Books in Translation

The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson

The Death of the Adversary Translated from the German by Ivo Jarosy

Five words from the blurb: masterpiece, dictator, Germany, Jewish, tyranny

Hans Keilson wrote this book whilst hiding from the Nazis during WWII. The narrator is a Jewish boy who witnesses a dictator rising to power. We see the way his life is changed by the increasing influence of this evil man. Although it is obvious he is referring to Hitler, the dictator is never named, giving the book a universal relevance.

The Death of the Adversary is so well written that I quickly gave up noting every profound quote that I found – there are original, powerful statements about the human psyche on almost every page.

People who ask what they should do had better do nothing at all. That is exactly the great misfortune, that they don’t know what to do but think they ought to do something. Those who know what they have to do and where they stand, act at the right moment; they act spontaneously, without having to enquire in advance what on earth they ought to do.

As you can imagine, the book gets progressively darker and more painful to read as the dictator’s power becomes greater. Some of the scenes were heartbreaking – the simplicity of the words a stark contrast to the complexity of the surrounding text.

They took the old people away.
My father carried his rucksack on his shoulders. Mother wept. I shall never see them again.

This is the kind of book where I wish I didn’t give ratings. It is clearly a masterpiece, containing powerful statements about evil, hatred and human endurance, but it is a book to appreciate rather than to enjoy. It contained very little plot and at times I found it difficult to motivate myself to read it. This is a book that requires effort and concentration and I have read so many books about WWII that I often struggled to focus on the complex sentence structures.

This is clearly one of the most important pieces of writing to come out of this period and if you are willing to put in the effort you will be rewarded with new ways of looking at the world.

Recommended to fans of deep, dark literary fiction.


I read this as part of German Literature Month. Head over to Lizzy’s Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat to find out about a wide range of German literature.

27 replies on “The Death of the Adversary – Hans Keilson”

Will, I saw you tweeting about how amazing this book was, but avoided reading your review as I hadn’t quite finished reading it then. I love the way you say that when reviewing the book you just end up quoting lots of sections from it. I agree that it is the sort of book that speaks for itself. The writing is so good that it is impossoble to do it justice in a short review.

After discovering how good this book is I’ll ensure I get to Comedy in a Minor Key at some point. 🙂

I’m so glad this is good. I have bought a collection of his work the other day and am now really looking forward to reading him. Dark, literary fiction sounds great to me and I like those quotes. Simple words paired with complex meaning can be very powerful.
I thought he had written more than one novel.

Caroline, He wrote one other novel (Comedy in a Minor Key) and I look forward to reading it at some point. If you like the quotes above then I’m sure you’ll love this book. I hope you enjoy your collection of his work.

Carrie, I’m going to ensure I get hold of a copy of Comedy in a Minor Key as if it is any where near as well written as this I’m sure I’ll love it. I hope you enjoy Adversary.

I just love a book where there are just so many profound statements that you find yourself giving up highlighting them all and just immersing yourself in the experience. I have ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ in my TBR pile so I am looking forward to it even more now after hearing such great things about Keilson.

Book Lover Book Reviews, Great writing is so hard to define, but when you come across it you just know. This book ticks all my ‘amazing writing’ boxes. I hope you enjoy Keilson.

I was about to say exactly what Stu did about Will’s review (sometimes it’s good to actually read other people’s comments!). I’d love to read this soon, but I have approximately a trillion other G-Lit books to get through first 😉

Tony, I know how you feel – I now have a pile of German lit to read too! I do hope you get to this one at some point because I’m sure you’ll love it, but good luck with your trillion other books 🙂

Keilson’s Comedy in B Minor does something vaguely parallel, by taking what should be a familiar story and turning it on its head. I can easily imagine Death of an Adversary coming off in much the same way – unexpected and worthwhile. I happen to like these kinds of anonymous stories – one of my favorite books from the last few years, Brodeck, was like that – it’s obvious what the setting is, on the one hand, but never explicitly defined. I think it gives the author a wonderful world-building opportunity and really love books that employ that device. Even though I wasn’t blown away by Comedy in B Minor, I might be inclined to give The Death of an Adversary a shot.

Biblibio, It is good to hear that you think his other book is worthwhile, even if you weren’t blown away by it. I look forward to reading it at some point. I also have Brodeck in my pile some where and must get around to reading it. I hope you enjoy Adversary.

[…] Jackie of Farmlane Books reviews a novel that is described by some as a “lost modern classic”, The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson. Keilson was a novelist, poet, psychoanalyst, and child psychologist as well as a member of the Dutch Resistance in WWII. As a Jew, Keilson was prevented from working by the Germans and eventually went into hiding. The resistance asked him to work with Jewish children in hiding and these experiences found their way into his writing. The Death of the Adversary was written while Keilson was in hiding and is the account of a young Jewish boy who watches a dictator obtain power.  Francine Prose wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: The Death of the Adversary and Comedy in a Minor Key are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius . . . Although the novels are quite different, both are set in Nazi-occupied Europe and display their author’s eye for perfectly illustrative yet wholly unexpected incident and detail, as well as his talent for storytelling and his extraordinarily subtle and penetrating understanding of human nature. But perhaps the most distinctive aspect they share is the formal daring of the relationship between subject matter and tone. Rarely has a finer, more closely focused lens been used to study such a broad and brutal panorama, mimetically conveying a failure to come to grips with reality by refusing to call that reality by its proper name . . . Rarely have such harrowing narratives been related with such wry, off-kilter humor, and in so quiet a whisper. Read these books and join me in adding him to the list, which each of us must compose on our own, of the world’s very greatest writers.” […]

This sounds like a powerful book and one that would probably move me to tears. I have to be in the right mood to read something this dark. I will put it on my list to read in the future.

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