When it was first published in 1940, Arthur Koestler’s dystopian indictment of Stalinism, Darkness at Noon, was hailed as a seminal work. The bestselling story of a once-powerful Soviet revolutionary, who is arrested and tried for treason by the regime he helped establish, was deemed “a piece of brilliant literature” by George Orwell. Today it is regarded as one of the works that alerted the west to the realities of Stalin’s regime and is one of the most celebrated political novels of the 20th century.
Now, almost 80 years later, the Hungarian-British author’s original text is being published in English for the first time after a German student discovered a carbon copy that had been lost since 1940.
Koestler was an active member of the Communist party until he resigned, disillusioned, at the time of Stalin’s purges in 1938. “Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of prison literature,” Orwell wrote of Darkness at Noon in a 1941 review for the New Statesman, “it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow ‘confessions’ by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods.”
But the original manuscript, written while Koestler was in the south of France in the summer of 1939 and finished in Paris in 1940, has been lost for decades. The only known copy was the English translation made by the author’s girlfriend, the British sculptor Daphne Hardy. A 21-year-old art student at the time, Hardy had no prior experience of translation, but on finishing the work she sent the English version to publisher Jonathan Cape in London, with Koestler posting his carbon copy in German to a publisher in Switzerland. The pair fled Paris days later when German troops arrived, with Hardy’s translation believed to have been the only copy to survive.
Four years ago, German graduate student Matthias Wessel found Koestler’s original German carbon copy from 1940 in the archive of Emil Oprecht, founder of the Europa publishing house in Zurich. The name on the title page was Rubaschow, the German spelling of Koestler’s protagonist, Rubashov; the author’s name given as A Koestler. Every page had been stamped by the French censor’s office, showing it had been sent from wartime Paris. A new English translation by Philip Boehm has now been published by Vintage, based on the rediscovered original.
Vintage senior editor Charlotte Knight said they were very proud to publish it. “This book is a stone cold 20th-century classic but if ever there was a moment to read it, or reread it, it’s now,” she said. “Darkness at Noon is a dystopia of the first order. Grounded in reality, the Soviet-style dictatorship depicted by Koestler is as twisted, illogical and terrifying as any science fiction.”
Boehm called Rubashov “one of the 20th century’s great literary inventions: a hero of his time, whose fatal flaw is embedded in his very humanity. And how many of us allow ideology to confound judgment, vision to cloud sight, and personal conviction to overrule compassion. What a privilege to be able bring him back to life in translation.”
Koestler biographer Michael Scammell says in his introduction that while Hardy’s translation is “lively and fluent” despite lack of experience, it also reveals signs of the difficulties she had encountered.
“She had been forced by circumstances to work in haste, with no dictionaries or other resources available for consultation, which exposed her understandable lack of familiarity with the Soviet and Nazi machinery of totalitarianism,” Scammell writes. Forced to improvise, she sometimes made mistakes such as using “hearing” for the German “interrogation”, which Scammell said “made these regimes look somewhat softer and more civilised than they really were”.
Her version of Koestler’s text was “not quite final either”, with the Zurich manuscript showing “changes that Koestler made at the last minute and passages not found in the Hardy translation (such as a paragraph on masturbation in prison), items that Hardy couldn’t possibly have known about or foreseen”.
Scammell writes that Boehm’s translation turns Koestler’s novel into “a crisper read” than before. “The prose is tighter, the dialogue clearer, the tone more ironic, and the intricacies of Marxist-Leninist dialectics more digestible … The effect for the reader is of chancing upon a familiar painting that has had layers of varnish and dust removed to reveal images and colours in a much brighter light.”