Life Goes On

Hans Keil­son; Damion Searls, trans.
  • Review
By – February 4, 2013

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.

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