"For what am I fighting?": George Orwell on Arthur Koestler's "Darkness at Noon"

Republished 1941 review shows the influence Kostler's dystopian classic had on Orwell.

"Darkness at Noon" (1940) dramatises the Moscow show trials and Stalin’s "Great Purge" of Old Bolsheviks. In his review for the New Statesman, Orwell praised Koestler’s “inner knowledge of totalitarian methods”: “The common people,” argues the Party operative Ivanov, “cannot grasp ‘deviation’ is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented.” Many see Rubashov’s confession as a direct influence upon Winston Smith’s.

Orwell used his review as an opportunity to chastise the left-wing press in Britain for their refusal to speak up; a powerful statement made two years after Kingsley Martin refused to publish his despatches from Spain, fearing they would appear critical of Stalin, and therefore socialism: “What was frightening about these trials was not that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them.”

Mr Arthur Koestler should know something about prison, for he has spent a respectable proportion of the past four years there. First a long stretch in one of Franco’s fortresses, with the sound of firing squads ringing through the walls twenty or thirty times a day; then a year or so of internment in France; then escape to England, and a fresh internment in Pentonville – from which he has just been unconditionally released, however. In no case, needless to say, has he been accused of any particular crime. Nowadays, over increasing areas of the earth, one is imprisoned not for what one does but for what one is, or, more exactly, for what one is suspected of being. Still, Mr Koestler can congratulate himself on having hitherto fallen only into the hands of amateurs. If England imprisoned him, it at any rate let him out again, and did not force him beforehand to confess to poisoning sheep, committing sabotage on the railways or plotting to assassinate the King.

His present novel, fruit of his own experiences, is a tale of the imprisonment, confession and death of one of the Old Bolsheviks, a composite picture having resemblances to both Bukharin and Trotsky. The events in it follow the normal course. Rubashov, one of the last survivors of the original Central Committee of the Communist Party, is arrested, is charged with incredible crimes, denies everything, is tortured and is shot in the back of the neck. The story ends with a young girl in whose house Rubashov has once lodged wondering whether to denounce her father to the Secret Police as a way of securing a flat for herself and her future husband. Almost its whole interest, however, centres about the intellectual struggle between three men, Rubashov himself and the two GPU officers, Invanov and Gletkin, who are dealing with his case. Ivanov belongs to the same generation as Rubashov himself and is suddenly purged and shot without trial in the middle of the proceedings. Gletkin, however, belongs to the new generation that has grown up since the Revolution, in complete isolation both from the outside world and from the past. He is the “good Party man,” an almost perfect specimen of the human gramophone. Ivanov does not actually believe that Rubashov has committed the preposterous deeds he is charged with. The argument he uses to induce him to confess is that it is a last service required of him by the Party. The common people, he says, cannot grasp that “deviation” is a crime in itself; therefore crimes of the sort that they can understand – murder, train-wrecking and so forth – must be invented. Gletkin uses the same argument, but his attitude is somewhat different. It is never certain whether he believes Rubashov to be guilty or not; or, more exactly, no distinction between guilt and innocence exists in his mind. The only form of criticism that he is able to imagine is murder. As he sees it, anyone capable of thinking a disrespectful thought about Stalin would, as a matter of course, attempt to assassinate him. Therefore, though the attempt at assassination has perhaps not been made, it can be held to have been made; it exists, like the undrawn production to a line. Gletkin’s strength lies in the complete severance from the past, which leaves him not only without pity but without imagination or inconvenient knowledge. On the other hand, it was the weakness of the Old Bolsheviks to have remains Europeans at heart, more akin to the society they overthrew than to the new race of monsters they created.

When Rubashov gives in and confesses, it is not because of the torture – he has suffered worse at the hands of the Nazis without confessing – so much as from complete inner emptiness. “I asked myself,” he says at his trial, almost in Bukharin’s words, “‘For what am I fighting?’” For what, indeed? Any right to protest against torture, secret prisons, organised lying and so forth he has long since forfeited. He recognises that what is now happening is the consequence of his own acts – even feels a sort of admiration for Gletkin, as the kind of subhuman being probably needed to guide the Revolution through its present stage. The Moscow trials were a horrible spectacle, but if one remembered what the history of the Old Bolsheviks had been it was difficult to be sorry for them as individuals. They took the sword, and they perished by the sword, as Stalin presumably will also, unless he should happen to die prematurely, like Lenin.

Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of brilliant literature, it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow “confessions” by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods. What was frightening about these trials was not the fact that they happened – for obviously such things are necessary in a totalitarian society – but the eagerness of Western intellectuals to justify them. Correspondents of Liberal newspapers pronounced themselves “completely satisfied” by the confessions of men who had been dragged into the light after, in some cases, years of solitary confinement; an eminent lawyer even produced a theory that the loss of the right to appeal was a great advantage to the accused! The simultaneous cases in Spain, in which exactly the same accusations were made but no confessions obtained, were sedulously covered up or lied about in the Left-wing press. It was, of course, obvious that the accused in the Russian cases had been tortured or threatened with torture, but the explanation is probably more complex than that. Mr Koestler thinks, like Souvarine, that “for the good of the Party” was probably the final argument; indeed, his book is rather like an expanded pamphlet, Cauchemar en URSS. As a piece of writing it is a notable advance on his earlier work.

4 January 1941

Arthur Koestler at home in Austria in 1967. Photo: Getty Images.

George Orwell was a contributor of the New Statesman in the Thirties and Forties.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge