersen said, resuming the conversation after a while.
Not too small, definitely not too small, and it’ll be easier for you to have everything within easy reach. And it’s bright, the light is significantly better, you’ll save a lot of money on lighting.
“And the display window around the corner will also be no good to us,” Frau Seldersen added. “Who’s going to go around the corner to look at the window? And both windows are a lot smaller too. Is this how it’s going to be?” she asked finally.
“Not right away, not for six months,” the landlord said. “I said that at the beginning.” He was not in the mood to continue the conversation, it might turn into an argument after all. What’s the point of their arguing, if he wants to ...
Mother broke the silence, trying to put on a carefree tone: “We’ll think it over, and you can think it over too,” she said, as calmly as she could. “You’d lose the rent from one of the businesses, after all, that’s something you need to think through pretty carefully.”
“For the few years we have left here,” Herr Seldersen said in all innocence, “let us stay in the old location. I’ve been here twenty-four years; we won’t be here much longer, hopefully we’ll be done soon. Talk it over again with your wife.”
“I’ve told her everything already,” the landlord answered. But he promised to go over the whole situation with her again. Then he left.
Father and Mother stayed where they were. He stood with his back resting against the counter; she paced restlessly back and forth. “No good will come of this,” she said, “just don’t touch it, I’m not setting foot in the new shop. No, no....”
Father said nothing. He thought about how much of his life he had already spent standing in this store, day after day, except during the four years of the war. Mother has her own way of thinking, he makes fun of her superstitions, but deep down he is not free of them himself. He groans. Of course it wasn’t a simple matter of just moving next door, as the landlord had so casually presented it. And in the end, time was a powerful factor too: its traces could not be erased so quickly. Herr Seldersen remembered exactly how he ...
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