the Bantam mass market of Darkness at Noon

Darkness at Noon (Sonnenfinsternis)

  • Author:  Arthur Koestler  (1905  –  1983)
  • Rank:  #55
  • Published:  1941
  • Publisher:  MacMillen
  • Pages:  216
  • First Line:  “The cell door slammed behind Rubashov.”
  • Last Lines:  “A wave slowly lifted him up.  It came from afar and travelled sedately on, a shrug of eternity.”
  • Acclaim:  #8  –  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century
  • ML Edition:  #74  (1946)
  • Film:  television version in 1955
  • First Read:  February, 1994

The Novel:  It is the oddest inclusion on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the Twentieth Century.  Not because it doesn’t belong there.  It absolutely belong there (it might only reach #55 on my total list, but 17 of the novels above it aren’t eligible for the ML list).  But it really shouldn’t have been eligible.  The book was written in German.  However, since the original German text was lost and all German versions are back translations from the first English translation and because the English translation was the first version actually published, they decided they could throw it in.  I don’t argue too much, since it clearly belong there.  It is the darker side of Kafka’s Trial (since it reflects events that really did happen), the inspiration for 1984 (both Koestler and Orwell ended up disillusioned with the political parties they once belonged to) and the best literary refutation of the Stalinist era.

What Koestler does is impressive.  In 216 pages, we never really leave the cell.  We get back story and we hear the past of Rubashov, a man high up in the Communist Party who has now been arrested, ostensibly on charges that he has conspired to assassinate #1 (one of the best things about the novel is that by never specifying that this takes place in the Soviet Union, by never naming Stalin himself, Koestler manages to make this novel an open indictment of all the governments that not only existed at the time, but that would come to exist in Eastern Europe after the Second World War, something he could have never known would come about, but which makes the novel look historical and prophetic at the same time).  Yet, the novel never feels cramped (it does feel claustrophobic, but that’s because Koestler does such a magnificent job of making us feel the pressure bearing down upon Rubashov).

We also get a good glimpse at the interior politics and friendships and how they coincide and interact.  When Rubashov finds himself being interrogated by his old friend Ivanov, he responds quite calmly to an offer of a cigarette: “Is this still an unofficial prelude, or have the hostilities started?”  He is able to banter with him on why he is there: “We knew more than ever men have known about mankind; this is why our revolution succeeded.  And now you have buried it all again.”  But then Ivanov is taken off the case and arrested, ostensibly because he isn’t conducting the investigation properly, but Rubashov himself divines the real reason: “perhaps because he was mentally superior and too witty, and because his loyalty to No. 1 was based on logical considerations and not blind faith.”

Instead, Ivanov is replaced by Gletkin, a man who has risen from the peasant class to become important in the regime – the kind of person who does proceed with blind faith.  He does not proceed softly; he brings lights and sleep deprivation into his interrogation.  But the moment where he is able to crush Rubashov is with a single question: “Were you given a watch as a boy?”  It is the moment that separates Rubashov as a member of the higher class – the kind of person who still had a choice before the revolution.  But not Gletkin, who “was sixteen years old when I learnt that the hour was divided into minutes.”  There is nothing Rubashov can do from here except for sign his life away, a life he knows has no future left in it.

note:  all quotes are from the translation by Daphne Hardy