NOVEMBER 18, 2019
IN THE LATE 1930s, the world’s attention was riveted by a series of trials held in the Soviet Union. Though the defendants were only a few of Stalin’s millions of victims, the show trials stood out for a reason — many of the defendants were high-ranking members of the Communist Party, longstanding Bolsheviks who were suddenly and publicly confessing to having been counterrevolutionaries all along. The crimes they confessed to were absurd, and they seemed to have little to gain by accepting culpability, as they were shot afterward.
Arthur Koestler, then a Communist, began to ask himself why people he had known and admired had abased themselves publicly and then been summarily disposed of. These questions, as well as a stint in Franco’s prisons, led him to reconsider his entire worldview, leave the Communist Party, and eventually write the novel Darkness at Noon.
Darkness at Noon was, up till now, only known in a single English translation by Daphne Hardy, as the original German typescript was thought to have disappeared during World War II. Recently, a German graduate student found a copy of that original in a publisher’s archive, and this new translation by Philip Boehm, edited and introduced by Michael Scammell, is the result. The recent edition provides an opportunity to reevaluate the 1941 novel now that the context in which it exploded into popularity has receded.
As a commentary on the show trials in the Soviet Union, it is open to criticism. For example, it has been accused of overly romanticizing the old guard of the Communist Party, and of intellectualizing and mysticizing the process by which their false confessions were acquired. As to the latter, it’s certainly true that torture and threats to defendants’ families played a much larger role in securing the confessions than any arcane argument. But the former criticism, though it has an important point, ignores one of the reasons Koestler paints the old guard in such glowing colors. It’s part of his persuasive strategy, a dialogue with the intended audience as tense as the dialogues between Rubashov, Koestler’s fictional defendant, and the interrogators. Darkness at Noon is not a novel first and foremost, but an argument.
Koestler’s intended audience was not the convinced anticommunists, nor the general public curious about the show trials. It was those who were either Communists themselves or open to supporting them. This was a group that, generally speaking, valued rationality, ruthlessness, and a willingness to question what they thought were the outmoded standards of the old world. The striking thing about Darkness at Noon is that it meets this audience on their own ground and persuades them in their own language. As Rubashov’s old friend turned interrogator Ivanov tries to convince him to confess by setting out why, according to their shared ideology, he should do it, so Koestler uses shared ideological assumptions to prove to the reader that a cause which would destroy its most loyal supporters is fundamentally unworthy of loyalty.
For Koestler’s ploy to work, it’s crucial that his protagonist be an impeccable Communist. Koestler lays it on rather thick; Rubashov is not only a member of the older generation of Bolsheviks but also a former prisoner of the Nazis, who had been arrested while on a mission to the Communist underground in Germany. He finds the atmosphere in the “revolutionary homeland” stifling under the rule of “Number One” (Stalin). He is an intellectual as well as a man of action; logical consistency is of the utmost importance to him. Despite, or rather because of, this background, he finds himself confessing to a series of ridiculously implausible crimes.
After his second arrest, this time by his own party, Rubashov reevaluates his past, the crimes he really did commit in his ideology’s name, the occasions where he felt “the end justifie[d] the means.” He kicked out a dissenting but loyal comrade in Germany in the name of unity and the party line, broke an anti-fascist boycott to make sure his country’s oil deals went through, and let his own secretary and lover be executed because he thought he had a duty to stay alive and active in politics. But he’s increasingly unsure that ends and means can be so easily separated. The epigraph to the final chapter is taken from a play by Ferdinand Lassalle, a 19th-century German socialist and rival of Marx, essentially stating that the means shape the ends. And the end looks a lot less pretty in practice than Rubashov thought it would. If all his ruthless actions have led only to a brutal dictatorship that has produced no material improvement in the lives of the people, does the logical consistency he has lived by make any sense at all? Might there be something to the moral standards he has discarded, even if the world that produced them was exploitative?
As the interrogator Ivanov puts it in a fanciful comparison of God and the Devil, God has the trick of “not allowing himself to be drawn into a proper debate, along with pouncing on a person when he’s helpless and alone […] the Great Moralist is a bit theatrical and not very fair.” Moral goodness isn’t logical and reasonable, but exploits emotional moments with a ruthlessness Rubashov could only envy. Koestler also does not hesitate to exploit the reader’s emotions. Knowing that his intended audience would admire and sympathize with Rubashov, he uses this sympathy to call their entire worldview into question. It’s not just the doctrine of the Communist Party that’s being criticized, but the entire idea that reason alone is a sufficient guide. Even the supposedly cold and cynical Ivanov can’t live solely by logic — he tries to get Rubashov to falsely confess out of a genuine desire to spare his friend the death penalty. When Ivanov is arrested in turn, he is implied to have died without confessing.
Much of the controversy around the book comes from the suggestion by Rubashov’s second, more brutal interrogator, Gletkin, that he ought to confess as a “last service to the party.” Rubashov accepts this logic and agrees to confess. But closer examination shows Rubashov’s assent is muddled by sleep deprivation, while Gletkin himself knows it’s all humbug; he points out that bright lights and lack of sleep did more to induce Rubashov to confess than anything else. Koestler gives much more weight to torture as a factor than he is often thought.
It’s ultimately exhaustion that answers the other major question of the novel. Ivanov and Gletkin both ask why, if Rubashov is so convinced that Number One is destroying the revolution, he, the old revolutionary, hasn’t acted to overthrow him. Is he afraid to follow his thoughts to their logical conclusion — a fatal flaw, by their standards? As it turns out, Rubashov is spiritually as well as physically exhausted. He’s in no condition to take actual steps toward Number One’s overthrow or do more than complain to old friends about the current state of affairs. When he realizes this, he experiences a disillusionment with himself as well as with Communism.
Rubashov is a direct descendent of an earlier German literary depiction of a revolutionary purged by his peers. Like the titular hero of 19th-century revolutionary and playwright Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, he is world-weary, haunted, and a passive shadow of his former self. Logic ultimately has to take second place to the simple fact that he’s tired.
Boehm beautifully renders the back and forth of dialogue and metaphor in the interrogation scenes. His version is every bit as tense as previous translator Daphne Hardy’s. Where Hardy sometimes makes Rubashov sound wistful (“What a mess we’ve made of our Golden Age”), Boehm keeps the dialogue crisp (“no one’s ever made such a mess of things as we have”). The debates are the novel’s most captivating scenes, and Boehm rises to the challenge.
It’s when Koestler descends from the realm of argument that the book shows its flaws; ironically, a novel about the insufficiency of reason is at its best when depicting intellectual combat and at its worst when appealing to pathos. A sentimental passage in which an admiring veteran of the Russian Civil War compares Rubashov to Jesus is the most irritating part of the novel. (Büchner did it better.)
Koestler is surprisingly fascinated, for a non-Christian, with Christianity as a utopian ideology and potential counterweight to the logic of revolution. Rubashov ultimately foresees a synthesis that includes both “economic fatality and the [mystical] oceanic feeling,” both intellectual consistency and moral righteousness. But he leaves this as a dream rather than a fully thought-out idea in a novel that concerns itself with where “thinking things through to the end” may lead. The idea is also explored in the two other novels that, though they do not share a setting or characters, form a deliberate thematic trilogy with Darkness at Noon: The Gladiators and Arrival and Departure. All three novels end with an expression of some form of hope that, in the future, ethics and success will be combined, whether it’s Spartacus in The Gladiators wanting to hand on “a clean slate” to a future liberator or the protagonist of Arrival and Departure foreseeing a swing from quantitative methods to ethical ones.
Curiously, in Scammell’s introduction there is no mention at all of the other books in Koestler’s revolution trilogy, or any indication that Darkness at Noon is part of a sequence. The other two novels, though less well known, are not without significance.
The Gladiators portrays a historically unsuccessful slave rebellion. Spartacus, in a chapter ironically titled “The Lofty Reasons,” embraces an ends-justify-the-means logic, but he ultimately proves much more of an idealist than Rubashov. The ending of The Gladiators is as gruesome as that of Darkness at Noon, with the victorious Roman slave-owners crucifying the rebels. The revolution in Darkness at Noon devours itself, while that in The Gladiators is devoured. Both outcomes lead to slaughter and injustice. Arrival and Departure explores the psychological profile of a revolutionary, portraying his psychoanalysis after a breakdown. Despite having his motives for doing so deconstructed in front of him, the revolutionary ultimately returns to the fray. A brief mention of Darkness at Noon’s position as the middle book of this trilogy would have helped contextualize Koestler’s arguments.
There are other problems with the introduction and general editorial apparatus. Scammell describes Rubashov as a “flawed everyman,” which is not the case. Yes, Rubashov confronts death, as we all must, but that doesn’t make him an everyman; he’s acutely aware of his status and reputation, and others in the novel are too. He’s part of a revolutionary elite, dealing with the specific problems posed by his ideology and past. Part of the persuasive technique of the novel is to flatter the intended readers by putting them on a level with this rarefied set, before convincing them that both they and their heroes are tragically wrong, having journeyed into regions where logic alone cannot be the sole guide.
The questionable editorial decisions continue with the appendix to the novel. The real-life speech of show trial defendant Nikolai Bukharin is simply copy-pasted from Marxists.org, an online archive, without credit to the translator of the document or its original publisher prior to being transcribed for the site. There are no footnotes to the text of the novel itself, even though many specific references (e.g., to the Italian war in Ethiopia or the feud between the German Communists and Social Democrats) are not necessarily familiar to today’s audience. The Author’s Note, present in both Hardy and the German text, in which Koestler mentions that several of those killed in Stalin’s purges “were known personally to the author” and dedicates the book to their memories, does not appear at all.
The epigraphs at the beginning of the novel have disappeared, a baffling choice when the chapter epigraphs remain. The Machiavelli quote that opens the novel in Hardy’s translation and in the German original sets up the entire thematic argument, while the apocryphal Dostoyevsky quote that follows does the same for the emotional one:
“He who establishes a dictatorship and does not kill Brutus, or he who founds a republic and does not kill the sons of Brutus, will only reign a short time.” — Machiavelli, Discorsi
“Man, man, one cannot live quite without pity.” — Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Their absence is not without consequence. The incorrectly cited epigraph for the second chapter is correctly reattributed, but perhaps this would have been better done in a footnote rather than by altering the original text.
And the epigraph to the final chapter, the poetic Lassalle quote, is here translated from the German by early 20th-century labor leader and socialist Daniel De Leon rather than by Boehm himself. It is hard to understand why. I missed Daphne Hardy’s beautiful rendering of the verse quotation:
Show us not the aim without the way
For ends and means on earth are so entangled
That changing one, you change the other too;
Each different path brings other ends in view.
and struggled with De Leon’s faux archaism and tangled syntax:
Show not the goal.
But also show the path. So closely tangled
On earth are path and goal, that each with th’ other
Their places ever change, and other paths forthwith
Another goal set up.
Rather than serving as a tragic counterpoint to the action, the passage is now nearly incomprehensible.
Despite aspects that makes this a less-than-authoritative edition, the translation itself shines. It is a smooth, gripping read, and contains passages inserted after Hardy’s translation was made, which now appear in English for the first time. New details, such as the exact song sung by Rubashov’s neighbor in prison, add freshness. Boehm corrects the chapter titles from Hardy’s “The First Hearing,” “The Second Hearing,” and so forth to “The First Interrogation,” which makes more sense in context. This is a valuable translation of a novel that continues to enthrall as the tragedies of the 1930s gradually recede from living memory.