I just finished reading this brilliant and under-appreciated masterpiece and have plenty of thoughts and a lot say about it. Too much, in fact, for one blog post, especially since I’m swamped with work and a tight deadline. I can’t say much more than a few paragraphs about it at the moment, so I thought I’d start with with a simple, spoiler-free review and some initial thoughts. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of posts on this book. 🙂
This statement, by Arthur Koestler, that precedes the novel, pretty much sums up everything you need to know going into Darkness at Noon.
The “so-called Moscow Trials” were a series of three show trials, held in the Soviet Union between 1936-1938, in which Stalin had several leading Bolsheviks from the Russian Revolution and top officials (anyone who could who could possibly threaten his power) arrested, tried for treason and found guilty. Most of those convicted were given the death sentence and shot. One of the most bewildering things about these trials were the seemingly voluntary and willing confessions of guilt obtained from the accused. The trials were a sham, the accused were hardened men, heroes from the revolution who had not committed the crimes they were accused of, so why did they confess (especially when confessing would almost certainly lead to their death)?
Darkness at Noon is Arthur Koestler’s 200 page attempt to answer that question and he does so with an insight and brilliance that is pretty amazing. Set during the time of the Moscow Trials, in the Soviet Union, we follow the story of Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, an Old Bolshevik leader, as he is arrested, imprisoned, interrogated and tried for treason against the very government he helped bring to power and devoted his entire life to. While in prison, Rubashov deliberates on the question of whether or not to confess to crimes he has not committed and if so: why? and if not: why not?
Rubashov is a fictional person, but the people and events that the book is based on were real. Koestler, himself, was once enamored by the idea of a Communist utopia and an eager and fanatical member of the Communist Party.
“I went to Communism as one goes to a spring of fresh water, and I left Communism as one clambers out of a poisoned river strewn with the wreckage of flooded cities and corpses of the drowned.”
—Arthur Koestler, The Invisible Writing
Drawing on his seven years as a member of the Communist Party, Koestler gets to the heart of the ideology behind the thoughts and struggles and actions of those committed to the Revolution. He creates an extremely well-rounded and lifelike portrait of someone who has rejected his conscience, made the Party his god, and spent his life sacrificing others for the Cause on “the principle that the end justifies the means–all means, without exception”–only to find that the Cause now demands that he be sacrificed (and there are no exceptions).
Something I thought about a lot as I was reading, that has continued to baffle me since I finished, is the question of why this book is not more well known. I imagine the answer may have something to do with the fall of Communist Russia, perhaps people think that it’s no longer that relevant. This is probably a subject to expound on in another post, but I’ll just say here that I think this book is as relevant today as it was when it was written because it deals with human nature and our tendency, as humans, to justify our means to get our ends, our tendency to see others as means to an end instead of an end in themselves, our tendency to paint the world in black and white and form tribes and groups that value the collective over the individual and it clearly shows the terrible place all that leads to.
Another thing about this book, that took me by surprise, from the get-go, was the undeniable connection and similarity I kept seeing between Darkness at Noon and Nineteen Eighty-Four. I even stopped to confirm that Nineteen Eighty-Four was written after Darkness at Noon and that it wasn’t the other way around. This is definitely subject I want to explore further in another post, because there’s stuff in Darkness at Noon that I’m sure George Orwell drew on in writing Nineteen Eighty-Four (and possibly Animal Farm, as well) and I think he was influenced by Koestler in a significant way.
That said, comparing Darkness at Noon to Nineteen Eighty-Four is a bit like comparing two of your favourite kinds of oranges against each other. Both have their merits, but Darkness at Noon is in no ways inferior; it can easily hold it’s own and is even superior in ways.
Like I said, I think this book is completely under-appreciated, so I’m determined to do my part to make sure this book does not fall into complete obscurity. 🙂 If you’re interested in politics or philosophy or psychology or literature; if you’re a fan of George Orwell or Alexander Solzhenitsyn or Dostoevsky, it’s highly probable that you’d like this book and I’d highly recommend it!
And if you do read it or if you’ve already read it, let me know what you think! I love to hear your thoughts about it. 😀
At the end of last month/beginning of this month, I visited my brother and his family in California. During one of my last days there, my sister-in-law took me to her favorite place to to look for books: the Fountain Valley Friends of the Library Bookstore; a tiny, little, room of a, gem of a bookstore run by book-loving, friendly, volunteer staff. 🙂
For some reason, I’d always imagined library bookstores to be full of old, worn library books, that no one was reading any more, with ugly library card pockets glued to the front of the book and stamped all over with an ugly “WITHDRAWN” stamp–overall, a pretty drab and aesthetically unappealing collection. I figured if I were to ever visit a library bookstore it would be for the sole purpose of a book’s contents (e.g. to look for some scholarly, obscure book that I couldn’t afford to buy at the regular, new or used price), never for aesthetics. I’d never been to a library bookstore, so I had my doubts when I walked in, but about five minutes later, I was sure that if I lived even remotely near there, I’d likely be a very strong contender for the label of “most frequent customer”. 🙂 It turned out that all the books there were, as far as I could tell, donated by readers. I found a few ex-libris books, but I didn’t find a single ex-library book.
It was such a pleasant surprise to discover a vast and quality selection of books, in excellent condition, in such a tiny place. Best of all, their prices. were. incredible. Most books were 1 dollar; the most expensive books were 2-4 dollars; and romance novels…well, they were on sale! 🙂
Unfortunately, romance novels aren’t my thing, but I imagined for a moment how lucky I’d be if they were: 100 romance novels for 10 dollars! (Oh, the joy! 😀 )
We only had about thirty minutes there, because closing time was at 5:00 pm, but it was a small enough of a store that I felt I was able survey all the essentials, and yet it still left me with more to explore. As it was, I had a hard enough time cutting down the stack of books that I’d collected, in about 20 minutes, to a size and weight I was sure would be manageable in my luggage on my flight home.
In the end, I settled on the nine awesome and beautiful books you see at the top of this post, for the incredible price of $11! They are all in excellent condition and the Kafka and Isben books look as if they’ve never been read before! I walked away feeling like a treasure hunter who’d stumbled on to some local secret. 🙂
It’s funny because, prior to my trip, I thought I’d have a lot of extra time and imagined that I’d use it to visit plenty of bookstores. Things turned out differently and I ended up without much time to spare, but that was okay, because thirty minutes at the Friends of the Library Bookstore was really all I needed. 🙂
If you’re someone who loves to own a physical copy of the books you read and you’re lucky enough to have a Friends of the Library or any library bookstore in your vicinity, I can’t recommend them enough. They are lovely and fantastic places to explore; the gems you can discover and prices you can purchase them for are a book lover’s best-kept secret.
It’s very rare that I come across something I truly wish I’d read when I was a kid or an adolescent, but that was one of the strongest feelings I had when I finished reading this beautiful little gem of a story last week.
It was almost a feeling of regret and frustration at the injustice that I was not even aware of this book’s existence, at that age, because I know that my adolescent self would have truly appreciated and found a kindred spirit and guide in it. I even share the same name as the protagonist 🙂 (a first for me; although, we don’t share the same derivative) and I could see a lot of myself, especially, a much younger me in this Meg. I think this book could have given me wisdom and helped to fortify and guide me through a lot of the issues I faced growing up.
But I don’t really mind, that it took me this long to finally read it, because I found it surprisingly relevant to my life right now. It still seemed like the perfect timing to read it. 🙂
I may do a more in depth review on the book at some point, but to try to sum it up in one paragraph: A Wrinkle in Time is a story that explores deep truths about what it means to be truly human. It’s a book that looks at darkness and evil and uncertainty with the eyes of faith, hope and love. It’s a book that gives the imagination worlds to explore and wings to fly, without bogging it down with too many details. It’s a story that explores difficult ideas and concepts–such as: equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome; conformity vs. individuality; confronting and resisting ideologies and the herd mentality; how freedom and true joy requires responsibility and the risk of pain, mistakes and unhappiness; how life isn’t simple and often there are no easy solutions or quick fixes and we can only respond to life by being responsible; how we don’t have to be afraid of being afraid, or of life or of who we are (imperfections, vulnerabilities and weaknesses included); how weaknesses can also be our strengths (and vice versa); how often times, the only way out is through facing our fears (taking an honest look at who we are and the things we are most afraid of or least want to do), but if we are brave we’ll find we are strong enough to and that good can come of it–all in a relatively simple and uplifting way, that even a child could understand and synthesise.
Simply put, A Wrinkle in Time is a gift and a story for all ages. I love it and I would recommend it to just about anyone.
That said, I can imagine that there may be people this book may not appeal to. There’s this little gem of a quote I came across, for the first time, yesterday, at the end of C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain. It pretty much sums up how I feel about recommending this book:
“You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.”
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
There’s so much of that secret thread–that binds books that I really love (and ideas that capture me) together–running through this book; it’s brimming with it. I’d say if you’ve read and loved, at least, two or three of the following titles: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series (as well as his Space Trilogy), Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, or George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin books (or his other fairy tales and stories), and maybe even Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows or Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or even, Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland and the Bible then you may be someone who as an inkling of that secret thread and you may enjoy this book too. 🙂
Actually, I’d still say to just about anyone: give this book a read. It isn’t a long book (a little over 200 pages) and a very easy read (I read it in a day). And, if you do read it, let me know what you think. 🙂
This was my first time to read anything by Madeleine L’Engle and it definitely won’t be my last. I’m sure this is a book I will revisit too. It’s on my list of favorites and I’m already looking forward to reading it again. 🙂
If you, dear reader, have already read this book, do you have any thoughts (positive or negative) on it? If so, I’d love to know what you think. 🙂
About two months ago, a friend was going to have a month off. So he told me to give him a big reading project, which we could then discuss the next time we met. Fyodor Dostoevky’s The Brothers Karamazov had been sitting on my shelf and at the top of my priority reading list for years, but I’d been waiting till I could cut out a chunk of time to tackle it. This looked like the perfect opportunity. So I suggested The Brothers Karamazov (along with a disclaimer that, realistically, I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it in a month, but it was worth a start).
Two months later and, I haven’t finished, I’m about 2/5 into the book. But I’m not worried about taking my time. This isn’t a book I want to rush through.
One of the last books I read was Kurt Vonnegut’s SlaughterHouse-Five. In it, one of the characters says…
“Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. ‘But that isn’t enough any more,’ said Rosewater.”
Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five
Is everything there is to know about life really in this book? Maybe. Is it really not enough any more? I don’t know. 🙂
What I do know is, Dostoevsky was a master at understanding, expressing and exploring human nature and the human experience. And this–his last book–is him at his finest. Every chapter is in some way an exploration of, or insight into, some form of psychology, philosophy, or theology. And many chapters are brimming with food for thought.
In light of that, and because The Brothers Karamazov is such a long book, I thought it would be interesting to try something different. So I’m going to try to blog about my reading experience, as I read, instead of waiting until I’ve finished reading all 800 pages. After all, “A short pencil is better than a long memory.” I’m hoping this will be a good way to note and journal my thoughts, so that I won’t forget them. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll go about it, but I have a few ideas. 🙂
More on it later. At the moment, I’m just happy to know I have the rest of my life to meditate on and explore this collection of poems. 🙂
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets: “Little Gidding”