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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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

 

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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!

Review — The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber & Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber & Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this collection of short stories hadn’t been so short I might well have given up reading it. A sense of duty made me return to it each night. This was, after all, Angela Carter. And yet… Once upon a time — yikes, 35 years ago, as it turns out — I’d read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, and remembered little about it, such was the effect it had on me. And yet… I had once also found a second-hand copy of Love, her fifth novel, and read it with enjoyment. It was thus in the hope that I would find again what I had enjoyed about Love, while fearing that I would rediscover what I’d found in Fireworks, that I picked up The Bloody Chamber.

It was, unfortunately, another Fireworks I’d found. I wasn’t in the presence of stories, or characters, or, indeed interest. I was in the presence of a writer. I was in the middle of an explosion of beautifully-crafted, writerly sentences. I was eating a pudding laced with chocolate and brandy, smothered in double and whipped cream and custard. The taste was too heavy. The writing was so thick that it distanced me. In fact, I managed to read two pages of the final story, ‘Wolf Alice’ without really reading them — as if I’d been driving a car at night, listening to the radio, and found myself twelve miles up the road with no memory of driving them — because they felt simply like another wardrobe of extravagant finery. Two pages had gone into my eyes and whirled around my synapses, yet I had no idea what had happened in those pages — and I had no care to go back and find out. The story likely made as much sense without the two pages as it did with them. Wolves were involved.

I might try another Carter at some time, simply on the strength of Love. But if I do, I won’t be dipping into short stories again, and I suspect I will start with the earlier novels in the hope that the sauce isn’t quite as rich.

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Review — The Good Soldier –Ford Maddox Ford

The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. I had never previously read any Ford Maddox Ford, so didn’t know what to expect. I had no preconceived notions of topic, theme  or style. I thought there might be soldiers.

Written from first person perspective, the narrator might be speaking truth, might be lying, self-serving or just confused. And because of this, my feelings about the others characters, the characters the story is about, wavered and see-sawed. By the end, you might simply think everybody was bad in their own way. Or you might think them just the same as people everywhere. My feelings about them remain in the grey, unresolved middle.

Not knowing where the book was going, nor really what it was about, this Edwardian tale of a fine pair of married couples — one British, one American — soon subverted my expectations by becoming dark and twisty. I think I knew I was going to enjoy it, though, when the narrator, the husband of the American couple, goes on a train journey with the others and completely ignores his wife. Instead, he finds amusement in a cow that is knocked over in a stream by another cow. He laughs intermittently for the rest of the journey, still ignoring everybody else, and not telling them why he is laughing. This shows that there is something… distant and cold, perhaps, in our narrator, something a little cruel.

The novel is well-written. I enjoyed its style, even if it is deliberately rambling and non-sequential. Impressionistic and multi-threaded, it hops about and skates around in time. If you aren’t confused about something by the end of the novel, if you haven’t dropped a thread somewhere, I’ll be surprised. That is part of its charm.

The sheer size of another of Ford’s books, Parade’s End, had been intimidating me. No longer!

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Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review – The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

The Little FriendThe Little Friend by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my shelves for the last few years, taunting me. 555 pages long in my Bloomsbury edition, with narrow margins and tiny print, the first time I tried reading it I didn’t get much beyond page 50. But this is the year of attempting the big books; the year when I read many pages but few actual tomes as I work my through the neglected pile of “large, daunting books”.

I read The Secret History many years ago now, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t particularly memorable. I liked it and Tarrt’s style enough to want to explore any other books she might publish (and The Little Friend was the next), but couldn’t quite understand the reviews and plaudits Tartt had received.

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, there are a few longeurs — not so much tedious, as drifting slightly, Tartt caught up in her descriptions of her sensuous, well-realised world — but overall, the book kept up to its own slow, dreamy pace throughout. I was suprised, half-way through, to note a review on the cover saying the novel was “unputdownable”. I found it very putdownable. But also — and here’s the important point — easy enough to pick up again. I did want to return to that summer in Mississippi, somewhen in the 1970s, and settle down into the book’s ryhthms, wondering if young Harriet would avenge her brother’s murder or even know how to do that. Again, another review spoke of Tartt’s mastery of suspense; and again, I found myself surprised because the book never struck me as a novel of “suspense”. There are a few tense, gripping incidents, but over the course of nearly six hundred pages, suspense would be stretched far too thin, and the sensation would be lost. The book was better for having hard knots of action rather than tenuous “suspense”.

Tartt has a lovely way with language. It’s not my way, and I rather envy her for it; at the same time, were I to write like that, I’d be Tartt, and not me. She conjures a very rich world, a world thick with sight and sound and scents. And yet there lies the danger… Such evocations can spin away, and the language itself seems to become the point of paragraph after paragraph; it is during such flights that you might find yourself wishing for some of that promised suspense.

Nonetheless, the book was a qualified delight, and I shall now look forward to the equally daunting The Goldfinch with slightly less trepidation.

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Book Review – Conversations on Truth

Conversations on TruthConversations on Truth by Mick Gordon My rating: 3 of 5 stars This book is a series of conversations (edited into readable format) with various people who have an interest in the idea of “truth” from a variety of viewpoints — such as philosophers, ethicists, journalists and evolutionary psychologists. The conversations were initiated by a pair of journalist/theatre directors who were attempting to find a way into the production of some form of drama through which notions of truth might be explored.

There are fifteen conversations, and although the conversations are edited, and they begin from a set of predefined questions, the interviewers allow the direction of conversation to suggest other directions the conversations might take. Sometimes, this ends up in diversions not necessarily to do with “truth” per se. And as commentators from various fields have been brought into the conversations, there are areas that might be of more interest to readers than others. Certainly, I was much more interested in what philosophers had to say than, say, journalists. And the evolutionary psychologist opened up an interesting area by suggesting that there might be evolutionary benefits to lying. Additionally, given the discursive nature of the conversations, areas in which I wanted more depth were sometimes glossed over – this is not an academic treatise.

The book is, then, something of a curate’s egg — hence the three-star rating. Nonetheless, as an introduction to truth, and the definitional, ethical, philosophical and cultural issues surrounding the concept, I thought this was a very useful book. View all my reviews