Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon is well-known today as a classic of political and psychological fiction that did much to form the image of communism in the minds of readers in the US and around the world. It is both a political novel and an existential one. The plot of the novel concerns Nicolas Rubashov, an “Old Bolshevik” who is arrested in Stalin’s Great Purge and pressured to confess to false crimes. The political events on which the story is based were very recent—the high year of the Purge was 1937 and the novel was published in 1941—and they remained baffling and controversial. Most thinking non-communists could see that Stalin’s show trials were completely bogus—but in that case, what did they mean? What did they say about communism? About the Soviet Union? About the psychology of the ideological fanatic? These are the questions Darkness at Noon addressed.
The book was a quick success in the US, where it was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club title. The New York Times hailed it as “a splendid novel” with “dramatic power” and the capacity to explain the “faith” of the hardline communist. It would later be turned into a Broadway play and a Voice of America radio drama. The book’s sales in the US would guarantee Koestler’s financial security for the rest of his life, and would find a place alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm on school reading lists from the 1940s to the 1970s.
In Britain, it sold fewer copies, but impressed intellectual readers. Labor politician Michael Foot later remarked, “Who will ever forget the first moment he read Darkness at Noon? For socialists especially, the experience was indelible. I can recall reading it right through one night, horror-struck, over-powered, enthralled.”
Why was the experience of reading the book so powerful? For George Orwell, Koestler’s European maturity and political sophistication was what allowed him to successfully tackle these issues: “The book reaches the stature of tragedy, whereas an English or American writer could at most have made it into a polemical tract.” The critic George Steiner, writing years later, seems to have agreed with Orwell, albeit via an unflattering comparison: “The sheer philosophic-political intelligence, the knowledge from inside, manifest in Darkness at Noon is of a different class from that in Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Both comments point to the fact that, for Koestler, the topic at hand was real, close, and viscerally felt. Koestler’s time as a communist had left him with a understanding of the Party member’s psychology and a facility with the twists and turns of the Marxist-Leninist discourse, so his book was not easily dismissed as a tract or a hysterical fantasy.
In France, the book was even more politically explosive than it was in the US or Britain. It appeared in 1945, after the war, at a moment of high political tension. The French Communist Party had played an important role in the Resistance and was now one of the major political parties in the country. It had half a million members and could count on over 25 percent of the vote, and formed part of coalition governments between 1945 and 1947 it took part in coalition governments. The Party had prestige, energy, and a reputation for integrity—now the question was whether it could be trusted to lead the country.
This context made Darkness at Noon—or Le Zéro et l’infini, in its French translation—a phenomenon. Early runs in France sold out in a single day. Publishers scrambled to find adequate stocks of paper (a scarce item in the war-ravaged country). For months, even years, reviews and articles came out, praising the novel or excoriating it. Across France, citizens and intellectuals reasoned about politics by reading and criticizing a work of literature.
Roger Garaudy, a communist deputy in the French National Assembly, wrote a book in which he attacked Koestler for daring to suggest that the Moscow show trials had been dishonest affairs. On the contrary, they had been completely just. (The American Communist Party saw fit to translate and publish this work in 1948.) Darkness at Noon continued to stick in the craw of French communists for several years, provoking another hatchet job from Jean Kanapa in 1950. Koestler himself mixed it up in Parisian intellectual circles, helping to turn Albert Camus against communism and earning the enmity of Jean-Paul Sartre.
But what attests most strongly to the book’s power is the resonance it found in the communist sphere. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn praised it as a “talented inquiry” into the trials. And in a chilling echo, when Koestler’s old friend Otto Katz, a Czech communist, was purged in the Slánský show trials of 1952, he gave as his confession a recognizable paraphrase of the fictional Rubashov’s. The novel was being passed around in the Soviet Union in unauthorized samizdat form as early as the 1950s (it was not officially published in the Soviet Union until 1988).
Darkness at Noon not only depicted the ideology and psychology of communism, it also helped shape the image of that ideology—in capturing the captive mind, it helped set other minds free.