“I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
How can you pass up a book that was banned by the Nazis? Hans Keilson‘s rediscovered debut novel, Life Goes On, was published in 1932 (the last title by a Jewish author until the end of World War II) and was banned in 1934. According to the author’s note at the end of the 2012 paperback edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Life Goes On is partially autobiographical. The family at the center of the book, the Seldersens, are not identified as Jewish, but the son, Albrecht, goes to university and makes a sort-of living as a musician as Keilson did before he emigrated to Holland.
As I read Life Goes On, the Beckett line quoted above was a constant refrain in my head. After surviving the first World War and nearly 23 years in business in an unnamed German city, Johann Seldersen is feeling the effects of the ruined economy. He is forced by his landlord to relocate to a smaller shop in the shared building, where he can’t stock as much as he used to. Customers stay loyal, but when a local factory and brickworks burn to the ground, the Seldersens’ regulars start to purchase things on credit. For the first time, Seldersen falls behind on his bills. He holds out for as long as he can. He even asks his bank for a loan to clear his debts. But with no money coming in, Seldersen borrows more and more just to stay in business. He believes that if he can just hold out long enough, things will turn around. Meanwhile, his son Albrecht is kept sheltered. He only learns how bad things are before he leaves for university and has to start fending for himself.
The deep shame and despair felt by characters like Seldersen senior coupled with their hope that things will eventually get better if they just wait it out is hard to see, especially coupled with the historical reality that followed. At the end of the novel, Albrecht decides to become political. Originally, Albrecht joins the communists but Keilson was required to make the ending at least ambiguous to get it published. Albrecht is the only character to realize that you just can’t wait for things to get better on their own; you have to fight for your future. Albrecht’s childhood friend, Fritz, ended up a suicide because the old ways weren’t working. The company where he apprenticed failed. He couldn’t get work in America. His family kept making plans for him, but everything Fritz tried failed.
The word shame is repeated throughout the book. The older generation of characters do everything they can to keep up the appearance of solvency. They’re only able to get loans because of their reputations. To be seen sending letters to customers or even asking the bailiffs to collect debts is seen as shameful. The shame of poverty ages Albrecht’s parents in just a few years. They had hoped to retire before everything started to go to hell. They worked all their lives and know the shame of failure is breaking them. As I read further, I started to understand just how the average German would have felt. It was an environment ripe for someone like Hitler.
Life Goes On is a reflective novel/memoir; not much happens, plot-wise. For once, I didn’t mind this because the book is such a deep, textured psychological study of Weimar bourgeoisie. It’s no surprise to me that Keilson later became a psychoanalyst and psychologist after the war. Life Goes On is full of insights that no history or historical fiction can match.