Modern Library Revue #8: Darkness at Noon

March 9, 2009 | 2 books mentioned 3 4 min read

Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling’s irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library’s 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool’s Modern Library Revue.

coverAs of last week I had never heard of Darkness at Noon, and I had no idea what it was about. When I found a paperback copy I was tickled by the cover art, which is exceedingly sinister and features a hammer and sickle and a landmine-looking thing with a person’s face on it. Knowing, as I did, that the Modern Library list is composed of books in the English language, I expected some sort of hysterical Red Scare novel out of the U.S. of A., and I wondered how this Koestler person had sleazed his reactionary way to a top ten slot. Then, however, the title page informed me that the work had been translated into English, a statement confirmed by many internet sources. Maybe I’m the reactionary here, but this seems like a scandal. Did the judges just not read their instructions? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? That said, I’m actually very pleased that I read this; I don’t hold against Arthur Koestler the fact that some people entrusted with important cultural tasks choose not to fulfill them properly.

I think we can all agree that the Communist Party turned out to be one of the most unfun parties ever. And I’m not talking about the “communism” that confused American people to this very day think is the bad thing that will happen if people are allowed to go to the doctor for free. I’m talking about Joseph “Gardener of Human Happiness” Stalin being in charge and turning the hose on everyone. I haven’t read any samizdats or anything, and to be frank I get pretty confused about Trostky and Lenin and whatnot, but I can understand these minor distinctions. Darkness at Noon is about the completely unfun kind. It begins as Rubashov, a former high Party official, is thrown in jail (again) for “political divergencies.” He is imprisoned for the duration of the short novel, and the narrative consists of his memories of past commie hijinx, and the thought processes which lead to his capitulation, confessions, show trial and [spoiler] liquidation. Throughout all this he uses an insane system of visualizing numbers on a grid and tapping them on the wall in order to chat with the touching moralistic bourgeois monarchist in the next cell. This neighbor mostly wants to hear about naked ladies and is kind of a bore but I liked him all the same. If I was in the cell and was capable of figuring out the tapping system, I would have told him about my favorite Mad Men episodes.

coverIn order for me to understand why this book was a big deal, I had to contextualize. If you have read 1984 it is hard to read another book about a totalitarian system without reflecting on certain things, mainly “I read this book already” and “war is peace, bitches.” 1984 is part of our collective consciousness; even people who don’t like to read have usually read that novel. Now, having read Koestler’s, it is hard to overstate the debt 1984 owes Darkness at Noon (which preceded it by nine years). I mean, I don’t think I’m overstating. Consider the following: 1. Orwell wrote a long essay about Koestler. 2. Orwell tried to marry Koestler’s sister. Obviously Orwell was into him.

The characters in Darkness at Noon talk a lot about following things through to their logical conclusions. Rubashov in prison has a series of extraordinarily tedious conversations (to be in, not to read) with his old pal Ivanov who is in charge of his case, and then with a meathead named Gletkin who replaces Ivanov and shines a bright light on Rubashov after Ivanov gets got. Basically, they tell Rubashov, the logical conclusion of heterodoxy is an attempt on the life of Number 1 (that’s Stalin), so Rubashov must confess to this crime, which he didn’t commit, because he as good as committed it. Hello, Thoughtcrime! Rubashov looks at library shelves, which are constantly being purged, and imagines a world wherein newspapers are rewritten. Welcome to the Ministry of Truth! While Rubashov was important in the Party and 1984‘s Winston Smith was a nobody, they are both people who witnessed the birth of the current system, and they can recognize what the Party has wrought. They both recall charming little things about the beginning of the upheaval. Winston thinks about his mom, and how he took her chocolate; Rubashov thinks about his dad’s cute guinea pigs, and how he ate them. Both Rubashov and Winston also see the new generation rise up, a generation of people in whom the old feelings have been stamped out, who can’t remember a time when reactionary activities like hugging and kissing and loving your parents were popular. They both get it in the back of the head.

Rubashov is a great character. He is not an unlikable guy, and he demonstrates, as Orwell sez, that people are “rotted by the Revolution they serve.” He has all of these very clear thoughts that make a lot of sense and that basically point to Number 1 being the worst, but somehow he still concludes, “I will confess at my show trial,” which makes no sense at all. Orwell says I can’t understand this mindset because I am not a European person. Anyway, sorry to talk about Orwell so much, but I am in love with him, and I do think that 1984 used Darkness at Noon as a model, and then everyone forgot about it because they were so into 1984 (although not, obviously, the Modern Library judges). 1984 does have the distinct advantage of being written in the future, which makes every story more fun and sexy, while Darkness at Noon is confined to awful things that actually took place, which nobody likes to hear about. In sum, Darkness at Noon rules, Stalin sux, freedom is slavery, but universal health care would still be awesome.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I first read Darkness at Noon when I was 17 and have always thought it a great book–I never realized that it was translated though. How *did* it get on the list? Does anyone have an explanation?

  2. What's interesting is that, according to Wikipedia, Darkness at Noon was written in German, but "the original is now lost." Perhaps because it now only exists in its English language form, that was good enough for the judges.

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