Life Goes On is a coming-of-age novel about a boy living in an era of worsening economic conditions and political upheaval. The setting is small town Germany in the twenties and early thirties, after World War I. Albrecht Seldersen, a quiet, bookish boy, is in high school as the story begins, and his father, Max, a small clothing and fabric shop owner, is struggling to keep his business afloat, and has long ago resigned himself to a despairing life of mediocrity, his only ambition to make it day to day. His customers need credit, and so does he. But all around him, even larger, better established businesses are failing too, and an ultimate collapse for all seems inevitable. Albrecht’s best friend, Fritz, is discontent with school and yearns for freedom, while Albrecht remains a diligent student, not questioning the way things are. As the next several years pass, the two friends take very different paths. Fritz drops out and hits the road in search of work and freedom, and Albrecht ends up in university in Berlin, playing violin to earn his keep, as business worsens for his father. Albrecht has longed for the life of the mind, has long eschewed political involvement, and has disdained a life of action, feeling incapable of making a difference, of feeling anything other than powerlessness. Yet as he sees his parents’ business flounder, and Fritz struggle, and as protests and political unrest in Berlin grow, and as he suffers the challenges of surviving day to day, his conscience begins to gnaw at him.
Life Goes On was published in Germany in 1933, when Keilson was just twenty-three, and was banned by the Nazis just one year later, after which Keilson emigrated to the Netherlands. Throughout the book are themes of defeatism: of thwarted hopes and ambitions. The pacing is episodic, the tone detached, and the portraits are somewhat one dimensional, but cumulatively the effect is that of a potent dose of despondence, and the reader has a vivid sense of how going through a major economic crisis feels and how it affects ordinary people.