Review – “Darkness at Noon” – Arthur Koestler

Darkness at NoonDarkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I enjoyed it this time almost as much as I enjoyed it the first time I read it. When I first read it — in the summer, with the long college holiday stretching out before me — I read it much faster, because I had hours to kick back reading it. It was also the one of the first novels I had read that was so cynical, depressing, hopeless and bleak, so gripped me for that reason.

On a second reading, the novel remains cynical, depressing and bleak. I still felt the same hope as I started the book hope that Rubashov, the protagonist and anti-hero, the representative of the revolutionary old guard who is unjustly(?) imprisoned, would somehow wheedle and weasel his way out of prison. As the book went on, however, I discovered again that although Rubashov might be innocent of whatever charges are about to pressed on him, he is not innocent — he has taken part in a revolution in which others have died, he has sacrificed a lover to protect his own position in the party (and save his own life, perhaps), he has been involved in the deaths of other adherents to the cause, he made little fuss when other members of the council of which he was member were removed and liquidated in the cause of the revolution.

Rubashov knows too that he is not an innocent, and constantly returns, as he waits in his cell, to memories of the incidents in which he took a willing part, or which he instigated. He also knows that the revolution of which he was a leading light has moved on somewhere else, to a place he no longer quite knows, and occupies a space he himself no longer securely occupies. He no more has the certainties he once had. Statements he has made in his jaded middle-age — innocent statements, he claims — can be misconstrued and can be used to paint him as a counter-revolutionary, a traitor to the new leadership. Koestler himself had been a member of the Communist Party of Germany, and has been implicated in the betrayal of a woman, a fellow traveller, with whom he had been in a relationship. The novel is thus informed by first-hand experience of revolutionary cant and perfidy.

The book is divided into sections based on his imprisonment, then successive hearings with progressively-less sympathetic inquisitors, including psychological torture, and finally a judgement. To say too much about Rubashov’s fate — his demeanour as the hearings continue, and the sentence passed down at what might be considered a show trial — would diminish the intriguing if joyless experience of following his slow descent into the very basement of the bleak world he in part created.

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Another Novel in the Series

So, finally, The Ethical Hitman is out there. Conceived third, written second, and fourth in the original series (but now fifth, or perhaps, mysteriously, sixth), it has taken ten years and fourteen drafts. Okay, a good few of those years were taken up with writing other books and trying to find an agent/publisher, so it’s perhaps not so surprising that it has taken so long.

The germ for this one was the hitman, who I’d included in a previous unfinished novel as one of the kind of unlikely people you sometimes meet hitch-hiking. After the first draft, the hitman evolved into somebody readers of previous books might think they know. I ended up writing the third or fourth draft of this novel at the same time as co-writing the first draft of a previous book in the series (Crossing the Line), and once I saw that my co-author had introduced a killer, it was obvious — to me at least –that the killer would become a hitman, and that hitman would become the hitman in this novel. Everything connects, particularly through the imaginary town of Dereham.

Also slowing down production were my own insecurities. Friends who read early draft mentioned various things, which caused me to rewrite those various things, or restructure other various things. Ultimately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, only one thing ever carried over from my friends’ comments — we get to know Molly better. The rest of the novel, despite my best efforts, remained as it was. Sections I’d taken out would wriggle their way back in, the structure would change, and then change back, characters would grow, and then diminish. In the end, at about draft ten, I looked at it all — the latest draft and the previous draft, and thought:  this is the story it is, and it can only ultimately please me. Although I do hope somebody else enjoys it too.

Set in the autumn of 1976, after the action in Raven of Dispersion, it chronicles the interactions of a hitman, a group of young friends, and Molly — who is possibly a spy, or as deluded as the hitman.  When Nick, hitching home one day, meets a hitman, he doesn’t know what to think. Should he laugh, or be scared? The hitman has ethics, of course — no women, no children. When Nick tells his friends what has happened, they laugh. Of course, it’s mad. The hitman is probably a lonely nutter, the type you sometimes meet out on the road, the type who tells tall tales. So they all forget about the hitman. Instead they worry about themselves. Nick wonders when he can get out of town, Mark obsesses about Chrissie, and Simon missing Anna, finds Jill. Gaz continues stealing things. When Molly breezes into town, and says she’s a spy, the friends are inclined to think her as mad as the hitman. She’s looking for her sister, she says, and for a man she always calls Archie even though she hates him. And then Nick see the car that had picked him up. The nutter’s car, the hitman’s car. Intrigued, he and Mark follow it. They are blithely riding into dangers they cannot understand. Because, after all, the hitman’s ethics don’t cover Nick.

It is then, a tale of love and death. But who loves, and who dies?

Review — “Sway” — Zachary Lazar

SwaySway by Zachary Lazar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing diversion that attempts to connect the occult, death, and the later hippie culture. The novel centres around the Rolling Stones, the film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil, and attempts to meld together the early anger of the Stones, the dissolution of 60s youth like Beausoleil, and the death of the hippie dream, using Anger as a device that connects those worlds.

The power of the novel lies in the descriptions of the mess that appeared to be the early, young, Rolling Stones, and, to an extent in the description of the development of Kenneth Anger.
Where it is weakest is in connecting all this somehow with Manson, and with death. Thanatomania (obsession with one’s own death) might be a theme that Anger is working through, and Mick and Keith might have written a song called “Sympathy for the Devil”, yet the connections remain flimsy. I don’t feel that the convergence and conjunction of these elements, these people, is drawing me towards the inevitable murders by The Family, nor towards tragedy at Altamont.

For all its subject matter of murder and death, the book lacks tension. For somebody of my generation (70s freak rather than 60s hippie), the stories of Brian Jones, the Family and Altamont are well-known; there is thus no element of surprise to the novel. What it provides instead is atmosphere, a kind of overarching view of a particular 60s weltanschauung.

It is, however, well-written, and well-researched. When it talks about the Stones, or about Anger, there is a feeling of verisimilitude. There are also nice turns of phrase that arrested my attention. It’s not essential, however, and it doesn’t really tell me anything new about the era, or explain why the peace and love movement ended in death. Yet, for those interested in such things, it is worth a read.

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Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!